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Janel Forde had never visited the Mile High City before, but after Mike Johnston won the mayoral election in June, she accepted an offer to become his chief operating officer and moved to Denver from Chicago sight unseen. One draw was the chance to help the city tackle homelessness and youth gun violence—two issues she cares deeply about. But the clincher was discovering she’d be joining an all-female senior leadership staff, something she had never seen despite working in city administration for more than a decade.
Denver had never seen it either, until Johnston’s administration. In addition to Forde, Jenn Ridder, one of the mayor’s former campaign strategists, became his chief of staff, and Nicole Doheny left international accounting firm Ernst & Young to become Denver’s chief financial officer. Kerry Tipper, the first Latina to serve as city attorney, stayed on from former Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration. Seven months into Johnston’s tenure, Forde has already spotted plenty of benefits: “I find less ego shows up when women are in leadership roles, which allows us to get to the actual work,” she says.
Still, the fact that Denver has never elected a female mayor isn’t lost on Ridder. While she believes Johnston, who beat Kelly Brough in a runoff election, was the best candidate, “It is disappointing we haven’t broken that glass ceiling,” she says. “[That] is why it’s so important that we as women leaders, and the mayor himself, work to build a pipeline of talented female leaders who can and will transform Denver.” Fostering potential is one reason Johnston prioritized hiring the most qualified and diverse candidates for his staff, Ridder says, and all four women plan to mentor promising leaders, one of whom could become Denver’s first female mayor. “When people see women, people of color, and folks who don’t traditionally have opportunities to serve in leadership roles be in said roles,” Forde says, “it changes the trajectory of folks who think, Oh, I can do that.”
For a literal illustration of just how far Denver’s city government has already come, you only need to visit Tipper’s office. While going through boxes of yellowed files she’d inherited from her predecessor, she found an organizational chart for the department from 1979. “There’s probably 50 people, and there’s not one woman who’s an attorney on the whole chart,” Tipper says. Instead of tossing it, she hung it in her office. “I leave it as this extraordinary reminder of all that’s changed.”