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The Denver mayor on a 16th Street Mall facelift, working with Governor Hickenlooper, and legalizing marijuana. Interview by Luc Hatlestad
Earlier today you announced the National Western Stock Show is committed to staying in Denver. How did that happen?
When we came into office, we had the big flag raised about the stock show wanting to move to Aurora. It was important for us to not panic. We made some pivotal decisions that sent a strong message to the stock show that we were going to take our time to try to understand their case. And then it became clear that we needed to get some deeper review and analysis.
Ron Williams came in to lead the stock show after the untimely passing of Jerry McMorris. Ron is clear-eyed and collaborative. And so we had these two parallel efforts, which arrived at the same conclusion: We can do better, and if we bring the stock show into the fold of the conventions and special events, we can create a more sustainable path forward. We don’t know yet what the grand plan will be, but some good decisions have been made so far.
Related to that, potentially, is what to do about I-70 through the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.
I think that’s separate. CDOT is undergoing its own review on a plan to bring I-70 just below grade. You have River North planning, and my vision to redevelop the Brighton Boulevard corridor, or at least get it to a more visually acceptable entry into downtown. All those things working together create opportunity for the stock show, as well as for I-70.
What are the plans for the Brighton Boulevard corridor?
It’s a great opportunity to shift the paradigm—it’s not so much how everything fits with the stock show, but how does the stock show fit with this overall vision? The Brighton corridor is one of the weakest links for our aerotropolis. There are quite a few plans for that area to create residential as well as commercial development. But what we haven’t done yet is maximize the river up there.
As for the aerotropolis, you’ve had some successes in opening DIA up to become more international.
From DIA, we can get anywhere in the world within 16 hours, and there aren’t many airports in the world that can say that. And if we can create a development community that attracts international companies, now you’ve got a reason for people all over the world to come here and do business. We got nonstop flights to Tokyo earlier than I would have projected, and Icelandair has had a 475 percent increase in flights between Denver and Reykjavik. And in December, DIA starts flights to Mexico City. The next stop is South America, particularly Brazil.
What are the goals of the Denver Education Compact (DEC)?
It’s focused on early childhood education, recognizing that if we’re really going to impact the achievement gap in Denver, we really need to get to it before it starts. The DEC comprises people from universities, professionals, and CEOs who get that we’ve got to make sure kids are ready to hit the ground running when they walk into kindergarten. In Texas they look at third-grade reading scores, and from there they’re able to determine in the next 13 to 15 years how many jail beds they’ll need. And they’re dead-on every time.
One of the more pressing things you’ve faced has been public safety and the city’s police department. What changes have you made there?
I’m awfully proud of chief Robert White [see page 50], as well as manager of safety Alexander Martinez, and the police department. Chief White brings such steadiness, leadership, and a sense of basic operations of a police department and how to put men and women in the best place possible to serve the public. Many officers have told me they’re proud of the changes being made; they’re excited about the opportunities. If I walked away from this office today, that would be my proudest accomplishment.
The 16th Street Mall is a mixed bag; in some ways it’s improving, in some ways it’s stagnant. What’s your plan for that?
We are working with the Downtown Denver Partnership and Tami Door. The passage of Measure 2A allows us to take a very serious look at law enforcement and physical improvements on the mall. It’s been 30 years since any major improvements on that mall have occurred. It needs it, quite frankly, and it’s probably a five- to seven-year process to do it. We’re going to sit down with them and figure out a joint public/private partnership. The mall is our number one tourist attraction, and its return on investment is exponential.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for the city and for yourself in 2013?
We want to be good stewards of the resources of the 2A initiative and work on fine-tuning the fiscal operation to restore the reserves of the city, as well as some critical services. We also will continue to improve our customer service and make this a more customer-friendly city. Whether it’s paying your taxes online, getting your permits online, permitting parks, paying parking tickets—all those things that are necessary to keep you from having to come downtown and stand in lines. You’ll continue to see us get deep into youth services; we’re going to unveil some exciting summer programming for kids that we’re doing in partnership with the private sector. And we want to get the development at Ninth and Colorado taken care of.
What can the city of Denver do to help see Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana in this state, through to a reasonable arrangement for Denverites and the federal government?
The jury is still out on how the federal government is going to respond to the legalization of marijuana. To be honest, we don’t know yet. The people have spoken, and we’ll work with them. Right now we’re just looking at our policies, figuring out how we might regulate it. We don’t know yet, but the federal government’s going to have a clear voice in all this and we’re waiting to hear what they think.
What were the biggest challenges when you first started?
There hasn’t been a bigger supporter and partner than Governor Hickenlooper. He’s always available for me to call and say, “Give me some guidance on this.” He’s been very candid and open and honest. The transition wasn’t that challenging for me because I came from city council. My personal life changed dramatically, and my family’s life changed; it was a whole different set of demands and obligations. No one can ever prepare you for that.
On the professional side, it takes a while to settle into such a strong executive position, with a leadership structure that really allows the executive to make a difference. You have to figure out your bandwidth and what to focus on. The key is to focus on a few things. That’s why we were able to do things like capture the Tokyo flight. Focus, get it done, and let’s move on. Obviously, things come up that distract you, but when you get a chance you go right back to the plan.
Has anything really surprised you, either positively or negatively?
The very first half day I was in office, we had the incident at the Denver Zoo [in which a man died after being immobilized by a stun gun by police, who were investigating a domestic violence accusation against him]. Talk about a reality check. And the unfortunate shooting of officer Selena Hollis was tough. And then we went through the Aurora movie theater shootings, and though it wasn’t on Denver’s land, we are a region and we felt it just as painfully.
No matter how painfully we are impacted as individuals, the people look to you for leadership. You must gather yourself, show strength, and say, “We’re going to get through this,” while at the same time showing compassion for those who have been impacted.
I could not have been prepared for walking into the hospital and being immediately directed to the daughter of Selena Hollis and talking to that 12-year-old. Those are the tragedies you pray on and you hope don’t happen in your city or surrounding areas. Unfortunately they do, and we’ve got to get through them.
But then there are always the great times, too. You celebrate the Denver to Tokyo flights, the first presidential debate coming to Denver last year, the landing of the patent office, Peyton Manning, Tim Tebow. Those are the moments where you’re like, “Gosh, it’s great to be mayor of this city.”
The CEO of the Boulder- and Barcelona-based Garmin-Sharp Professional Cycling Team on getting married, drug testing in American sports, and a man named Lance Armstrong. Interview by Geoff Van Dyke
This was a big year for you: You got married.
Yeah, I got married in the Northwoods in Wisconsin in October.
It was a beautiful fall wedding. We had our rehearsal dinner at this place called Marty’s Place North, a classic Wisconsin supper club, and we had a fish fry. We were down in what was like the private dining room in the basement, and a fight broke out upstairs. It was fun. It was a real Wisconsin experience.
You had a few other big things happen this year. You wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times in which you admitted to doping during your career as a professional cyclist. Did people close to you know this piece was coming out?
I actually forgot to tell my parents. I spent so much effort telling every sponsor, every investor, people I knew, people I thought would be affected—I literally just forgot to tell my parents.
And how did that work out?
Well, my parents are very kind people, and they were fine with it. My mom was just always concerned for my well-being, and my parents have both always been about the decision-making process. If the decision-making process is good, then they’re happy for you. If it’s impulsive, then they don’t like it. So it was more that I had to explain to her the decision-making process of writing the piece than what had happened a decade ago.
What was that process?
There were huge problems—massive loopholes—in the anti-doping structure, and I took advantage of those loopholes, and I’m not proud of it. But, now, let’s fix that.
There was this drip-drip-drip with regard to pro cycling and doping revelations this year. Your Times piece, and then Tyler Hamilton’s book, The Secret Race. I read that and I thought, with regard to microdosing: Every elite athlete everywhere is doping.
Tyler’s book is excellent, and I’m glad it came out. But what it doesn’t mention is that there have been a lot of people caught microdosing.
Even so. I’m a baseball fan, and I was thinking, well if these guys are using a little bit of testosterone….
They may be, I don’t know. But, look: You’re never going to get purity in anything, ever. To me there are two goals of anti-doping. One is to make sure the competition is fair and the best person wins: the best athlete on the best team with the best strategy, the best tactics, the best equipment, the best training. Two is to make sure the athletes’ health is protected. Now, with testing the way it is, you still may be able to dope, but does it matter? Doping doesn’t provide an advantage like it used to.
What’s your take on testing in sports like baseball or American football?
Let me start off by saying I admire and appreciate the players unions and the fact that they’ve protected the rights of the players in those sports. That’s something that cycling needs to emulate. Now, with that said: The anti-doping that’s in place in those sports is a joke. In American league sports, the testing they have now is equivalent to the testing that cycling had in the mid-1980s.
What would you say to mainstream sports journalists like Rick Reilly who’ve basically said, “Everyone was doping during that era of cycling. Who cares?”
The argument that everyone was doing it, so it was a level playing field, is total bullshit. Let’s imagine that you and I drink this bottle of wine, and then we go have cocktails afterward, and you wake up with a wicked hangover and so do I. You go and you take two aspirin and so do I. Do two aspirin work for you when you have a really wicked headache?
It does for me. It’s the same thing with doping. One guy takes EPO [erythropoietin, a drug that increases red blood cell count and thus increases endurance] and he gets a 20 percent advantage. Another guy takes EPO and gets a two percent boost. Is that fair? No.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s “Reasoned Decision” against Lance Armstrong was released in October, which led to him being stripped of his seven Tour de France wins. What happens next for Armstrong?
If Lance decided to step forward, to be honest, and to be part of the solution, he should be treated with the same fairness as the other people who’ve decided to come forward. But he’s been offered that opportunity, and he refused it. I can’t say why; it makes no sense to me. No matter what, Lance would have been a great bike racer. Would he have won seven Tours? That’s impossible to say. But would he have won some bike races, one way or the other? Sure. And would he have done that as a cancer survivor? Yes. To me, why is that any more or less impressive than winning seven Tours de France? I just don’t think he thinks of it that way. I think he felt like he needed to go beyond what was humanly possible
Do you ever feel sorry for him?
For sure. Absolutely. But the process was fair and just.
Now you’re running a clean team, with a zero-tolerance policy for doping.
Every year, we sit down the entire organization and I say, “Everyone look to your left, look to your right. You see those people? If there’s a doping scandal in this organization in any way, shape, or form, they lose their jobs. So are you personally willing to take the responsibility for 120 people losing their jobs? Do you want that on your conscience? If you don’t, then please consider your actions.” If someone tests positive on this team, we’re not going to ask for an appeal and drag it out. If that happened, everyone would pack their bags the next day and go home. It’d be done. It’d be over.
It seems like it’d be a huge relief for racers today to not have to worry about all that.
Well that’s just it. At the dinner table with this younger generation, doping is never a topic anymore. That’s a way healthier place for the sport to be. I’m incredibly envious of those guys and the way the sport is right now. I wish I could relive my career.
The woman who last year bought Echo Mountain on rope tows, passion buys, and the healing power of skiing. Interview by Chris Outcalt
So, you bought a ski mountain?
Yeah, it’s been a challenge, but it’s going to be great. We have about 200 skiers training in the next few weeks—people coming from places like Montana, Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont, and Maine.
How did it all happen?
My kids and I were at a summer ski camp in Mount Hood, Oregon. After two days, my daughter wanted to stay longer. I went to the coach and said, “Can you work with the girls one day a month just to supplement training?” She said, “I’d love to but there’s no lane space.” I called Echo, because we were training here on Wednesday nights, and found out it was up for auction.
Is there a lot of work that needs to be done on the mountain?
We had some big capital expenditures this year. We put in a rope tow: You can get from the bottom to our slalom lanes in a minute and 40 seconds, and then you can get to the top in three minutes. The chairlift was about eight minutes. Our rope tow will be 1,000 feet per minute. It’s faster than a high-speed quad.
Have you ever thought: What the hell am I doing?
My husband thinks that all the time. But, honestly, I haven’t regretted it at all. It’s definitely a field of dreams—build it and they will come. There hasn’t been one day where I thought: God, this was stupid.
So you plan on hanging on to this property for a while?
I have people all the time ask me what my exit strategy is. I don’t have an exit strategy because this could be in my family for the next 30 years. I hope my kids will run this. This was definitely a passion buy. I’m not looking to flip this. I just want to make sure that everyone who is on the mountain has an amazing experience.
Are you a skier? Where’d you grow up?
I grew up outside of Colorado Springs and I never skied. I rode horses. But my husband is a die-hard skier, and when I started dating him I started skiing. I was horrible.
It’s a beautiful spot.
Yeah. You know, my brother has brain cancer. Four times doctors have said he’s not going to live through the week. But the first time he left the house, he said to a friend of mine, “I want to go get a ski pass.” So he went and bought a ski pass. We went up to Vail and he was wild. He’s like, “I’m alive,” and just took off.
You could see a difference right away?
Oh, my gosh, yeah. It really helped him rehabilitate. Just being up here and getting the fresh air, it just gives him so much energy. And that’s honestly when I was really like, “Wow, I love being up here.”
The co-founder and chef of Capitol Hill’s Potager dishes about owning chickens and goats, Food Network competitions, and how food and community are inexorably intertwined. Interview by Geoff Van Dyke
You just put your chickens in for the night. What else do you have at your house?
I have two gardens. One has fruit: raspberries and strawberries and rhubarb. The other is a vegetable garden. And then in two weeks, I’ll have goats for milk.
You opened Potager 15 years ago, and you’ve always been deliberate about the farmers and the people who raise the meat for your restaurant. Is that part of a larger philosophical framework?
It is. I believe that’s the right thing to do. I believe that our bodies are made to eat what we grow in our communities, locally and seasonally. We’ve gotten so far away from that, our culture now is suffering the consequences and a multitude of health problems. I believe we’re made to eat real food, whole foods in season, and we will be healthy. That’s how we take care of our communities. That’s how we care for each other.
Is part of eating healthy an economic issue?
That is a big challenge for our society. But it’s not so much the cost as the accessibility. Poorer families in poorer parts of the city don’t have access to fresh produce, good produce. There are a lot of organizations around Denver that are trying to do community gardens and things like that in low-income places, and now you can get food stamps for farmers’ markets.
You started your first restaurant, in Columbia, Missouri, with your father.
We opened Trattoria Strada Nova when I was 28, and we were the first place in Columbia to sell wine by the glass. We had an espresso machine. We had these guys helping us build the place out, and they’d say, “No one’s going to buy a cappuccino. No one’s going to pay five dollars for a glass of wine.” We didn’t do any media before the opening; no marketing. And we had a line out the door the first night.
You didn’t do media then, and you don’t really do any media now. Why is that?
Media is such an ego thing, and I just don’t really like to engage in that.
There’s almost this cult of personality because of these TV shows today.
I don’t think the Food Network has done cooking any great favors, and it’s turned out some really terrible chefs. It’s not so much the Food Network, though, as it’s the competitions. No one emphasizes the most basic things about cooking. Now we’ve got all these people calling themselves chefs that have no skill, no basic techniques, no real restaurant experience, and no experience managing people: all the things that make a really good chef.
We’ve talked about some of the challenges facing us when it comes to eating. What can we be optimistic about?
The conversation has started. People are talking about what they should or shouldn’t eat. People are gardening. People are talking about gardens, or they’re going to the farmers’ market. That’s a big thing. That’s what makes me hopeful.
The Denver-based, Academy Award–winning director (for the documentary short Saving Face) talks about awards, Star Wars, and why Colorado may, in fact, be the best place in the world to be a filmmaker. Interview by Daliah Singer
Where did you get the idea for Saving Face?
I knew about the phenomena of acid violence, but I wasn’t endeavoring to make a film until several years ago, when I heard, on the BBC, the biggest radio story of the year. It was on Katie Piper, a model who was attacked on the streets of London with acid. She cited her hero as Dr. Mohammad Jawad. So I called him. And that’s where the adventure began.
It’s certainly a heavy topic, but there are wonderful, bright moments in Saving Face.
I think the power of the film comes from the fact that there’s some amount of redemption. It’s obviously a horrendous social malady, but the fact that we were able to find people who were fighting—and fighting successfully—really helps. With human rights films, there needs to be some element of hope. People switch off otherwise.
You’re walking into a situation where these women have experienced absolute horror, often at the hands of a man and/or a loved one. How did you develop trust?
I had some amount of trust because I was on Dr. Jawad’s hip. But it became immediately apparent that I needed a partner on the ground, preferably a woman. I got to work with Pakistan’s best filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. I’ve worked with in-country partners on a lot of my films. I think there’s an ethical imperative there, especially in developing countries, but also, the films are always better because there’s somebody on the inside helping you out.
Tell me about the Oscar experience.
It’s phenomenal to be nominated, but winning really is the coup de grace. It’s just a great recognition of the work of my team and me. A small human rights film like this suddenly has a much more visible stature and a global audience because of that award.
It’s difficult to get people, strangers, to open up. When you put a camera in their faces, it tends to add another layer of tension. How do you cross that bridge?
I’m constantly surprised that people want their stories heard, especially when people are downtrodden and they’ve had their rights stomped on. I also introduce myself to people with my camera in hand. I’m the guy with the camera. That’s how I establish my relationship and try to forge an intimacy. The subjects know full well that I’m a filmmaker first and foremost.
What was the first moviegoing experience that really stuck with you?
The formative filmmaking experience of my lifetime was Star Wars, and I say that with some guilt. It was an incredibly important film for me as a child. But, moreover, it was the first film that also came with this whole culture of discussing how the film was made. We not only got to enjoy the big-screen experience, but all of us, of all ages, who enjoyed that film got to see it deconstructed as well. I think that created a lot of filmmakers.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a film [Fight Church] on the intersection of Christianity and mixed martial arts or cage fighting. I’m making a film with [editor] Davis Coombe in Jamaica on a school for disadvantaged boys that helped give birth to reggae; a lot of great Jamaican music legends have come out of this one school. I’m also doing some lighter, more populist films. I’m doing a film on Evel Knievel, and I’m doing the official Lego documentary with the Lego company. Although I aspire to make a feature, my current goal is to make bigger, more broadly populist documentaries.
Do people often tell you that you should move to Hollywood?
The question is usually posed in this way: “Are you from New York or L.A.?” And then when I say that I’m from Denver, it usually invokes the reaction like a dog hearing a high-pitched noise. But what we’re seeing, especially in the documentary industry, is a real decentralization. The tools now are available for people all over the country and all over the world to make these films. Now, if you can live anywhere in the world, why wouldn’t you live in Denver?
Is it just the technology that’s helping the filmmaking culture grow in Colorado?
I think that there’s a synergy right now in Denver. We’re not working necessarily together, but we’re all working alongside each other and we’re seeing each other. I get so amped by seeing other filmmakers’ work from Colorado, and, in some ways, it’s also just a challenge to make better films. There’s certainly something to the community as well.
I’ve heard the same sentiment—the sense of community here—from many people who work in creative fields in Colorado. It’s an interesting dynamic.
Absolutely. I think there’s recognition that in some ways we’re in the bush here and that we need to be a community.
What’s your advice to young filmmakers here and elsewhere?
I always say, “Don’t wait for anyone to say yes.” You’ve got to pick up the camera and start making your film. That’s what I did. You’ve got to make your own yeses.
The Denver Police chief sounds off on his past, learning to be a cop, and his vision for the department. Interview by Robert Sanchez
You grew up in Washington, D.C., without a father. How did your mother influence your life?
She believed you could be anything you wanted to be, but in order to get there, you need to understand that life is not about entitlements. Preparation for her was to work hard—harder than the person next to you—be respectful, and stay focused on what your goal was. Those are my values. The good things that there are about me, I got from my mother.
You started working at age 11?
I helped pay the rent. I had three paper routes: the Washington Post, the Evening Star, and the Daily News. Back in those days, you actually knocked on the front door and collected the money. I didn’t live in the nicest part of town. I got robbed a couple of times.
Why did you become a cop?
I was born in Richmond, Virginia, and right before we moved, when I was six, I was downtown with my mother and we saw this little girl and a police officer. I asked my mother, “How come the police officer is with the little girl? What’s wrong?” She said the girl was lost and the police officer was going to help. I decided that’s what I wanted to do.
What was your scariest moment as a police officer?
I was working with a younger officer, and it was the Fourth of July. I heard this fire. I thought they were firecrackers, and the guy says, “No, they’re guns!” I’m thinking I’m a seasoned officer at 24 years old. I said, “Man, you need to calm down. It’s the Fourth of July.” We look across the intersection, and I see a guy on his knees. There’s another guy with a gun, holding it to his head. He shoots the guy and he takes off. I chase the guy to this alley. This guy pops up behind an abandoned car and puts a gun to my head and pulls the trigger. It misfires. I chase him and eventually catch him. I go back to the station, and the sergeant says, “Hey, White, you might want to go home and change your clothes.” I said, “What are you talking about?” I looked down and my clothes were soaking wet. I apparently let everything inside me come out when that trigger went click. I guess everything in me went click, too.
You were once falsely accused of using marijuana. How did that shape your perception of the law?
It was my worst nightmare. But after I got over that, the good that came out of it is it reminded me that there are two sides to every story. I truly believe in due process.
You last worked as a chief in Louisville, Kentucky. Why did you come to Denver?
I’m a change agent. Normally if I get hired, it’s by some city manager or some mayor who wants to change something in their agency. I will tell you that, in Denver, I wasn’t hired to fix a broken department. The department’s not broken. I was hired to make a good department better.
Police abuse had been a lowlight of this department, though.
There’s a perception I inherited a department with a systemic problem in excessive force. Do we have a problem with excessive force? Yes, just like every major department in America. Is it systemic? I don’t believe so. I think the biggest problem we have in our department is communication.
Officers do not know how to communicate with people the right way, and that’s the biggest problem we have. I think the big disconnect in law enforcement is we do a great job in training people on the legality of the law, but what we don’t do is stress the necessity of the law. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s necessary.
You want to hire more cops, put more officers on the streets. But it seems you’ve been looking for a buy-in from politicians before getting it from the rank and file.
I’ve got to survive. I’m trying to create a constituency, knowing that change is tough. People are victims of their own environment. If this is the way we’ve done it in Denver for the last 40 years, people are comfortable with that. So, when you introduce a change, people are resistant. It was a matter of coming in and assessing where we were and where we needed to go.
You have 1,400 people in the DPD. How many of them should be on the streets?
Around 70 percent. When I first got here, it was 48 percent. Now it’s 63 percent, so we’re going to get there. Officers need to be out in these communities. That’s how you get to know the citizens. Getting officers close to the community is how you become effective at fighting and preventing crime.
Are there bad officers here?
Police officers are no different from doctors, teachers, or reporters. There are some who shouldn’t be officers. Part of my job is to see that they are no longer police officers. The great majority of men and women in this department come to work and they want to do the right thing. The train is going down the track. If you’re not on board, you need to get out of the way. And we’re going to help you get out of the way.
The CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation on urban politics, getting the Colorado Rockies, and race in Denver. Interview by Katy Neusteter
Nice to meet you.
I assume you get this question all the time, but why in the hell would anyone find me interesting?
I’ll try to make this painless. Let’s start with how you made your way to Denver.
I was born in Minne-so-ta. I never dated a brunette until I went to co-llege. I was a Luthe-ran.
Yah! Actually, I started out as a political organizer in Chicago.
Any Windy City run-ins?
In 1974, I was running a campaign against the Richard J. Daley Sr. political machine. The day our candidate was kicking off her campaign, she walked in with both arms in casts. She said she couldn’t be our candidate because she had fallen. Actually, the goons had broken her arms to keep her from running. That was my introduction to Chicago politics. The politics in Colorado are played with a small “d” and a small “r.” The view of opportunity is strikingly different here. In Chicago, the mindset is, “If you win something, I lose.” Colorado is more about sharing great opportunities.
So what’s on your highlight reel from the past 20 years?
Of course, getting the Rockies was the most fun. I still have the original major league application. But I think, obviously, the biggest win was DIA. None of us could have ever really imagined this, but it turned out to be the best, most extraordinary invention since the Moffat Tunnel more than 100 years ago.
How long has the Denver-Tokyo flight been in the works?
Roy Romer and I first met with Japan Airlines in 1986, and our host fell asleep during our presentation. Shows you the level of interest they had in Colorado.
Demographics are already shaping state politics. What will age, in particular, mean for Denver’s economic development?
Everyone is worried about the baby boomers retiring and not having anybody to replace them. But younger folks are moving here in droves. That will differentiate Denver from the Midwest and large portions of the Northeast and South. Plus, younger people tend to be tech-savvy, more liberal, and more oriented to public transit. That’s going to change us dramatically.
We have a long heritage of Hispanic citizens and leadership. When you’re trying to compete globally, you need a diversity of people living in your metropolitan area. If you’re all looking like skim milk on a January day, it’s not a good thing. With this impending shortage of labor nationwide, it will be very important that we find a way to move first-generation kids into the middle class by adulthood.
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.
A Colorado Springs Fire Department battalion chief on the Waldo Canyon fire: the blaze that defied all logic. Interview by Lindsey R. McKissick
How do you explain the fire to people who weren’t inside the relief efforts?
It’s like a wedding reception: Unless you were there dancing, having a good time, listening to the music, living in the passion of the moment, it’s hard to explain.
When you first heard about the Waldo Canyon fire, where were you?
I’m on an incident management team and I’m the battalion chief here. I was up on the High Park fire with our Type 1 team. It was a beautiful sunny day. I got out on an area road and I could see the header on the smoke column all the way down the Front Range. It looked like a thunderstorm, but I knew it was fire smoke.
You got to the scene and realized the Waldo Canyon fire didn’t fit the normal characteristics of a wildfire. The smoke column, which is usually up in the air, had been sheered off by a thunderstorm, and the smoke column collapsed on the city. It was superheated with ash and debris. It was heavy smoke.
Is there a specific event that sticks out when you remember the fire?
The most significant negative was when I had to drive up a street alone. I had the air conditioner on. The glass in the truck was getting so hot I couldn’t touch it. I drove up the road looking down these tubes of fire. The streets were on fire. I was fighting to look down those streets because I thought for sure I was going to see one of our engines burned over with firefighters. I didn’t want to see that, I didn’t want to find that. Luckily, I didn’t. That was terrifying.
Many of the pictures showed just one house on an entire block that was spared. How does the fire decide?
The wind eddies blow around. If you have ever been playing softball when a thunderstorm comes, the guy out in left field may not have any wind on him, but all the infielders are eating dust. It was just a little air pocket that saved that particular house.
When did you know the fire was anchored?
There was a key house. The fire was moving up the hill on both sides of the street. It was a major boulevard called Flying W Ranch Road, and if the fire had gotten into the next neighborhood to the east, we were going to have real control problems. This engine from Lake Tahoe just pulled up out of nowhere. It was a little divine intervention, a little luck or something. This green engine with forest service guys, me, and a couple of guys in a utility truck from Colorado Springs got together to save this house. If that house had started to go, it would have started a chain reaction we couldn’t have stopped.
Had you planned for a fire in Waldo Canyon and the surrounding neighborhoods?
It’s an area we had pre-planned for, for a lot of years. If the fire had behaved like most fires, where the column stays airborne and the fire front slowly moves toward you, you have a chance to set up your perimeters and anchor points. You can prepare for that. To know what just happened in that neighborhood, you almost start to second-guess what’s going on—people burning to death, firefighters trapped, all the worst-case scenarios that are a possibility are going on right in front of me. We just reverted back to, “Go to work.”
You can keep training firefighters, but what’s most important for the public to know?
We have to warn the public. Public information is one of the biggest things. People don’t heed the warning. They have to help themselves. They are going to have to start taking the responsibilities on themselves in all environments. Wildland is one of them.
How do you explain the catastrophe the fire victims have endured?
These were just innocent civilians that had a really bad weather day and it turned into an experience similar to war. There was an expectation to come home and have dinner, hug their kids, and walk their dogs. By the middle of the afternoon, they realized that they weren’t coming back, they were never coming back. All these pieces of these people’s lives, their history, their lives moving forward, were just cut so fast. I don’t know how you would prepare for that.
Six months have passed; does the burn area ever catch your eye?
I look at it every day when I come to work. The time I drive to work, as the sun comes up in the east—it illuminates that whole burned side. You can’t help but look at it. I can see the beautiful red earth tones that you couldn’t before because of the trees. It’s changed the look of the land forever.
Is it a scar?
Well, I don’t know. We had some successes. The statisticians say we saved 80 percent of the houses. In my mind, a lot of people lost their homes. That was much more significant than what some statistician said we saved. I look at it like a large loss.
Could it happen again?
There was some unprecedented weather leading up to that event. We’ve had a long drought. We’ve had extremely dry, hot temperatures and windy days. There was a dry spring with no snowpack. The stars were lining up for this one. But if it happened once, it sure could happen again.
The 92-year-old bassist, who was one of the first African-Americans to play in any American symphony orchestra, still delights in telling story after story about his extraordinary life. Interview by Luc Hatlestad
How were you introduced to music?
My whole life has been a fluke; I didn’t plan anything. One day, growing up in Detroit, the band teacher at my junior high school said they had some instruments left and asked if anyone wanted to play. Lo and behold, there was an old aluminum bass in the corner. You couldn’t wreck it. I took lessons right away. My mom told me, “If you want to be a musician, you have to do it right.” I was only 12 years old, but I paid my own way, 25 cents a lesson. I carried the bass in a little red wagon all through junior high because I couldn’t carry it by myself.
Where did you find the money for that?
Selling rags, bottles, just hustling. I did errands for people, anything that had to be done. Plus, I had a little secret: We lived near the railroad tracks, and when the train would slow down, my younger brother and I—he’s only 90 now—would climb up on it and throw off coal, then pick it up and sell it.
What was it about music that caught your attention at such a young age?
I’d won an old crystal set radio by selling candy, and I was playing it when I heard something that struck my fancy. I didn’t know then that it was the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by the marvelous Pierre Monteux, but that’s what hooked me. It was Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, and I said to myself, “One day I’d like to play for that man.”
Did you have any idea what an uphill climb that would be?
Oh, no. But my mother said, “Son, you can do anything you want to do, but just make sure you give to it every day.” And that’s what I did for the next 20 years. I stuck with it until I learned how to play jazz, which is what helped me in the classical world, because I was making money and putting beans on the table. There were no blacks in the symphony then, or working at the radio stations. But that didn’t bother me. I just practiced and practiced.
How did you land in Denver?
Around 1949, I came because my mother had been born here, and I’d always wanted to visit. I got a job at Fitzsimons Hospital, pushing bedpans. I met a fellow, John VanBuskirk, on a trolley car. He had a long case that I recognized as a bow case, so I struck up a conversation. I started studying with him, and he asked me if I’d like to play with the local symphony. Biggest shock in the world, but I said I’d do it. He arranged for me to have an audition with Saul Caston, who was one of the first white men to help break the color barriers in orchestras. It was a two-hour audition, but he talked to me for one hour and 55 minutes, and then told me to play a G scale slowly, two octaves. Took me five minutes. That was it. He said, “I can use you.” Scared the living shit out of me. I wasn’t ready, but he took a chance on me.
So for the hour and 55 minutes he was talking about music?
Life. He was psyching me out, but I know all about that; I’m from the ghetto. I spent 10 years with the symphony, from 1949 to ’59, and for a while I played in the first mixed-race jazz trio in Colorado. One of the musicians was Al Rose, whose niece is Diana DeGette.
You were playing clubs around town?
Clubs my ass, baby. These were joints.
How did you end up in San Francisco?
I went to L.A. to study with a famous teacher, Herman Reinshagen. For an audition, he gave me a song, “Old Black Joe.” Does that tell you something? The San Francisco Symphony came down there every summer for a few weeks, and when I was there, Arthur Fiedler had also come as a guest conductor. They were short a bassist—I later learned it was because no one wanted to play with him because he was such an asshole. They asked me to do the summer season with Fiedler. After that, they invited me up to San Francisco. After one or two years with the symphony, they announced that the Pierre Monteux was going to be a guest conductor. I had the pleasure of playing under him for about a week, and I said to my mother, “Mom, my life is complete.” I’d spent so many years trying to get to that mark, and it was the culmination of my ambition.
Dede de Percin
The executive director of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative (CCHI) on Obamacare, doing the right thing, and speaking up for yourself. Interview by Jessica Farmwald
What were your influences growing up?
I was raised Catholic, and those essential values—with privilege comes responsibility, those pieces around social justice—were actually a really good framework for the work that I do now. The piece I didn’t like as much about the Catholic faith, that had maybe an anti-influence, was that I don’t like other people making choices for me. If you don’t speak up and aren’t engaged, then somebody else is going to make that decision for you.
Any especially formative moments?
I grew up just outside Washington, D.C., in the suburbs of Maryland, and we had a maid, a woman of color, who came out to clean our house once a week. This is back in the ’60s, right around the time of the riots in downtown D.C. My father came home from work one day, and my mother said, “I co-signed a loan for Mrs. Mitchell so they could buy a house.” My father said, “What?” And she said, “She couldn’t get a loan because she’s African-American, and that was just wrong.” I’m sure there was a lot more conversation about it, but my mother was just like, That’s it. I’m going downtown, and I’m fixing this.
Of all the causes you’ve championed over the years, which is closest to your heart?
The one I’m immersed in right now is the most important and urgent to me. I’ve done systems change before in other arenas, but the health system is not one system. It’s about a dozen different systems that were all going in different directions, not working together. And the brilliance and challenge of the Affordable Care Act was to put a framework around virtually all those systems and try to turn them all in a single direction.
What role does CCHI play for the state?
We’re a coalition of about 50 members [for example, the Autism Society of Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union]. And our policy committee operates by consensus. So while sometimes finding that consensus is difficult, when we get there, having the majority of 50 member organizations behind something is incredibly strong.
What’s unique about Colorado’s health-care situation?
We had already done a lot of things before the Affordable Care Act that were in the Affordable Care Act, so we were well positioned to take advantage of it. We have also moved forward in a bipartisan way; Colorado is the only state, to date, that has passed a bipartisan exchange bill. That makes us a model for a lot of other states.
Does anyone lose when it comes to the Affordable Care Act?
There aren’t a lot of losers. The insurance companies supported it. The doctors supported it. Nobody liked everything in it; but everybody liked something in it. What I will say for almost everybody is that their business model is going to have to change. Maybe the very bad actors in every sector lose, but I’m OK with that.
You say putting patients first is a revolution that needs to happen in health care.
It’s a changing of the model when you talk about patient-centered care. There’s a great quote that I stole: For too long in health care, patients have been the football, and they ought to be the quarterback. I like to use this example. The several times I’ve had surgery, on the way out the door, when I’m groggy, they’re like, “And here’s your prescription, go get that filled, but stay off your feet for three days.” The assumption that someone is going to do that for me and walk my dog and bring me groceries—they haven’t asked those questions. If we have shared decision-making, we have more patient empowerment.
Shouldn’t people take responsibility for their own health?
Part of it is individual responsibility. But people need to be in a stable and reasonable situation—not working three jobs and raising two kids—in order to make life changes. We need systems that work with us and not against us. And right now the systems work against us a lot of the time.
The dean of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and former ambassador to Iraq on the global hot spots for 2013. Interview by Luc Hatlestad
How did you decide to make the move into academia?
I’d had a 33-year career in the Foreign Service, I was in my fourth ambassadorship—I’d been in Macedonia, Poland, and South Korea prior to Iraq—and I didn’t want a fifth. I got a call from an associate of Madeleine Albright, who asked if I’d be interested in being the dean at the University of Denver’s international studies program, so I looked into it. I had never been to Denver before, came out here, called my wife, and said, “We really ought to think about this place,” and here I am.
Tell me about your career.
I joined the Foreign Service after the Peace Corps. In the mid-’90s I worked on the Bosnian peace settlements with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and we also worked together on the Dayton Peace Accords. From there I went on to Macedonia and did some of the same things in Kosovo, again trying to get the Serbs and Albanians to be on the same sheet of music. I was in Poland when 9/11 happened. Poland became one of the only countries to join the United States during the actual war in Iraq. Then I went to South Korea, where I negotiated with the North Koreans.
How do you acclimate yourself to all these new places?
You crack books, put yourself in listening mode, meet a lot of people, and learn to recognize patterns. As different as they all sound, there are similar patterns in trying to convince people to do things they don’t want to do and to make sure that they think you are looking for a solution. Given that America’s considered a very strong and big country, it helps to speak with a soft voice and not just wag your finger at them. That kind of behavior doesn’t go very far.
We just ended a campaign in which it was suggested that a measured approach like that might be called apologism. Is that just campaign trail nonsense?
I don’t think effective diplomats ever go around apologizing. At the same time, we shouldn’t go around bragging, or go around shaking our fists. You try to make sure that people understand what your objectives are, and why the United States has a continuing interest. Our people don’t go around apologizing, so I think to some extent that was campaign rhetoric.
What are our most pressing diplomatic issues in the coming year?
This problem of nuclear aspirations by Iran is very destabilizing in the region. And Syria has become a sectarian civil war where you have Sunnis against Shia and some of the nastier sides of the historical legacy of the Middle East being played out. If we don’t solve Syria, the problem could metastasize into places like Lebanon and, unfortunately, Iraq. The China relationship is absolutely crucial to our future. It’s too big to fail.
The Denver Nuggets general manager on hoops, his work in Africa, and the time he thought he’d blown his chance to lead the Nugs. Interview by Robert Sanchez
Your mother was a nurse, and your father was a nursing educationist in Nigeria. How did they react when you said you wanted to play basketball?
African parents are all about school, and sports is generally something on the side. I had curfews to study, but they understood. They saw the love I had for basketball. Growing up, I followed the NBA. I read magazines and I got videos, like Come Fly With Me with Michael Jordan.
You moved to the United States as a teenager to attend school and play ball, but you’d been here before.
One of the first times I came here, I visited a family friend who was living in Idaho. When I got there, the first thing I wondered was, “Where’s MTV? Where’s Bill Cosby?”
You played college ball here, then you played professionally in Europe, and then you became an NBA scout and later an executive. Still, you’ve always been drawn to Africa.
Five or six years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela. There were five or six of us there, all NBA personnel. The first person Nelson Mandela walked up to was [former Denver Nuggets center] Dikembe Mutombo, who’d opened a hospital in Africa, and Mandela said, “We really appreciate what you are doing for Africa. Don’t ever stop the work.” That touched me. I felt that God was paving the way for me, too, to help other people.
How did that moment change you?
I thought, I have to work harder, I have to do better, I have to strive more. Mandela couldn’t do it alone. Mutombo couldn’t do it alone. I was put in this position in Denver for a reason: to help other people.
You were offered the Nuggets job in 2010. What was that conversation like?
Paul Andrews [the team’s former CEO] calls me. We start talking money. I’m pushing a little harder; he’s pushing a little harder. He asks me if, for a certain amount of money, I’d really miss out on being the executive vice president of the Denver Nuggets. I say, “Yes, that amount of money helps me make a difference in Africa. I will walk away.” He hangs up and I hang up. I said to myself, “Have I just blown this fricking job?” Four minutes later, he calls me and says, “You’re the new executive vice president of the Denver Nuggets.”
What does being the first African general manager of a major American sports franchise mean to you?
It doesn’t mean anything. You have to make an impact. Do I want to be the first African general manager who just comes in, has the job, and is done? No. I want to win. And if I don’t impact Africa, it means absolutely nothing.
Are you a basketball missionary?
Eventually, I will be. Our dream with the Nuggets is to win a championship. My second goal is to grow the game in Africa. I pray that happens.
In quiet moments, have you ever asked yourself, “How did I get here?”
In Nigeria, I used to read about Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan. And now I’m sitting in a general managers meeting, and I look across the table, and I see Larry Bird. I’m still in awe.
You don’t worry some of these big-name sports giants are going to fleece you in an important deal?
When it comes to work, my mentality is totally different. In sports, you have to be a killer. If not, you can’t survive. There’s no other way in sports.
The president of Western Resource Advocates (WRA) on being defined by the outdoors, fracking, and working for Ralph Nader. Interview by Julie Dugdale
Was there a particular incident that sparked your passion for environmental issues and brought you back from the East Coast?
The way I grew up, in eastern Washington: camping, hiking, being at rivers and lakes. One is defined by landscape; the experience of being in wild country really sunk in. I am today the product of those experiences.
What does WRA actually do?
We’re focused on promoting clean energy, moving away from coal, and conserving water to have alternatives other than dams and reservoirs. We try to protect the land from inappropriate development. We’re solution-oriented and multidisciplinary: We’ve got economists, ecologists, hydrologists—all to figure out the best way to do all of this.
Tell us about a big project WRA is working on.
We’re on the leading edge of working on the nexus between water and energy. The water industry isn’t looking at energy, and the energy industry isn’t looking at water use. So we are thinking about the value of water in Public Utilities Commission proceedings. The lights seem to be going on; I’m proud of that project because we are way out in front.
Has working in the West changed your perspective?
There’s a big difference in water issues, per geography. The East doesn’t have the legacy of public lands that we do. I’m glad I’ve worked on both sides of the country. It’s given me an understanding—that Colorado is already a leader. What we want is for it to continue being a leader under Governor [Bill] Ritter’s “New Energy Economy.” We think Colorado can be a model for the rest of the country, but it’s going to take all of us.
Fracking is a hot-button issue in the Centennial State, and especially along the Front Range, right now. What are your thoughts on the practice?
The reality is, because of technological improvements, it’s here to stay. An approach that says “no natural gas” is unrealistic, but our ability to get the stuff out of the ground has gotten ahead of us. What do we do now to control it with an appropriate regulatory regime? If we’re going to have natural gas, it needs to be a properly used fuel—a transition to renewables. How do you do it right? It includes paying attention to health impacts, aesthetics, setbacks.
Is it frustrating trying to get through to people about the environment?
Yes, sometimes I feel like we [environmental advocates] talk only to each other. That’s a worry. Often when you’re dealing with something like climate change, the reaction is always gloom and doom. That’s a challenge. Life’s so busy. Most of us are just trying to get through the day and figure out what’s going to be on the dinner table. But you have to read; you have to understand. We need a literate, civic-minded population. No one person can solve climate change, but together we can do things that whack at it in a meaningful way.
You were one of Ralph Nader’s original “raiders”—young activists who investigated government corruption in a variety of fields under Nader’s direction.
It was my first job out of law school. Ralph’s idea was to have us work for him for a year or so, then fan out into broader society. I did environmental stuff. I was part of the original Public Interest Research Group. Today’s PIRG movement stems from that. All of us are still doing something in public interest. And Ralph is still going.
You’re probably familiar with the artist Christo’s controversial Over the River project, a proposed fabric installation above the Arkansas River in south-central Colorado that’s mired in lawsuits.
I have trouble understanding why people are so upset about it—why there’s so much opposition to it. I’ve seen Running Fence, The Umbrellas, and The Gates in New York City’s Central Park; these are incredible. They don’t permanently destroy anything. It’s just astonishing. Then it’s gone. It’s evanescent, like sound.
*Editor’s Note: A earlier version of this article included the terms “water team” and “energy team”; that text has been amended to clarify the meanings of those terms as the broader water and energy industries.
The founder of Galvanize, a collaborative workspace in the Golden Triangle, talks about not being employable, overcoming fear, and Denver’s entrepreneurial renaissance. Interview by Katy Neusteter
You’re from Chicago—how did Colorado become home?
I landed in Denver on July 22, 1998, with a bike, a snowboard, and a bag of clothes. I knew nobody, but I moved for the quality of life, and I knew I’d figure it out.
Have you always had an entrepreneurial streak?
I learned at a pretty young age I wasn’t employable. Maybe it’s the innate desire to be free. I didn’t want to have an idea and have someone tell me I couldn’t do it. I think it’s a curse sometimes.
Are you a risk-taker?
I guess in a classical sense, yes, I take risks. But to me it’s more about having the courage to step into the unknown even if I don’t have the answer or if it’s really scary. Is that risky? I suppose. But I think you can build a medium that helps people take that step.
Explain the concept behind Galvanize.
For a startup community to be successful, it needs density—one spot where people can convene, share ideas, and help each other. This is a container for that. It’s my entrepreneurial response to making Denver a better place to start a company.
Is it an “accelerator”?
Accelerators are 90-day intensive programs for teams working on fledgling ideas. At the end, they spit you out with a little capital. Galvanize isn’t an accelerator, but it could be a container for one. The confluence of things coming together here is crazy interesting. We have real estate development, venture capital, community entrepreneurship, a restaurant team, a private school. I thought this could be a good mechanism to get good deal-flow, to look at great companies, and then cherry-pick great investments on the venture side. We’re trying to create rich soil where people can grow great businesses.
But doesn’t Denver already have tons of startups?
Yes, but we’ve also had a sucking problem: We hatch a great company, and it gets sucked out due to a lack of venture capital and community.
So we need to harvest what we plant…
Look at what Groupon did for Chicago: It was born in Chicago, it grew in Chicago, it went public in Chicago. The amount of capital and energy that pumped into growing Chicago’s startup community is unbelievable. It was kerosene on their fire. And if we can do that same thing here—grow one, raise one, take it public—it will provide a deeper medium for growing more companies.
There’s an entrepreneurial renaissance taking shape here. Denver is one of the top net-gainers of millennials in the nation. They don’t want to work in gray cubicles in self-proclaimed “technological centers.” That’s a game changer. People ages 25 to 34 are more interested in doing what’s important to them. And those corporate paths are gone anyway, so these young people are being forced to create their own things—to be entrepreneurs. Plus, the same tech is available to everybody.
It’s the laptop generation, right?
When I started a software company in 1998, you had to spend a shitload of money on hardware and bandwidth. Now we all have the same access to computing power. So whoever has the talent will win. Any big company that isn’t scared about two guys working in a place like Galvanize is playing a fool’s game, because that technological ubiquity has leveled the playing field for everybody to be successful.
What’s down the road?
This isn’t some flash in the pan. I’m not trying to capitalize on a trend and make a bunch of money in a few years. If that were the case, I would lose my ass because this is not a short-term bet. Ultimately, I want to be a venture capitalist, and to do that and win, I need great talent and companies to invest in.
You like to bike and build companies. What else?
For-profit social ventures are a huge passion of mine. It’s capitalistic jujitsu. How do you take passion, creativity, and entrepreneurial energy, and solve problems that count?
You helped launch ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro downtown. What has the restaurant business taught you?
That everything can be perfectly executed, but if you don’t get the human element right, you lose. I think every business could use a dose of hospitality.
Is the business world now different than when you started?
The pace is daunting now. It’s insane how difficult it is. I don’t care what industry you’re in, you better be excited and embrace the change.
You sound fearless.
I’m not fearless. I’m fucking scared all the time. But do you crawl in a hole or do you actually start taking action?
You’re raising three kids with your wife. Are you in Denver to stay?
This may be an age thing, but I have a deep sense of wanting to belong to a community. I want to see this community win. I want to raise the tide for everybody. I’m not going anywhere.
Governor John Hickenlooper’s chief strategy officer discusses the administration’s narrative, the power of technology, and why politics is the most elevated profession. Interview by Maximillian Potter
You’ve got a unique job title. What does it mean?
The chief strategy officer comes from the corporate world. When Hickenlooper first proposed it, I had to Google it to see what it was. In the corporate world, it means somebody responsible for thinking strategically about the corporation’s future. In my case it would be thinking strategically about John Hickenlooper as governor and the administration. The core of that mission, at least in a political, democratically elected office, is handling the legislation, the policy agenda, the governor’s schedule, and the communications about all of that. So that’s what I oversee.
A holistic approach to interdepartmental relationships?
Yes. What I try to think about is: What is the narrative of this administration? What are the 10 or 11 things the governor wants to accomplish? How are we communicating about those things to the people of Colorado? How are we engaging stakeholders in the policy development? How are we handling the political relationships with the Legislature?
What is the narrative of the Hickenlooper administration at this moment?
A business-savvy entrepreneur, who is taking that skill set and applying that to the problems the state faces: economic development, education, energy, health care. It is really a narrative of working together and being above party politics.
Why did you decide to go into politics?
I grew up in the late ’60s and my family was very much invested in John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. That is what my folks talked about at the dinner table—politics.
What was it about those politicians that spoke to them?
My dad is Hispanic and my mom is Anglo-Irish. They got married and grew up at a time when mixed marriages were frowned on. They were drawn to democratic politics in particular by the civil rights movement and the notion that in America you can change things by going to the ballot.
Many parents talked about those things at the dinner table and their kids didn’t decide to go into politics.
Maybe I was drawn because I was always drawn to history and maybe politics is a way of having a seat at history when it is being made. It seemed to me to be a place to make a difference.
What was your first political gig?
I was 14 and I went door-to-door for George McGovern in 1972.
Do you have an enduring memory from campaigning at that time?
Knocking on the door and having a man show up in just his bathrobe. He told me to “fuck off.” I fought back the tears and thought, Well, this is going to be a tough gig. Not much has changed.
What has been your most challenging moment professionally?
Coming out of the closet in the middle of my professional life and wondering whether or not the fact that I had not been open about myself or my sexuality was going to somehow impair my ability to be trusted by other people and continue in my career.
Were you surprised by the reaction?
I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction of both people who are close to me and people who just knew of me. Governor Romer, who was my boss at the time, called me after I had given him a letter; basically it said, “Here is my situation governor, if you want to make a change.” He could well have said maybe you should do something different. But he called and said, “Hey, I love you even more now than I did before.” That kind of thing keeps you in the saddle.
When your parents married, it was unusual, and today there is the issue of gay marriage. This has been a part of the governor’s agenda. How have you approached and prioritized the issue of gay rights?
I went to law school, and being a lawyer is being objective. I think part of my professional responsibility is to lay out arguments in an objective way and to try to see both sides. That doesn’t mean I don’t have strong personal convictions. John Hickenlooper has never given me any reason to believe that I couldn’t be directly honest with him. My opinion will reflect a professional judgment about the politics of the situation but also a personal conviction.
Is it challenging for you to maintain a sense of optimism in your line of work?
I’m occasionally pessimistic, but that might have a lot to do with who I am. But I’m just as idealistic today, as optimistic about politics as I was when I started back in the ’80s.
When have you gotten goose bumps and thought, Wow, this is why I do this?
At the end of Hickenlooper’s first legislative session as governor, in the foyer of the Capitol, he held a press conference and said he was going to call the Legislature back for a special session to finish work he said we had to get done. That was the session dealing with civil unions. We had been sabotaged by politics. He started to tear up thinking about gay people who had worked for him in his restaurants and there was just a flood of emotion. When I saw a man do something that was heartfelt—that was a goose-bump moment for me.
What is the most pressing issue for the state right now?
The most pressing issue for Colorado is really a question of whether we can be the state we want to be given the constitutional and fiscal knot we have tied ourselves in.
What are the obstacles to this right now?
One of the obstacles is the fiscal restraints that we are in because of things like Tabor. It’s very difficult for elected officials to move an agenda. The only way you ultimately move big agendas here is by going to the people. I worry a lot about the three E’s of economy, education, and energy.
How has political communication changed over the past couple of decades?
Technology has changed. Communications are more immediate; you can make mistakes easier, and mistakes are more amplified.
In terms of the legislative component of it, any major changes?
Now in politics there are more women, greater diversity. I think that’s been a big plus. In my life, I worked for these men, but the people I have been closest to have been women: Susan Smart, state director for Gary Hart, hired me. Betty Miller, who was Tim Wirth’s district director for many years. She was my boss. And B.J. Thornberry, who worked for Roy Romer. Now I find myself working with another strong woman, Roxane White [Hickenlooper’s chief of staff].
How has politics benefited from that?
I think having less testosterone in the conversation is probably helpful. Most of the women I’ve worked with in politics have had the ability, a greater ability frankly than I’ve seen in men, to check their egos.
What advice would you give to someone who is going into a career in politics?
I have an ancient Greek view of politics: I think it is the most elevated thing you can do professionally. Done right it is about moving all of your community forward and it’s about resolving conflicts. I think that still stands and matters a lot. To me, it’s still a way that we can—I know it sounds cliché—give back to our community and do something really important with our lives.
Do you have a philosophy you abide by?
B.J. Thornberry was Romer’s deputy chief of staff and held a similar position to mine in his office. When she hired me she said: “Alan, our stock and trade is our word. If you have a reputation for being honest and people can trust your word, then you will do well. If you get a reputation for not being honest, not being straight with people, then you won’t do well.”
Will we ever see a President Hickenlooper?
I hope so.
The 59-year-old defense attorney to the stars sounds off on high-profile cases, the key to success, and how luck plays into courtroom drama. Interview by Robert Sanchez
Both of your parents are Holocaust survivors?
They were the only survivors of both their families. I suppose it is my rock. They met in New York after they both had come from Europe. My father’s brother and sister and his parents were killed in Buchenwald, a concentration camp in Germany. All of my mother’s family was murdered in Auschwitz, in Poland.
Did they pass their experiences on to you?
Very rarely was it ever discussed. When they wanted to talk about it, I was obviously very interested. They did inculcate in me healthy disrespect for authority, which I think has driven me to the position I am in. That’s probably why I do what I do.
Why did you pick law?
I would always get in trouble. There was always a check mark on my report card: “Talks too much.” So, law was the only field where I could do anything where you get to talk and not get into trouble.
You started your career as a deputy district attorney in Arapahoe County.
They were the only ones who’d hire me. I started with DUIs and ended up doing murder cases.
Then you moved into defense. When did you become the attorney for the stars?
You get a couple of high-profile cases and everyone thinks you’re the attorney for the stars. I’ve had a couple of high-profile cases and, let me tell you, I know I was lucky. I’ve won some cases, but there’s a lot of being in the right place at the right time. I tell people, “If you just live long enough, good things will happen to you.” The key to success is staying alive.
You’ve been representing Denver Broncos players for years, but one of the really big cases came in 2001 when you defended Bill Romanowski and his wife on prescription drug charges.
A friendly person in the detective bureau came to me and said, “Hey, you should know this.” The lead detective had a picture of Romanowski on his desk, and it had words to the effect of, “We’re going to get this guy.” Juries don’t like that because they expect the government and the police to treat people fairly. It wasn’t until I got to cross-examine that detective that the prosecution knew about it. That detective got caught off guard, and his credibility was destroyed.
It’s all about reasonable doubt, right?
A trial is a test to determine whether or not the government can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. I don’t have to prove innocence. When you go to trial, they never say he was found innocent. He’s found not guilty.
You’ve defended many Broncos players in cases of assaults on women. You also have a teenage daughter.
She yells at me. She criticizes me for some of the cases I take. What I try to tell her is, look, this is about the system, and the system demands that everyone accused of a crime has the best possible defense. It’s not so much about the person who is on trial; the system is on trial. And for the system to work, it has to have the best possible checks and balances. If there are no checks and balances, then the system suffers.
Do you care that some people might think what you do isn’t very savory?
I tell my kids the measure of maturity is when you don’t care what people think. You’re mature when you’re confident in your decisions. I’ve been told that’s the wrong way to feel, but that’s how I feel. I’m sure I’ve made a lot of enemies in this business.
In 2012, former Broncos cornerback Perrish Cox was acquitted of sexually assaulting an intoxicated woman who wound up aborting his child. How did you manage that win?
I’m wise enough to understand there’s luck involved in that. The accuser and her friend were together, and I cross-examined the friend. I made a big deal that they were extremely intoxicated. One of the jurors submitted the following question: “Are you drunk now? Or on drugs now?” That was a good sign. I’ll never forget that, because that’s never happened to me in my life.
Cox was facing a life sentence.
On Friday, the guy is looking at going to prison for life. On Monday, he’s signing a deal to play in the National Football League. Only in America.
The Nobel Prize–winning physicist from Boulder’s National Institute of Standards and Technology on quantum physics, superaccurate clocks, and the universe’s most profound mysteries. Interview by Geoff Van Dyke
Congratulations on the Nobel. You’re headed to Stockholm in December 2012? That should be a remarkable experience.
Well, thank you. It won’t happen many times, I’m sure.
Tell me a bit about your childhood. When did you first develop a passion for physics?
I grew up in Sacramento, California, and my dad was a civil engineer. He would play math games with me when I was little, and from an early age I liked math. I took my first physics class as a senior, and my thought was that physics was essentially some relatively simple math that could describe things around us, and I really liked that.
Could you describe what quantum physics is, in the broadest sense?
Part of the intriguing thing that makes this interesting for physicists and the layperson is that in the subatomic world you encounter very nonintuitive things, things that you don’t experience in your ordinary experience. I’ll give you an example: In our work we use charged atoms—ions—and we’re able to hold them nominally in one place. Think of the ion as a marble in a bowl. In our case, these charged atoms can roll back and forth in this bowl, so to speak. And one demonstration we do, which emphasizes the weird world in which we live, is we can take our atomic marble and at some instant in time it can be both on the left side and the right side of the bowl. So it’s not left or right; it’s left and right at the same time. I mean, this makes no sense to us in our normal everyday experience.
That’s pretty mind-blowing. And there’s another sort of bizarre notion to me in quantum physics: this idea that things don’t exist until we observe them.
Well, yes, physicists have been struggling with this ever since the ’30s, and we still struggle with it. It’s commonly called the measurement problem, and it gets at a very fundamental question: What’s reality?
So is the fact that the smartest minds in the world can’t resolve these issues a function of the human brain not being wired to understand these things?
Maybe. To me, this is one of the really profound mysteries that still exists. And I would say we don’t know the answer, but somehow we can get by in the world.
Your work involves quantum computers and superaccurate clocks. I read that over all of cosmic time, 13.7 billion years, your clock would be off by about five seconds.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology won’t like it if I say “accuracy.” There’s a specific definition of the word, but loosely speaking, it means we control the environmental effects on this clock better than any other.
So our clock would actually gain or lose one second in about 3.7 billion years.
What about the wristwatch I’m wearing now?
If it’s a quartz crystal, the clock we have would be about 10 billion times more accurate.
There’s that word again, “accurate.”
Well, accuracy is tied to the definition of a second, which is tied to oscillations in seizing a particular atom, but we don’t want to go there.
Agreed. Last question: When I was in college, there were parking spots reserved for the Nobel laureates. Now that you’ve gotten the Nobel, do you get a special parking spot?
I know at most campuses it’s a real problem, but I don’t have to worry about that. There’s plenty of parking here, so I don’t need a special spot.