We rank the 50 most powerful people in Denver.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Consider the most pressing issues of the day— education, jobs, electoral redistricting, and immigration—and you’ll see this massive and politically diverse socioeconomic group is at the forefront of each one. Hispanics already are the largest and fastest-growing ethnic group in America (they comprise a full one-fifth of Colorado’s population), and they own about 44 percent more businesses than they did a decade ago. And they’re anything but homogeneous when it comes to how they vote or spend money, so candidates or businesses who want their backing can’t rely on canned speeches or empty promises. Instead, they must engage and connect with Latinos to earn their support. If aspiring politicians don’t, they’re done. End of story.
CEO, Venoco Inc.; Co-founder, Denver Scholarship Fund
Oilman Timothy Marquez and his wife Bernadette are a Colorado version of Bill and Melinda Gates. The duo plans to give away as much as 95 percent of their wealth to causes, like the $50 million of Venoco stock they invested to start the Denver Scholarship Foundation, a fund that has already doled out more than $5 million to Denver’s college-bound. Or the $10 million (plus) they’ve donated to Colorado School of Mines—Marquez’s alma mater. But all that goodwill doesn’t mean that Marquez is retiring from his day job. This year, he made a power move to buy back the company he founded (and took public) so he could take it private again. Worth watching: Venoco runs fracking operations in California. Is Colorado next?
CEO, Denver Health
Although she is retiring next September, Gabow remains not only the most powerful health-care figure in the city; she’s one of the most influential voices on health care in the country. She took over Denver General, the city’s public hospital in 1992, when it was a dying, money-hemorrhaging “patient,” mired in the typical bureaucratic nonsense. Under her leadership Denver Health has become one of the most well-regarded hospitals in the country. There’s something for everyone to admire in her performance: She’s got a public hospital performing as well—in terms of cost effectiveness and medical outcomes—as some of the top-performing hospitals in the country. This summer, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius co-wrote a Denver Post editorial with Gabow and cited Denver Health as a national example of excellence.
After overcoming his opponents’ efforts to label him as a “Boulder liberal” in the 2008 election, Udall has turned out to be a potent progressive. He played watchdog on Department of Justice misuse of the Patriot Act. He worked with a GOP senator on a balanced-budget amendment that was ultimately tabled. And, in his biggest legislative accomplishment this term, he led a bipartisan effort to pass a law that allows broader nonwinter use of Colorado’s ski resorts, no small accomplishment in these divisive times. As the state’s senior senator, still three years from a re-election bid and holding coveted spots on the influential Armed Services and Energy and Natural Resources committees, Udall shows there’s still room in government for moderate, thoughtful voices.
CEO, Vail Resorts
As far as mountain-loving Coloradans are concerned, it’s Vail Resorts’ world; we all just live here. As the snow-sport behemoth Hoovers up properties throughout the state and beyond, Katz is the one leading the charge. Despite the difficult economic environment for tourism, Vail’s properties saw an increase in traffic last season, thanks in part to ramped-up marketing efforts in places such as Texas, California, and even Brazil. Katz lobbied hard for the law Udall successfully championed that will enable Vail to offer and profit from more summertime activities, such as zip-lining. All of which means that Vail’s plans for (resort) world domination are all coming together.
VP/GM, Entravision Communications
When—surprise, surprise—state Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on the reapportionment of Colorado’s congressional districts, the hot mess ended up in Carrera’s lap. The only unaffiliated member of the 11-person Colorado Reapportionment Commission—the group charged with redrawing the electoral map every 10 years according to population shifts—Carrera’s plan will likely be the one that gets adopted, meaning that this nonelected official has tremendous (and respected) sway over state elections for the coming decade. When you factor in that he runs the Spanish-language communications giant Entravision, which carries the second-most-watched newscast in Denver, it’s little wonder they call him “Super Mario.”
Managing Partner, Bow River CapitaL Partners
This longtime operator in business, real-estate investment, and philanthropy has advised and allied himself with Democrats and Republicans alike. Part of Governor Hickenlooper’s informal “kitchen cabinet,” Hick recently appointed him chairman of the board of the oft-criticized Pinnacol Assurance. It was Richardson who researched the proposed restructuring of the state-chartered worker’s compensation insurance fund, which came under fire for allegedly luxurious abuses enjoyed by its executives. Under Richardson’s watchful eye, Pinnacol promises greater transparency and a more efficient execution of its core mission. Richardson’s not-so-secret weapon is his wife, Kristin, who is respected and remarkably active in several philanthropic organizations.
President and CEO, Liberty Media Corporation
Maffei is one of the highest-paid CEOs in the country. As the right-hand man of chairman John Malone’s Liberty Media Corporation, Maffei manages Liberty’s portfolio, which includes Starz, QVC, the Atlanta Braves, and stakes in myriad companies, including Live Nation. Yet, he’s active in national and local politics, too. Three years ago, conservative Maffei laughed off rumors that he was considering running for governor. Since then, he’s ratcheted up his behind-the-scenes involvement. It was Maffei, atop a host committee that included Pete Coors and Larry Mizel, who held a fund-raiser for State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, and it was Maffei who joined with Mizel to hold a fund-raiser lunch for then-gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper. Maffei is now a member of Hickenlooper’s kitchen cabinet and a close friend. Good chance Maffei will co-chair the Colorado finance committee for Mitt Romney 2012.
Director, Colorado Forum
As the director of the Colorado Forum, when Klapper talks, people listen. The Forum is a statewide political action organization comprised of 65 of the state’s leading CEOs and power players. The group advocates for the private sector with an annual agenda of issues such as transportation, education, water, health care, fiscal policy, and the environment. Members include: Vectra Bank President and CEO Bruce Alexander and Kathryn Ann Paul, the CEO of Delta Dental Plan of Colorado. Because of the Forum’s who’s who, Klapper is an ambassador with great sway.
President, University of Colorado
Ostensibly, Benson left politics years ago for academia, and under his guidance the state university system has navigated difficult economic times. He’s presided over CU’s move to the more lucrative Pac-12 Conference, he’s opened the doors of state schools to a broader range of qualified, low-income community college students, and he’s raised more than $900 million in private donations—well on his way to a targeted $1.5 billion. Not bad for a guy whose appointment was opposed at first by the CU Faculty Assembly and is allegedly now out of politics.
Co-chairmEn, USA Pro Cycling Challenge
Schaden was the bank; Hunter was the man. While the Quiznos franchise, which Schaden founded with his dad, spent much of 2011 battling bankruptcy rumors, Schaden was busy creating “America’s Race” with Hunter, former president of AEG Sports. The pair took Lance Armstrong’s idea and former Governor Bill Ritter’s pet project—a professional bicycle race in Colorado—and made it a tour de success. The inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge pulled in $83.5 million at a time when this state sorely needs the money. Towns are now scrambling to be on the 2012 course (Boulder, we’re talking about you) to get a share of all that cash. Here’s the kicker: The weeklong event had about one million spectators, meaning that it drew a larger crowd than the Broncos will all season at home. Speaking of which…
Executive VP, Denver Broncos
Whatever Pat Bowlen may tell himself, John Elway now owns the Broncos. Because he’s (still) the proverbial quarterback who commands the respect of the team and of Bronco Country. Bowlen likely knows this himself, as he deputized Elway to resuscitate the team and rebuild the city’s most beloved public trust. The ostensibly bad news is that the Broncos have seldom been more feeble, but this is actually a positive position for Elway to be in. With nowhere to go but up, almost anything Elway does will improve the team, cement his already mythical legend, and further stoke those who wonder if St. John might someday be able to lead Denver or Colorado in the same masterful way he once ran the two-minute drill.
President/CEO, Visit Denver
He leads the efforts to attract tourism and convention visitors to the city, and is responsible for everything from the wildly successful Restaurant Week—which last year doubled its run to two weeks—to virtually every event the Colorado Convention Center hosts. In 2010, Denver welcomed 28.9 million overnight visitors who spent $8.8 billion, both records that were achieved in a crushingly bad economy, and the Convention Center enjoyed its second-best year ever. As the Gaylord saga plays out, Scharf will play a pivotal role in advocating for Denver’s interests and ensuring that the city maintains its hard-earned visitor revenue.
President/CEO, Colorado Health Foundation
The dynamic Warhover has a reach that extends far beyond her current health-care field. She’s got the mayor, the governor, and various chiefs of staff on speed dial, thanks largely to her former position as CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership. She most recently ushered through the $1.45 billion sale of CHF’s 40 percent stake in HealthONE, Colorado’s largest hospital system. Warhover’s CHF intends to use the money to help fund its core mission of providing the underserved with better access to health care. As providers locally, statewide, and nationally try to sort out the post-Obamacare world, Warhover wields a powerful voice in whatever direction the debate takes.
Chairman/CEO, Denver Center for the Performing Arts
If there’s a major policy or deal in the works, he’s consulted. This venerable and often revered philanthropist and businessman continues to shape local arts, business, and education. In addition to his DCPA post, Ritchie currently is president of the Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation for early childhood development and chairman of the business advocacy group Colorado Concern, and a member of the Colorado Forum, along with numerous boards. Last June, the longtime Denverite received the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service from the Smithsonian Institution, further cementing his reputation as one of Denver’s all-time civic sages.
Co-founder, president, and CEO, Sage Hospitality
After toying with the idea of a mayoral run in the last election, this savvy real estate mogul made the, um, sage decision to continue leveraging his formidable resources from (sort of) outside the political arena. In addition to bidding on the redevelopment rights at Union Station, Isenberg, in defense of his hotel holdings, has been one of the most prominent voices against the proposed move of the National Western Stock Show. Isenberg’s work with outside consultants to demonstrate the potentially dire economic impact on Denver has generated controversy, which is something the soft-spoken businessman usually avoids.
Channel 7 Investigators
More than a few people on this list like to bitch about this investigative team, especially the two guys who fancy suspenders and don’t have time for softball questions. Among their scoops was the CALL7 Investigation into a terribly run Commerce City nursing home that forced changes to the system; the report on the questionable performance of some taxpayer-funded online schools; and a stunning exposé on preventable deaths at a state mental health facility in Pueblo. At a time when it seems TV newscasts are filled with chuckleheads chuckling to fill the space and reading press releases, here’s a team of journalists doing actual public service journalism and affecting change. Though Kovaleski is taking his muckraking chops to Northern California, his CALL7 cohorts will keep stirring it up in Denver.
Managing Director, Foundry Group
Talk to anyone about venture money in Colorado and one name comes up: Brad Feld. We get it. He co-founded TechStars, Colorado’s startup incubator for tech companies that has become a reality TV show on the Bloomberg network. Foundry Group raised an additional $225 million last year, at a time when other Colorado VC funds had dried up. He writes books and uses cheesy videos to promote them (if you have not seen “I’m a VC” yet, put down this magazine and watch it). He’s candid and a little too self-assured, which is exactly how we like our VCs.
Chief of Strategic Operations, Legislative Policy and Communications, Governor’s Office
Looooooong title for a busy guy. At this year’s Colorado Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, Salazar was recognized as the “Democrat of the Year.” And for good reason: A former chief of staff to U.S. Senator Mark Udall and Governor Roy Romer, Salazar is now Governor Hickenlooper’s policy brain. All legislative issues that matter are influenced by Salazar. In other words: The governor, the Dems, the R’s, Colorado Concern, Colorado Forum, the private sector, you name it—whatever the group and the agenda is, Salazar is all over it without leaving fingerprints.
Colorado State Senator
The founder of the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts got into politics in 2009 after Peter Groff vacated his seat to work for the Department of Education. Johnston won re-election to his Northeast Denver seat in 2010, and since then he’s intensified his focus on his pet issue of education. He was the architect of SB 10-191, the bill that’s being monitored nationwide for its innovative way to evaluate teacher effectiveness, and he’s worked with colleagues of both parties to find common ground for issues surrounding immigrant students. After recently being named one of Time magazine’s 40 under 40, as well as one of Forbes magazine’s “7 Most Influential Educators,” it’s starting to look like Johnston might be Colorado’s next political star.
Founder, Webb Group International and Former Mayor of Denver
Webb’s impressive 12-year run as Denver’s mayor ended in 2003, but his honor still looms over much city business. Mayoral candidate Michael Hancock felt the need to get the endorsement of Webb in a very public and heavily promoted event that involved a ceremonial “passing of the sneakers.” When Governor Hickenlooper was looking for a wise elder statesman to appoint to the state’s 11-member reapportionment commission, he turned to Webb. And last summer, just when it was looking like a forgone conclusion that the Stock Show was moving to Aurora, Webb wrote an editorial in the Denver Post in which he went so far as to advise Hancock and pretty much everyone else involved on how to do their jobs: “Finally, I am dismayed that this entire discussion began when Mayor-elect Michael Hancock and his family are on a much-deserved vacation after a grueling campaign. This decision likely will be made on his watch, and he deserves to have a major voice from day one.”
President and CEO, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce
It’s Brough, as in tough. As in the current economy, which Brough has navigated with her usual no-nonsense style as the first woman to helm the DMCC. Brough has helped stabilize the business environment enough that it at least seems like the recession hasn’t hit as hard here as it has in similar cities. Despite her gritty reputation, she’s been one of the local business and political leaders to call for a greater sense of civility in political and business negotiations, and the “business agenda” the DMCC submitted to Mayor Hancock calls for greater openness to regionalism, streamlined approval processes for businesses that work with the city, and improved support for the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.
Outgoing Mayor of Aurora
Tauer used his two terms about as well as Denver’s next-door neighbor’s residents (and businesses) could have hoped. He was the lynchpin in getting the city new water rights and more “favorable” zoning. He laid much of the groundwork for Aurora’s next phase, one that could see it finally realize its potential as a residential and corporate destination for people and companies that are priced out of increasingly expensive Denver but still want ready access to everything the Front Range has to offer. Or at least, that’s what he’s got people believing. As Tauer’s term-limited tenure ends, he should earn a big thank you from his successor
New Mayor, Aurora
Tauer’s successor was the surprise winner in November’s election, running a strong final month of the campaign to defeat GOP darling Ryan Frazier. Now the former Aurora city councilman will leverage his reputation for resourceful budget-balancing to a city that’s trying to generate fiscal improvements in the coming years. Among the items on Hogan’s agenda: making Aurora more alluring to corporate relocations, working through the Gaylord complex and National Western Stock Show negotiations, and helping the city—whose acreage almost equals Denver’s and surpasses cities such as Tampa and Pittsburgh—work with Denver to tackle issues related to economic regionalism.
Executive Chef and Co-owner, The Kitchen
Colorado has been eating at farm-to-fork restaurants for so long, it’s hard to think of this as a national culinary trend. But it is, and it is thanks, in large part, to Hugo Matheson. Raised in the U.K., Matheson grew up eating seasonal ingredients grown or produced near his home. As a chef, he used that eat-local philosophy to create Boulder’s the Kitchen. And then the Kitchen [Upstairs], the Kitchen [Next Door], and the Kitchen Café. (Whew.) This spring, he will launch a Denver outpost at the corner of Wazee and 16th streets and has plans to open four more across the country. But unlike many chefs-turned-celebrities who open restaurants constantly, the Kitchen’s growth is, well, more organic, which is just the way Matheson likes it.
Secretary of State
In just 11 months, Republican Scott Gessler has managed to turn the ho-hum secretary of state position into one that makes headlines—weekly. He’s sued Denver’s clerk and recorder to stop mailing ballots to inactive registered voters (i.e., voters that skipped voting in 2010). He complained that his new gig didn’t pay well enough and he’d need to work a second job at a firm that supports candidates (that was shot down as a conflict of interest). And, during a routine speech in front of Republicans in October, he called out President Obama. All of which might make you wonder: Does Gessler have a loftier position in mind? Or will his antics turn him into the next Katherine Harris, Florida’s secretary of state during the 2000 presidential election, hanging chads and all?
State Representative and Victim Advocate, 42nd District
Officially recognized this year by the Colorado Democratic Party as a “Rising Star,” Rhonda Fields was a working mom until her son, Javad Fields, and his fiancée were murdered in 2005 just before Javad was set to testify in a murder trial. Fields spent months working with law enforcement to find her son’s killers. (Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens were convicted and now sit on death row.) But she didn’t stop there: She testified at the Capitol and helped pass a witness protection act. Then she ran for office—and won. While Fields is just starting her second year, she’s gained the type of respect that politicians dream about.
CEO and President, Colorado Ski Country USA
As the unofficial chief snow ambassador for the state, Melanie Mills lobbies on behalf of 22 ski resorts at the Capitol and molds legislation about everything from I-70 traffic snarls to ski fatalities. Her three-year tenure has had its share of wipeouts: Vail Resorts left the group in 2008 and Mills had to lay off workers; the bad-news economy meant the group had to shift focus to staycation travelers; and a drought in the southern part of the state left lift lines empty. But Mills has adapted quickly, and Colorado Ski Country resorts saw a 2.6 percent growth in visitors last season.
He’s long been an influential “grass top” among the grassroots of the state GOP. A former chief of staff for the state Legislature’s Senate Republicans and campaign manager for Tom Tancredo’s impressive failure of a gubernatorial bid, Dodge is now a wave-maker all on his own: He is either the best or worst thing to happen to the state’s constitution. While Democrats have been trying to get the Legislature to pass Senate Concurrent Resolution 1, which would require a 60 percent super majority to amend the state constitution, Dodge has been fighting it. (As it stands, the constitution can be changed with a simple majority.) Such a change would have a major effect on the region’s policy, taxes, and power players. In a take-that move, Dodge has threatened to run a ballot measure that would apply proposed SCR-1 standards to raise taxes. And he’s been successful in jamming a stick in the spokes of the Dem establishment’s SCR-1 wheels.
Superintendent, Denver Public Schools
Observers of public education throughout the United States are training their gaze on DPS, which is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) public districts in the country to be undertaking such massive changes in the way it evaluates students and teachers. In many ways, Boasberg is presiding over the infrastructure former superintendent Michael Bennet installed before he moved on to the U.S. Senate. But with the recent moves toward greater teacher accountability and innovative student assessments, Boasberg’s success—he’s under contract through 2015— will rise or fall on the performance of his educators, and on how much (or little) they improve local kids’ performance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.