The 5280 Fifty

We rank the 50 most powerful people in Denver.

December 2011

41. Jared Polis (New)

U.S. Congressman
Swimming against a wave of Tea Party–inspired hysteria, Polis has fast become one of the few liberal congressional newcomers to have an influential voice. In less than two years on Capitol Hill, Polis has championed issues affecting the environment, immigration, and fiscal responsibility. But he’s done it his own way, by always seeking middle ground. For instance, he became the lone Colorado Democratic rep to join the GOP in voting against raising the debt-ceiling limit. Ever true to his convictions, Polis made the move to promote bipartisanship, a sentiment our reviled and self-interested governing class needs to embrace more often.

42. OnSight (New)

Officially launched three years ago by founding partners Mike Melanson (respected pollster and strategist) and Ben Davis (political operative), and now with new addition George Merritt, a former Denver Post reporter and OnSight’s communications specialist, this self-described “public affairs” company is a hybrid of public relations and government relations—polling, messaging, schmoozing, closing. And they have been doing very well. OnSight has been the consultant team behind projects such as U.S. Senator Mark Udall’s successful 2008 election, John Hickenlooper’s gubernatorial campaign, and more recently, the incredibly successful USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

43. Roy Palmer (New)

Senior Vice President, Xcel Energy
Years ago, if we’d done such a ranking, Roy Palmer might have made our power list because he spent nearly six years as Governor Bill Owens’ chief of staff. Now, he’s here because he spearheads Xcel Energy’s public policy, meaning that he manages the relationship between the company and its customers (you). As Boulder tries to create its own municipal electricity grid and send Xcel packing, it’s Palmer on point for Xcel, and with Dick Kelly retiring from his CEO role, it is Palmer who will take on even more responsibility helping the new boss plug into the scene.

44. Steve Sander (New)

Director of Strategic Marketing, City of Denver; B-Cycle Prophet
In just two years, Denver’s B-Cycle, the first citywide bike-sharing program in the country, has made red cruiser bikes a ubiquitous sight in the Mile High City—and Sander is its chief architect. He spearheaded the launch of the program. It’s grown to nine other cities, and earned the wrath of then-gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes who likened it to a secret U.N. plot.

45. Mike Coffman (New)

U.S. Congressman
Energized by the conservative revival, this pugnacious ex-Marine has been anything but quiet during his brief time in D.C. Once a relatively uncontroversial secretary of state, Coffman raised eyebrows (and hackles) last spring when he suggested cuts to some military entitlement programs as a partial remedy to the debt crisis. Among his unconventional proposals: He’s advocated that the Peace Corps pull out of China, that Congress cut its pensions, and that the U.S. withdraw its financial support to Pakistan. Taken together, these actions paint him as an unpredictable but politically savvy public servant.

46. Kent Thiry (New)

CEO, DaVita Corp.
An eccentric iconoclast, Thiry runs this global kidney dialysis company. He’s one of the highest-paid CEOs of a public company in Colorado (making nearly $14 million last year), and in 2011 was named the 13th most influential person in the U.S. health-care field by Modern Healthcare. He is also one of Hickenlooper’s close, trusted advisers and has political aspirations of his own. The main thing keeping him from an even higher spot on our list is this little matter of a federal investigation into whether DaVita overused an anemia drug and then sought reimbursement for it from Medicare and Medicaid. How that plays out may impact (at least) Thiry’s fortunes, but in the meantime, his company is expanding its head count and footprint in one of the most pivotal industries in the United States.

47. Christoph Heinrich (49)

Deputy Director, Denver Art Museum
As Denver’s transformation from frontier outpost to internationally acclaimed destination continues, the DAM has become one of our most-respected cultural institutions. Since taking over as director two years ago, the German-born Heinrich has landed the first American museum exhibition of German contemporary artist Daniel Richter, established or improved educational and community outreach programs, and helped raise the DAM’s—and Denver’s—profile as a place where artists and art-lovers convene and create.

48. Kim Jordan (New)

CEO, New Belgium Brewing Company
During the 1980s, Colorado’s beer industry was doomed to “Silver Bullet” mediocrity. That is, until several small brewers like the Gov (see No. 1) and Fort Collins’ New Belgium Brewing Company took on the beer-y behemoths. Two decades later, New Belgium is the big little guy (the third-largest craft brewer in the country) and is helmed by a social worker turned CEO: Kim Jordan. Under Jordan’s casual direction, the company has grown to more than 350 employees, has distribution in 28 states, and is on the hunt for a second East Coast location (watch out Samuel Adams). The real—unanswered—question is how long Jordan can keep this employee-owned company growing?

49. Janice Sinden (New)

Chief of Staff, Mayor Hancock
The mayor’s COS position is an office of influence, and former chiefs have impressively made their mark (see: No. 5 Finegan, No. 9 Bennet, and No. 32 Brough). Hancock talked with other candidates for the big job: Hogan Lovells attorney Andrew Spielman and one of the governor’s operatives, R.D. Sewald, but the COS is Sinden, former executive director of Colorado Concern. The question heard around town seems to be “Why?” There have been more missteps than not (see Hancock at No. 3), like the weekend in October when Occupy Denver protests escalated and the mayor’s office was unreachable. Sinden has the power to make this mayor—or break him.

50. Ken Salazar (5)

Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior
Oh what a difference an environmental disaster can make. Two years ago, Salazar was at No. 5. And for good reason: He could likely have been a U.S. senator for as long as he liked, and he gave up the sweet gig only because President Obama asked him to run the Interior. The Democrat, a Latino from the Western Slope who had conjured up an image of himself as a master of water policy and friend of the environment (with a brother for a U.S. congressman), was atop Colorado’s Democratic machine. Then the BP disaster hit, and it was disclosed that Salazar’s Interior, as the Washington Post reported, “exempted BP’s calamitous Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environmental impact analysis.” What does Ken do next? Good question.