The crowd had come out to see Mayor John Hickenlooper on a hot night in July, angry over the police shooting of an unarmed man in his bed at the housing project across the street. More than 200 people were packed into a meeting room at the Inner City Parish in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and the audience was growing louder and angrier as each speaker gave voice to the frustration that pervaded the breezeless auditorium.

“I am tired of black and brown folks being killed when they don’t deserve to,” says the Rev. Reginald C. Holmes of the Denver Ministerial Alliance, his voice dropping into a mournful hush. “We keep going through this over and over again.”

At the front of the room sits the family of Frank Lobato, the innocent man gunned down by a cop who mistook a soda can for a gun. A man in the crowd stands up and points at Lobato’s son and two daughters. His face is flushed and his hands are shaking. “We want the man who murdered their father to be put behind bars!” he yells, and many in the room applaud.

Glenn Morris, a CU-Denver professor and local leader of the American Indian Movement, steps to the microphone, smoothing his long, gray hair and invoking a Native American blessing. Morris says he wants to speak to the “5,000-pound elephant” stalking the room: the threat of violence that everyone knows is a real possibility as the anger builds.

“Mr. Mayor, you’re the boss. How long does the administration believe this can continue to happen before there’s civil unrest in this community?” asks Morris.

Behind him at the circular table shared by all the speakers sits Hickenlooper, looking pale and tense. He has taken a big risk by being here – several speakers have said they can’t remember a mayor of Denver who showed up at a similar event – and it’s not clear how the crowd will react. He stands to speak and is immediately booed by some in the audience.

Community activist LeRoy Lemos steps forward and asks for people to be civil. “It says a lot that Mayor Hickenlooper is here to take the heat,” he tells the audience.

The first thing Hickenlooper does is something so simple it might not seem surprising, except in a litigious society where every word is weighed in dollars. “Attorneys tell you never to apologize,” says Hickenlooper. “[But] we’ve put our foot down. I can find no human reason not to express the sorrow the city feels. I want to publicly apologize on the most profound level.”

The mayor goes on to promise that the investigation into Lobato’s killing will be open to the public. “No one wants to get to the bottom of this faster than I do,” says Hickenlooper. “I don’t pretend this is an answer to your frustration. I want to make sure we get all the facts. We want to have a process that makes sure this never happens again.”

Many of the activists in the black and Hispanic communities are pushing Hickenlooper to allow more civilian oversight of the police department. The mayor has responded with a proposal to hire an independent auditor who will be charged with watching over the department, an idea his critics say doesn’t go far enough. Hickenlooper tells the audience the idea is still evolving.

“It will not be an auditor limited to monitoring policies and procedures – we’ll go well beyond that,” he explains. “This issue is how do we learn from other cities.”

Hickenlooper’s comments are brief, but many in the audience applaud as he leaves the podium. There is no issue in Denver more volatile than the series of police shootings under dubious circumstances that has angered minority neighborhoods during the past few years. It was a tough crowd for a new mayor still finding his way, but Hickenlooper managed to convince many in the audience that he’ll try to do the right thing.

Coming from any other politician, this might seem like spin. But after a little more than a year in office, Hickenlooper has shown a remarkable ability to heal old wounds – between black and white, between city and suburbs – and his popularity has soared both in Denver and beyond the city limits. The mayor’s astonishing debut has silenced those who once dismissed him as a political dilettante whose business success as the city’s best-known barkeep had gone to his head. And now Hickenlooper seems to be rewriting the political rule book for mayors of Denver. All the old assumptions – a Denver mayor could never win support in the suburbs, a Denver Democrat could never appeal to out-state voters, a white mayor could never attract enthusiastic minority backing – are now open to question. And many think a new statewide political star has emerged from a brewpub on Wynkoop Street. Fifteen months into his first term in an elected office, John Hickenlooper has emerged as Colorado’s most intriguing politician, and Democratic and Republican strategists alike are already talking about his prospects for higher office, perhaps even a run for governor as soon as 2006.

“I think someday in the future he’d be a strong partisan candidate,” says Denver political consultant and pollster Floyd Ciruli. “We’ve seen people like Arnold Schwarzenegger who can excel quickly statewide. People today are happy to look outside the box. It’s the right time for Hickenlooper.”

Just a decade ago, Denver was a different place. City officials were struggling to lure people back after decades of losing population to the suburbs. After the courts ordered Denver’s public schools to begin crosstown busing for racial desegregation in the 1970s, thousands of white residents fled to suburban school districts. State voters – motivated by suburbanites who feared being absorbed into the Denver school district – approved the so-called Poundstone Amendment in 1974, which effectively banned Denver from annexing land into the city.

“The Poundstone Amendment was motivated by racial issues,” notes Ciruli.

The result was a bitter standoff between Denver and the suburbs. Many city dwellers thought their suburban neighbors were racists. The division had a partisan cast, since Denver was a heavily Democratic city (as it still is), while the suburbs were largely Republican. Striking back in anger, Denver changed the city charter to require all municipal employees to live in the city limits, making it impossible for suburbanites to get a job at the airport or city hall.

While much of central Denver stagnated, the suburban population exploded, growing by leaps and bounds. Many feared Denver might follow the sad decline of Rust Belt cities like Detroit, a decayed center city ringed by affluent suburbs.

John Hickenlooper was destined to play an important role in reversing this trend, although neither the future mayor nor anyone else could have predicted it at the time. In 1988, with the city still mired in its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the laid-off geologist took a big gamble by renting an empty warehouse at the corner of 18th and Wynkoop streets to open a newfangled bar known as a brewpub. People who’ve been around LoDo a long time still remember the scruffy former oil company employee scouting the neighborhood in a beat-up car with his friends and their dogs in the back seat.

At the time, Lower Downtown was a dreary last stop for winos and derelicts, and a place where many people were afraid to go at night. But LoDo’s designation as a local historic district in 1988 proved to be a turning point for all of central Denver. Just as visionaries like Hickenlooper saw LoDo as a diamond in the rough and took a chance on renovating the old warehouses, a wave of newcomers to Denver started to see the historic neighborhoods that ringed downtown as attractive places to live. During the 1990s the dramatic white flight from the city ended, and thousands of people wanted to live near downtown, many of them drawn by the nightlife in LoDo. In many neighborhoods housing prices doubled or tripled, and Denver’s population began growing again for the first time in decades. These newcomers to the city eventually became a big part of Mayor Hickenlooper’s political base.

“Denver is a different city than it was, and the mayor really understood that when he ran for office,” says Greg Kolomitz, president of CRL Associates, a political consulting firm. “He has a feel for the new Denver. They’re younger and upwardly mobile professionals. They live in LoDo, Lowry, Stapleton, and Highland. They look at a problem and say, ‘How do you solve it?’ The mayor has connected well with those people.”

Just as the political and economic makeup of central Denver has changed dramatically in the past decade, so has the reality of life in the surrounding suburbs. Those changes may play just as important a role in Hickenlooper’s political future.

This new reality was on display this past summer, when the mayor delivered his first “State of the City” address on the steps of the Galleria at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. The speech is an annual event that brings out much of Denver’s civic leadership. But this year, there were some new faces seated in the front rows: Ed Tauer, the new mayor of Aurora, and Gov. Bill Owens – two people who would not likely have been invited to a similar gathering by former Mayor Wellington Webb.

Hickenlooper has worked hard at reaching out to the suburbs and even across the political aisle to a Republican like Owens. (Though Denver’s mayoral elections are officially nonpartisan, Hickenlooper, like all Denver mayors going back 40 years, is a Democrat.)

“Previous mayors’ popularity usually stopped at the city limits,” says political analyst Eric Sondermann. “It shows the power of a fresh face to change the dynamics of the relationship.”

Denver’s suburbs were once almost entirely white, largely affluent, and reliably Republican. Today, many of the older suburbs have started to look more like Denver, with ethnically diverse populations, decaying neighborhoods in need of renovation, and schools struggling with students who often speak little English. Suburbanites now look at their doorsteps and see the urban issues that once seemed very far away.

“We’re a first-tier suburb that grew up after World War II,” says Lakewood Mayor Steve Burkholder. “We have more in common with Denver than we do with Highlands Ranch or Parker. The issues are aging infrastructure, affordable housing, transportation.”

Even before he was elected in June of 2003, Hickenlooper had started contacting suburban leaders, meeting with many of them to talk about the problems facing their communities. More than any mayor in memory, Hickenlooper has worked diligently to build good relationships with Denver’s neighbors. The mayor is constantly speaking at suburban get-togethers, relentlessly pushing the message that Denver’s fate is inextricably linked to places like Aurora, Lakewood, and Englewood.

“On so many issues, many of our most important challenges extend beyond any political boundary,” says Hickenlooper. “If Aurora or Douglas County has a drought and they have to suspend construction permits and it gets into Time magazine, that affects the value of every home in the area. Denver has an interest in making sure Aurora doesn’t run out of water.”

For those who’ve known Hickenlooper since the days when he was behind the bar at the Wynkoop, it can be startling to see him in a pressed suit, standing rather awkwardly next to the sorts of people who wouldn’t have set foot in the LoDo of the 1980s. But even with a bodyguard, power tie, and shined shoes, Hickenlooper still exudes the boyish enthusiasm his friends love and audiences find endearing.

Ciruli was in the audience when Hickenlooper spoke to an economic development meeting in Parker. Like much of Douglas County, Parker is dependent on a fast-dropping aquifer for most of its water supply.

“No Denver mayor had ever been invited to speak to them,” says Ciruli. “His line was that if the suburbs go dry, Denver suffers too. They loved it and they loved him.”

One of Hickenlooper’s first actions after taking office was to travel to California with Owens to try and woo high-tech employers. Hickenlooper is fond of pointing out that it makes no sense to have 40 different municipalities each trying to lure out-of-state companies, and that the metro area must work together to create new jobs.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of Hickenlooper’s new relationship with the suburbs was the agreement the city reached with Aurora earlier this year to cooperate on development of the 1,800-acre HighPointe at DIA project. HighPointe will include an 18-hole golf course, office parks, extensive housing, and retail centers. The project is in both Denver and Aurora, and the two cities agreed to work together on planning and design, and possibly even share tax revenues from the project.

This caused heads to turn at both city halls, since it was well-known that Wellington Webb and former Aurora Mayor Paul Tauer disliked each other and would have been unlikely to work together on such a plan. But Aurora had also gotten a new mayor – Paul Tauer’s son, Ed, took office last November – and Hickenlooper and Ed Tauer immediately struck up a friendship.

“I enjoy spending time with him,” says the younger Tauer. “John is willing to think outside the box. There’s a willingness to say, ‘Let’s try something new.’ As a businessperson, he understands you need to look for win-win situations. He was very open to talking to us about HighPointe.”

Political consultant Katy Atkinson sees the HighPointe agreement as marking a watershed in relations between Denver and the suburbs. “The deal he cut with Aurora was really major,” she says. “I can’t remember a mayor who’s had this good of a relationship with the suburbs.”

Ciruli adds that Hickenlooper’s background in the tourism industry – he was on the board of the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau for over a decade – inevitably shapes his thinking.

“When you’re in the tourism industry like Hickenlooper, you think about the whole region,” says Ciruli. “He’s a businessman, he’s not a politician who thinks about boundaries. His life experience is to deal with the whole metro area.”

One of the metro area’s biggest headaches is its highway system. As the metro population has surged past 2.5 million, traffic has become far worse, and Denver is now ranked as one of the most congested cities in the country. To deal with this problem, all 31 metro mayors have united to support the Regional Transportation District’s FasTracks proposal, which calls for boosting the RTD sales tax to fund a $4.7 billion network of light rail, commuter rail, and express buses.

Hickenlooper is playing a leading role in the FasTracks campaign, speaking up for the proposal almost everywhere he goes, and even appearing in TV ads promoting the measure.

“FasTracks will be the most important thing we vote on for the next 20 years,” explains Hickenlooper. “FasTracks will be the most important investment we make for the first part of the century.”

Hickenlooper and his fellow mayors view FasTracks as crucial in trying to come to terms with mounting gridlock.

Antitax conservatives, spearheaded by the Golden-based Independence Institute, are opposing the transportation plan. The leading critic of FasTracks is Gov. Owens, who has called it too expensive for the number of commuters it would get off the road. But the governor insists his opposition to FasTracks hasn’t affected his warm relationship with Hickenlooper.

“We went to the baseball game last Sunday,” Owens says. “We’re very good friends, but it doesn’t mean we always agree.”

Gov. Owens adds that he and Hickenlooper have each other’s cell phone numbers and talk frequently.

The FasTracks vote is the first time Hickenlooper has been in the position of challenging the governor on a high-profile metro issue, and it may mark his emergence as a more partisan leader. Hickenlooper tries to be diplomatic, portraying the difference with Owens over FasTracks as a simple disagreement – even though it also reveals a basic philosophical divide over how Colorado should deal with growth.

“The governor is a thoughtful, experienced politician,” says Hickenlooper. “There will always be things we disagree on.”

Owens says that he and Hickenlooper had “friendly debates” over FasTracks and that the mayor was disappointed with his position. “He lobbied me hard on it over the past year,” says Owens.

But there is more to the FasTracks debate than meets the eye. Owens has stopped far short of aggressively crusading against FasTracks, and Ciruli notes that the governor could be playing a much larger role in opposing the plan.

“He could campaign against it every day and hold big fund-raisers and put political muscle behind it,” says Ciruli. “He’s not putting all his political capital behind this.”

Ciruli think Owens has muted his criticism not as a favor to Hickenlooper but because he knows many of his own supporters in the corporate world have endorsed FasTracks and made significant donations to the pro-transit campaign.

“Substantial elements of the business community are overwhelmingly committed to this,” says Ciruli.

For his part, Hickenlooper’s star role in promoting FasTracks may be about more than just mass transit. Ciruli says that if metro voters approve the plan, Hickenlooper would have a “substantial feather in his cap.”

The mayor’s quick emergence as a regional leader has inevitably led to talk about his political ambitions. A recent Rocky Mountain News/News 4 poll showed Hickenlooper with a 91 percent approval rating in the city of Denver and 78 percent approval metrowide. The poll also showed the mayor winning a 50 percent favorable rating from Republicans. Numbers like these have set Colorado politicos abuzz, with many seeing Hickenlooper as a potential Democratic Party golden boy in a run for statewide office.

Party Chairman Chris Gates recently included Hickenlooper on a short list of Democrats who would make strong candidates for governor when Owens is forced out of the governor’s mansion by term limits in two years. Republicans mulling the race include state Treasurer Mike Coffman and Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, but even some Republicans say that Hickenlooper would be a powerful contender.

“I think he’d be a great statewide candidate for whatever he wants to do,” says Republican state Sen. Ken Chlouber of Leadville. “I think he’s incredibly refreshing.”

Chlouber believes that Hickenlooper’s blend of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism would strike a chord on the Western Slope. He says Hickenlooper has to stay focused on doing a good job as mayor, but talk will inevitably grow of Hickenlooper as a statewide candidate.

“He’s a different cut and the kind of politician the people in western Colorado appreciate,” adds Chlouber.

That the mayor of Denver could be seen as a strong statewide candidate speaks volumes about the success of Hickenlooper’s short tenure as mayor. When Wellington Webb considered running for U.S. Senate, most observers thought he was too much the urban liberal to go over well in rural Colorado. Similarly, Federico Peña was so closely identified with Denver International Airport and the long controversy over its construction that he wasn’t seen as viable for statewide office either.

For decades, in fact, it was assumed that statewide voters wouldn’t support a Denver mayor in any election. Western Slope voters were thought to be still angry over the water diversions the Denver Water Board engineered more than half a century ago. Rural voters were automatically suspicious of anything to do with the big, bad city, and Denver was seen as too liberal and different from the rest of Colorado for its mayor to be a major player on the state level.

Some believe that Hickenlooper’s popularity might fade in a partisan election. “He has a lot of support from Republicans, but once you run for partisan office that can change,” says consultant Atkinson.

Others are convinced that Hickenlooper already has the job he was born for. Sondermann notes that the mayor emerged from LoDo and is an urban animal, with a keen devotion to art, music, baseball, and other city pastimes.

“I think Hickenlooper’s interests and persona are uniquely suited to the mayor’s office,” Sondermann says. “He’s interested in urban issues. If you scratch Hickenlooper, you get an urban liberal – not on all issues, but on many issues.”

For his part, Denver’s new mayor insists he’s committed to leading the Mile-High City and isn’t looking to expand his resume. “I’ve got so much still to do here in the city,” Hickenlooper says. “I have the best job in the city. You meet the smartest, most passionate people in the region, and you can improve the condition of people’s lives.”

However, Hickenlooper makes it clear he loves being a politician and he won’t rule out a future run for statewide office. And while he’s heard the growing buzz about his future, he insists that “Speculation on what I’m going to do is down the road.”

But Chlouber has been involved in politics long enough to know how quickly a popular and charismatic politician’s star can rise. “I don’t think he’s looking down the road, but the road may be looking for him,” he says.

Off the record, several of Hickenlooper’s friends say he has broached the idea of running for higher office. The mayor reportedly even toyed with the notion of jumping into the U.S. Senate race earlier this year, but was advised that first he needed to be re-elected to a second term as mayor. (The next opening for a U.S. Senate seat will be in 2008, when Sen. Wayne Allard’s term expires.) This summer, Hickenlooper attended the Democratic National Convention, where he made the rounds and met with an all-star cast of party bigwigs, including Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Boston Mayor Tom Menino, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin – exactly the sort of network that an ambitious political neophyte ought to be building.

Hickenlooper will only say that decisions about the future are “a long way away,” adding that politics is a mercurial business and voters can be unforgiving.

“The world could turn on me like a mongrel dog,” he says.

The first indication Hickenlooper was interested in more than just brewing beer came in 2000, when he led a grassroots campaign to save the name “Mile High” and prevent the football stadium from being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Although the campaign failed, the groups compromised, settling on “Invesco Field at Mile High,” an attempt to maintain the economic and cultural value of the name for the city. The future mayor soon became the de facto leader of a populist crusade, as thousands of metro residents voiced their displeasure at seeing the beloved Mile High name treated so callously. Hickenlooper instinctively realized how weary people were with the need to slap a corporate logo on every new stadium and arena from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale.

The genesis of Hickenlooper’s run for mayor can also be traced back to the Mile High controversy. Chris Romer, a politically active investment banker who is also the son of former Gov. Roy Romer, ran into Hickenlooper one morning and started talking up the idea of the barkeep becoming mayor.

Romer remembers Hickenlooper as being taken aback by the notion. “He seemed stunned and amazed and said, ‘Gosh, I never thought of that,’” he says.

In Hickenlooper, Romer saw a unique set of attributes that made him an incredibly appealing candidate. Not only was he boyishly eccentric, Hickenlooper also had a mix of beliefs that could draw in voters from both parties. “I knew he was a social liberal and fiscal conservative,” Romer explains. “The thought had been that a white businessman couldn’t win in Denver, but I knew the guy with the most fire in the belly is the one who usually wins.”

Romer continued pushing the idea over a series of dinners and lunches during the next several weeks. Additionally, the two men talked about the most serious problems facing Denver, including poverty and a struggling school district.

“I appealed to his sense of social justice,” remembers Romer. “I thought the size of the social problems in Denver with the school district and poverty were small enough you could do something about it.”

For the next two years, Hickenlooper set out to discover just what being mayor of a big city entailed. With the help of Chris Gates, president of the National Civic League (and now chairman of the state Democratic Party), he began traveling around the country talking to mayors. Gates arranged for some of the nation’s most highly regarded mayors to talk with Hickenlooper, including Tom Menino from Boston and Martin O’Malley of Baltimore.

At the same time as Hickenlooper’s political ambitions grew, his private life was also transformed. Hickenlooper met a woman who would not only become his wife but also his most important political confidante.

The longtime bachelor readily acknowledges that his 2002 marriage to former Texas Monthly writer Helen Thorpe and the birth of his son, Teddy, two years ago were soul-changing events. Now 52, Hickenlooper is a devoted and loving father, an evolution that surprised some who thought he would always remain one of Denver’s most fun-loving bachelors.

Thorpe had earned a reputation as a formidable political writer when she covered George W. Bush’s run for the White House for the former George magazine. She was introduced to Hickenlooper through mutual friends in Austin. Thorpe still vividly remembers the day she met him – he crashed her birthday party. “He made a great first impression,” Thorpe says. “He arrived with gifts for me and the hostess. He seemed lively and charming and smart.”

Hickenlooper brought with him two CDs as presents, one by Billie Holiday and the other by Louis Armstrong. “He let us pick which ones we wanted; I think I chose Billie,” recalls Thorpe.

During the party, Hickenlooper’s friends told Thorpe that he might run for mayor of Denver. The idea seemed loopy enough that she almost took it as a joke.

Over the next few months the two began dating, and Hickenlooper began traveling around the country to talk with mayors. Thorpe admits to having had mixed feelings about the prospect of a Hickenlooper candidacy. Despite her love of politics, she had never even considered running for public office. “It wasn’t something I would put on my list of things to do,” she says. “But I felt like you can’t stand in the way of somebody else’s dream. I felt ambivalent about it. I was afraid he might win.”

After marrying Hickenlooper and moving to Denver, Thorpe became increasingly involved in the budding campaign. After years of covering campaigns from the press section, she reveled in being an insider.

“I loved the campaign,” she says. “What was fascinating to me after covering campaigns was to finally be on the inside and have a seat at the table when strategy was being discussed.”

Thorpe was a big supporter of the innovative TV ads that are credited with helping Hickenlooper win the election. The ads – which featured Hickenlooper trying on goofy suits at a costume shop, trying to look mayoral, and walking around LoDo giving out quarters to parkers frustrated by high meter rates – were a big gamble, since they played off Hickenlooper’s outsider status. His lack of political experience was widely seen as his biggest liability.

“Some of the folks advising John were unnerved by the ads,” explains Thorpe. “There was a recession and a war about to start, and they worried the ads struck the wrong note. In a campaign people often want to be risk-adverse. That’s not how John thinks. He’s willing to take a calculated risk. That’s a big part of why the campaign was so much fun.”

When they were dating, Hickenlooper and Thorpe often discussed what sort of family life they hoped to create. They both wanted to have children and enjoy a close-knit family circle. Thorpe warned Hickenlooper that politics could be brutal on families and that public officials often had no private life. He promised her that if elected he would be home by 6:30 p.m. at least four nights a week, a promise Thorpe says he’s largely kept.

“He has exceeded my expectations of what is possible for family life,” she says. “He said he’d be home four nights a week and he is. He gets a lot of time with me and Teddy.”

Juggling the mayor’s schedule so he can be home most nights is sometimes difficult, but Hickenlooper has instructed his staff to make that a top priority, fulfilling his vow to Thorpe.

That’s important, since his political future will undoubtedly be determined by consultation with her, his No. 1 adviser.

“I think our lives are perfect right now; I wouldn’t be in a hurry to change them,” says Thorpe. “But if John had a dream to do something else, I wouldn’t stand in his way.”

Romer says it’s virtually impossible to predict what Hickenlooper will decide to do down the road. While most politicians would already be dreaming of the governorship or a U.S. Senate seat, Hickenlooper could surprise everyone.

“John is just as likely to want to go sit on a lake and write poetry as be a U.S. senator,” Romer says laughing.

Still, it’s clear that politics have already changed Denver’s new mayor. Once known for giving witty and even off-color quotes to reporters, Hickenlooper is now far more cautious. But sometimes the daredevil who gambled on opening a brewpub in a destitute part of town still comes through, especially when he considers the astonishing changes in his life over the past few years.

“Sometimes I look in the mirror and think, ‘Is this really me or is this someone else living my life?’” he says. “I’m afraid I’m going to wake up and be a laid-off geologist again.”

As mayor, Hickenlooper has made education a top priority. Although the mayor has little responsibility for the schools, Hickenlooper has thrown himself into the current effort to reform Denver Public Schools. He campaigned successfully last year to convince voters to pass bond issues for the schools, and he’s formed a close partnership with DPS Superintendent Jerry Wartgow. Hickenlooper has visited more than 40 Denver schools and helped raise private funding to guarantee college educations for students at one of the city’s most troubled schools, Cole Middle School.

“Hickenlooper really cares about kids, and I think the public is responding to that with enormous enthusiasm,” says former City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who has been active in city politics for two decades. “I think his relationship with the schools has been done brilliantly.”

One day this past July, Hickenlooper spent the morning at the elite Kent Denver School campus in Cherry Hills Village. The bucolic setting of Kent, with its red brick buildings and manicured playing fields, is the unlikely setting for a program for gifted students from inner-city middle schools. Known as Summerbridge, the program brings together dozens of students with college potential every summer to study with mentors from local high schools and colleges.

Hickenlooper has a gift for talking with children. He slumps in his seat during the opening presentation like a lanky high school boy, and then asks the Summerbridge students what their plans are for the future. One boy tells him he wants to be a writer like Roald Dahl and stumbles over the author’s name. “I could never pronounce that guy’s name either,” says Hickenlooper sympathetically.

A student asks the mayor why he thinks education is so important. “You all are the future of the city,” says Hickenlooper. “You’ll create the businesses and new jobs for the city. Without that revenue, who will support my retirement?”

The audience laughs. Then Hickenlooper joins the kids on the stage for a rendition of the Summerbridge cheer, slapping his thighs and high-fiving the students.

Hickenlooper’s fun-loving side is no surprise to those who have followed his career. While running the Wynkoop, he became known for antics like sponsoring an annual run of greased piglets through the streets of LoDo.

But even here at Summerbridge the harsh realities of urban politics aren’t far away. Talking to a parent, Hickenlooper refers to the anger many police officers felt after he suspended officer James Turney for 10 months as punishment for fatally shooting Paul Childs, a mentally disabled teen who was brandishing a knife.

“We had 200 police officers protesting on the steps of City Hall last month, and they were chanting ‘Chickenlooper, Chickenlooper.’ I haven’t been called that since second grade,” he says with a smile.

Joking aside, if there is an issue that could sour Hickenlooper’s storybook romance with voters and derail any future political ambitions, it is Denver’s troubled police department. No matter what action he takes, he’ll anger someone – either the police force or the department’s critics. The stakes couldn’t be higher: Other cities have faced riots after police shootings that outraged minority communities.

Stephen Nash is the leader of Denver CopWatch, a local activist group that monitors the police department and often shows up at community meetings with pickets. (Ironically, Denver CopWatch gets some of its funding from the Chinook Fund, the liberal philanthropy that Hickenlooper helped to launch.)

Nash says several members of his group worked on Hickenlooper’s campaign, but they became disenchanted after meeting with the mayor to talk about the police department. Denver CopWatch favors strong civilian oversight of the police department, an idea that is fiercely resisted by many officers. The group is pushing for a powerful civilian board modeled on review boards that have been established in Kansas City and San Francisco.

Instead, Hickenlooper has proposed hiring an independent monitor to watch over the police, an idea that Nash and others dismiss as ineffective. The mayor’s plan calls for giving the monitor authority to review all police department investigations and, in rare cases, launch probes of questionable police behavior. There also would be a volunteer citizen’s review board that could suggest policy changes but in actual practice would have little formal power.

Giving the police monitor access to confidential records would require that Denver voters change the city charter in November. Hickenlooper pushed the City Council to get the proposal on the ballot, annoying some council members, who nonetheless approved it on an 11–2 vote. But activists like Nash dismiss the plan as too little, too late.

“We think it’s just public relations,” he says. “We’ve been closed out of the process. Hickenlooper told us too much police accountability would increase crime rates in poor neighborhoods.”

For its part, the police union says giving civilians the power to discipline officers would demoralize the force. Many officers are as alienated from Hickenlooper as the members of Denver CopWatch are. Mike Mosco, president of the Denver Police Protective Association, says police officers feel the mayor doesn’t appreciate what they do.

“A fair assessment is that the members feel there’s not a clear understanding of the duties and responsibilities of individual officers,” says Mosco, adding that his group is “working towards a less tense relationship” with the mayor.

Hickenlooper’s remarkable ability to reach out to potential opponents may fail him in the standoff between the police department and its critics. But if he keeps talking to the minority communities that are most affected, it may not matter.

Denver City Councilman Michael Hancock represents northeast Denver, where several of the most controversial shootings have occurred. He says Hickenlooper has done a remarkable job defusing the anger in the African-American community that followed the shootings, and the mayor is still popular with most black voters.

“I’ve admired how he’s dealt with this,” says Hancock. “I think he’s handled it with humility, courage, and decisiveness. He’s as pained about what occurred as everyone else in the room. It impressed me he stood up and said he’s sorry for what happened. I’m sure the city attorney told him not to say that. That kind of compassion is what has made him a special mayor.”