Life According To… Cole Finegan

The longtime Denver attorney talks to 5280 about his childhood, his decision not to run for mayor, and the calling of public service.
April 2011

When my parents divorced, I was 12 and my brother was five, and we moved back to Tulsa, our hometown [from D.C.]. The three of us lived in a bedroom in my grandmother’s house for six months. My mom got her job back as a secretary and she started rebuilding our lives, without a complaint and without any help from my father, who disappeared for a year. I know that it was an awful period for her. She saved us. 

I have a history of having the worst summer jobs. My first job, when I was 16, was cleaning out oil drums next to a refinery. The next summer, I was a garbageman, which was an upgrade. For my first two years in college, I had a job at the airport digging up runways. At the time, I had a buddy who worked for Jim Jones, an Oklahoma congressman, and he liked it. I said to him, “I’ve got to get a job inside.” I applied to be an intern and got it. That turned my whole life around.

I worked my way up to being Jones’ chief of staff. I worked during the day for him and went to Georgetown Law School at night. In 1986, I left Washington, D.C., and moved to Oklahoma to run his U.S. Senate election campaign. We lost, and at the time, my wife was six months pregnant. I had to close my office, study for classes that I had never gone to, and find a job.

When I told people that we were moving to Denver, everyone thought that we’d lost our minds. The economy was terrible here and red-hot in D.C. Even my mother said, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

When you’re younger, you spend a lot of life living in the meantime. From the age of 21 to 40, I was so focused and ambitious that I was always thinking: Next, I’ll do this, and eventually I’ll get a chance to enjoy it. But it never happens. It took me until I was older to understand that this will not go on forever, and that each moment should be appreciated.

Public service is a true and noble calling, but you are there to serve. Days start long before eight and end well after six. But you can help people and ensure that those who come after us will have as good a life as we do.

I loved being the city attorney and the mayor’s chief of staff. But when I really sat down and looked hard at running for mayor, I realized it wasn’t the right path for me right now. I’m really happy where I am.

Growing up without a father changed how I am as a father and husband. I’ve made a real effort in my own marriage—I’ve been married for 26 years—to overcome what I saw growing up. I learned that the most important thing about being a father is just being there.

At the end of all of this, relationships are all that matter—more than work, or money, or accomplishments.

We clearly can get Denver moving again, but all of us have to pull together. When we moved here in 1987, Denver was flat on its back and our future looked shaky. But the community got together and we built DIA. And then we built Coors Field and Invesco, and we created LoDo. [One of my clients] was Trillium Corporation, a developer, in 1995 when we rezoned all of the Central Platte Valley, and we all thought that it would be decades before it really built out. And then suddenly we had baseball, and capital freed up to build some residences, and we created a whole new world. We can make it happen again, but we have to pull together.