Talking Points

Ever wish you could ask the mayor about urban development, or a battalion chief about fighting the Waldo Canyon fire, or a Nobel Prize winner about the nature of reality? In our first-ever Interview Issue, we asked 18 of the city’s brightest, most outspoken leaders and personalities those questions, and many more. Turn the page to hear them speak out—in their own words.
January 2013

Susan Barnes-Gelt photo

Susan Barnes-Gelt

The political veteran, land-use advocate, and writer on mayors, progressive planning, and being outspoken. Interview by Lindsey B. Koehler

You’re a Denver native, right?

I grew up in Hilltop when only Jews lived there. Denver was still segregated; all upwardly mobile Jews lived in Hilltop, because until 1964 many neighborhoods had covenants—no blacks, no browns, no Jews.

What were you like as a kid?

I was tall, smart, mouthy, and competitive. People hated me. After many painful years in Denver, my mother decided I should go away to boarding school in Pennsylvania.

How’d that work for you?

That was a horrible experience, except at least I wasn’t in Denver. And for my very first Thanksgiving, in 10th grade, I went to New York City. So I get off the train at Pennsylvania Station and I think, Oh, my God, there’s a place for me.

I thought you loved Denver?

I do, but my formative experience was being in New York City at a young and impressionable age. It informed who I am both politically and personally, and ignited my interest in land-use issues. When I lived in New York, I walked every inch of that island. I’m a feet-on-the-street girl, and I intuitively loved the public realm—the streets, the sidewalks, the bridges, the connections, the buses, the subways—because it’s very democratic.

When you came back to Denver you eventually went to work for Mayor Federico Peña. What was your position in his office?

My ex-husband, Howard Gelt, always used to say, “She’s the shit magnet,” because, basically, I was kind of the crisis-du-jour girl. 

After Peña came Wellington Webb, whom you worked with when you became a city councilperson, and John Hickenlooper. When Federico decided not to run for a third term, Wellington Webb ran against Norm Early. Peña’s people supported Early, which pissed Webb off. I was placed on the enemy list; I couldn’t find a job. So when the at-large council spot came open in 1995, I thought, Well, Mr. Webb, you can’t kick me out of the civic life of my city, so I’m going to run for city council.

Did you and the mayor ever make up?

My relationship with Wellington eventually warmed and now we’re good friends. I love him because he had an agenda for the city and he loved the city. Did I agree with the way he did everything? No. But did he have courage and vision? Yes. I guess I didn’t realize I loved Webb until John Hickenlooper got to be mayor. 

Not a fan of Hick?

Frankly, I had a great relationship with Hickenlooper because I was his only public critic, and he believes that he’s so adorable that he can win over any critic. At one point he actually offered me a job at the mayor’s office. And I said, “You know what John? I really like you and I know you’d rather have me pissing in than pissing on, but I don’t roll that way.” He knew it was loving criticism. I really didn’t think he was a great mayor because he didn’t get land use. He’s a policy guy. But now that we have this posse, I long for John Hickenlooper.

By “this posse” you mean Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration?

I supported Michael, but I think my biggest disappointment with him is the government he put together. Michael has surrounded himself with campaign lackeys and not one person who has any city-building expertise. I mean, it took him 16 months to hire a planning director! 

Explain why you think that’s a problem.

Denver is an emerging city. We’re a baby and we’re growing. And this administration was fortunate to come into office as the beneficiary of 20 years of progressive planning that began with Peña (with the 1990 Comprehensive Plan) and continued through Hickenlooper (with Blueprint Denver). Michael inherited these brilliant plans, which need to be implemented. But they don’t embrace it.

Do you talk to the mayor frequently?

The last time I spoke with him was last February. We talked about some RiNo issues and we talked candidly about the National Western Stock Show. I tried to explain that you cannot separate what happens to the stock show and what you do about the I-70 viaduct and how you reconnect the Globe-ville, Swansea, and Elyria neighborhoods. No enlightened cities in the 21st century contemplate taking a viaduct built in the ’60s that slashes three of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and widening it in place. 

If you could be queen for a day, how would you change things?

I would keep Michael as mayor, but I would surround him with the best and most innovative urban thinkers and implementers.

You don’t pull any punches, do you?

My elite and expensive education refined my ability to be a critical thinker. And I have a high-octane personality. In fact, my mother used to say, “No one will ever marry you because you’re a loudmouth and you’re too competitive.” I give her a lot of credit because she was a tough cookie and dealing with her made me resilient and tenacious.