The 5280 Fifty

We rank the 50 most powerful people in Denver.

December 2011

What is power? C’mon, really with that question? It’s incredibly simple and almost inconceivably complicated. It’s a game, played the same as it ever was, on different playing fields, in public and in private, with the rules written by Machiavelli and Freud. It’s about getting your way, or most of your way, and now and then, maybe just enough of your way. Sometimes it’s about doing the “right” thing (at least, that’s what the powerful will tell you). Sometimes it’s not (which is what the powerful won’t tell you). It’s about money. It’s about ego, especially for those who’ve already conquered the money part. It’s about politics, particularly in the midst of a troubled and hypercompetitive economy. When profits are slim and contracts and funding are scarce, who you know can be an influential trump card. • We’ve recently elected a new mayor and a new governor, so lately power is about all the changes to the political machinery. Of course, the new governor just happens to be the old mayor, so some of the players are now quietly, or not so quietly, moving and shaking on a bigger stage. For almost a decade, that guy, Hickenlooper, has been the guy. Today, he’s shaping the storyline of the state—and increasingly, the region—with a little help from his friends, the other politicians, attorneys, and CEO-types, every last one of them either kissing or kicking ass. Maybe your time is coming, because these guys and gals can’t live forever. But for now, they’re in charge, joined on this roster by an ambitious few who aren’t politely waiting their turn. • This is no wish list, an “if only” yearning for who we’d rather have running things. It’s nonfiction, an imperfect but informed glimpse into the core of Denver’s now. Your friend or boss or colleague isn’t on it? Too bad. Your friend or boss or colleague is on it? Good for you. You’re on it? Super. Enjoy it while it lasts, because as this list shows, Denver’s power structure will always be a work in progress.

John Hickenlooper (1)*

Governor of Colorado

Pushing a mayoral agenda through Denver’s 13 city council members is one thing, but herding the 100 wily cats of the rugged and rural state Legislature is another. Well, so much for critics who opined “Hick” wouldn’t hack it as governor. In his first year on the job at the Dome, the Legislature passed his budget with an overwhelming majority. He scored job-creating private-sector wins in a down economy, such as bringing the headquarters of Arrow Electronics Inc. and a chunk of General Electric operations to the state. And this (outwardly) moderate Democrat’s popularity continues to soar, even with influential hinterland conservatives like Bob Rawlings, publisher of the Pueblo Chieftain. Denver’s still his town, too: Consider that in the wake of the governor proposing to cut $257 million from the state education budget, the only issue the Denver Post seemed to (playfully) have with Hick was that he doesn’t wear a tie regularly. He’s been cited as one of the three most popular governors in the country and a potential vice presidential candidate, which, at this point, seems like a less powerful position for him.


2. Dean Singleton (2)

Executive Chairman, MediaNews
Singleton’s considerable influence germinates from what was and the perception of what is. His power source appears to be withering. His MediaNews empire went into bankruptcy, he’s no longer the CEO, and the Denver Post is preparing to shed staff as it loses subscribers. The last candidate he endorsed for mayor—Romer—lost. Yet while newspapers are struggling, they still have clout, and Singleton, of course, does what he can to sustain his sway. Certainly, according to many on this list, and even the president of the United States, MediaNews is still a dominant force in media. Last fall, when Obama came to town, he met with Singleton. In this one-newspaper town, local politicians regularly run their ideas by him and try to avoid unflattering Denver Post coverage. When Singleton celebrated his 60th birthday in August, the shindig was attended by everyone from Hickenlooper to Mayor Michael Hancock. And when he won his election, Mayor Hancock gave Singleton a bottle of wine.

3. Michael Hancock (New)

Mayor of Denver
Following popular Mayor Hickenlooper would have been a challenge for almost anyone, but Hancock hasn’t made it easy on himself. The former city councilman won an election that might best be described as: “Favored son with heart of gold overcomes son of moneyed, political pedigree.” Yet, concurrently, Mayor-elect Hancock was denying allegations that he used a Denver call-girl service, Denver Players. His administration didn’t handle that crisis well: His team asked the Denver Police Department that if it had exculpatory information to release it, but if it had information that might raise further suspicion, to first present it to Hancock. Despite his desire to raise his national profile, for the first few days of the Occupy Denver protest in Civic Center Park, Hancock’s team was apparently AWOL, leaving the governor to take the lead. But every new mayor makes mistakes. (Hickenlooper’s snowplowing disaster, anyone?) He’s the mayor, and in Denver that matters.

4. Roxane White (Rising Star)

Chief of Staff, Governor’s office
While some Colorado governors have installed milquetoasts as chiefs of staff, by appointing White as his COS, Hickenlooper has deputized a force in her own right. To paraphrase several insiders: Hick doesn’t make a decision without her. As one in the know says, she takes the initiative; she gets it done. And that’s how the Gov wants it. As Hick would tell you, she shapes executive office decisions that impact all areas of state business. And if you’re calling over to the Capitol with an Ask, you’d be a fool not to realize it. She’s mindful of swimming in her own lane, but because this ambitious governor actively jumps from lane to lane, White dives into the deepest ends of everything, including budget decisions (read: state-supported services and contracts), strategies regarding reapportionment and redistricting, and the looming elections. Think Sister Helen Prejean meets Rahm Emanuel.

5. Cole Finegan (3)

Managing Partner, HogAn Lovells
Former city attorney, former chief of staff to Mayor Hickenlooper, now boss of the Denver office of one of the world’s largest law firms. Not to mention that he’s also a close adviser to both U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall; finance chair for Udall’s 2014 re-election campaign; and one of four Colorado finance co-chairs of President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Finegan’s in on the big plays: His firm has a piece of the business/influence related to the restructuring of Pinnacol Assurance, the state-chartered workers compensation insurance fund; he’s the lawyer for the Denver Union Station Project Authority; and he represents the Western Development Group on its proposed rezoning in Cherry Creek. He’s also out in front for Gaylord Entertainment in its bid to receive tax increment financing for its proposed hotel in Aurora.

6. Norman Brownstein & Steven Farber (4)

Co-founders, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck
From their 17th Street law firm, these boyhood friends continue to quietly influence city, state, and national politics. Brownstein handles the national business and is such a D.C. heavyweight that the late Ted Kennedy once dubbed him the “101st senator.” If a Colorado U.S. senator or the governor needs something in Washington, there are times when they turn to Brownstein. Farber tends the parochial backyard. Locally, Farber, too, has a share of the proposed Gaylord hotel business and is a hired gun in the restructuring of Pinnacol Assurance. The firm’s managing partner Bruce James has become more prominent, but some political players are of the opinion that James’ first high-profile foray into local politics—advising Mayor Hancock on how to handle Denver Players—didn’t go so well. Noteworthy, too, is that one of Brownstein’s sons just pleaded guilty to insider trading.

7. Larry Mizel (15)

Chairman/CEO, MDC Holdings Inc.
This reclusive Republican oversees the Denver-based, multi-million-dollar home-building company, which enables him to be a mighty rainmaker. In the 2010 election cycle, he raised a total of at least $1 million for local and national elections for U.S. Senator Mike Lee, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, Colorado State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, and U.S. Congressman Cory Gardner. Mizel made a power move among power moves when he threw his typically Republican money and weight behind Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper. In return, he’s not afraid to ask for—make that demand—assistance, nor is he afraid to throw elbows when it comes to raising money, like for events such as 9/11 Remembers. A board member of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), he was no small force behind the Pro-Israel Resolution passed in the Colorado Legislature last March, further evidence that he can make his causes state issues.

8. Phil Anschutz (12)

Media Mogul
He’d be No. 1 on this list every year if he cared enough about such things, but he’s a bit distracted with his diverse, privately held Denver-based empire of holdings in oil and gas, railroads, media, and entertainment (AEG). All of which makes him the richest person in Colorado—according to Forbes, he’s worth $7 billion. The assertively private billionaire conservative doesn’t say much (never publicly), but when he does, everyone, especially Republicans, listens. Former GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis got as far as he did largely because McInnis was who Republicans thought Anschutz wanted. Only a GOP moron runs for political office in this region without wondering what Phil will think, though smart Democrats respect him, too. When U.S. Senator Michael Bennet comes back to town, he stops to see his old Regal Entertainment boss. Even President Obama gives careful consideration to Anschutz’s desires, as POTUS recently fast-tracked the permitting process for an Anschutz power line that will cross five states, including Colorado, into California, with energy supplied by a $6 billion wind-energy operation Anschutz plans to build on one of his own ranches in Wyoming.

9. Michael Bennet (7)

U.S. Senator
Three years ago, Governor Ritter appointed him to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Ken Salazar’s move to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and everyone wondered What the hell? But in 2010, Hickenlooper’s former chief of staff and the former Denver Public Schools superintendent overcame a challenge by Andrew Romanoff (Bennet’s first-ever election). And he’s become the state’s most outspoken national representative. On national television, he said he’d vote for Obama’s Healthcare Reform Plan even if it cost him his seat, and, indeed, Bennet voted for the bill. Similarly, Bennet, a member of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, was one of the loudest proponents of raising the nation’s debt ceiling. While Hickenlooper has aggressively pursued science-and-technology-sector economic development, Bennet has been integral to the effort, having galvanized a Coloradans for an Innovation Economy movement.

10. Maria Garcia Berry (New)

CEO, CRL Associates
“MGB” is at the forefront of Denver’s most ambitious—and controversial—development projects. Not exactly new for her: In the past she’s been all over FasTracks and the Gates Rubber complex. Lately, it’s Gaylord: She’s been instrumental in getting some of the city’s biggest names behind the proposed (and partially subsidized) deal that would allow Gaylord to build an $824 million hotel and convention complex near DIA, and, concurrently, a plan that could move the National Western Stock Show out of Denver. Staunchly opposed are some other bold-faced names—many of them on this list—who worry that the agreement might tear out the city’s cultural and economic heart, or at the very least cut into their business. MGB got those potential deals on the table as Topic(s) A, but how they ultimately turn out…well, no matter, the shrewd MGB will be just fine.