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A Historic Night with Denver’s Mayors

Many mayors have made their mark on Denver, but none so much as the four who spoke at History Colorado Center on August 18 to a full audience.  Mayor Federico Peña, Mayor Wellington Webb, Senator John Hickenlooper, and Mayor Michael Hancock gave a snapshot of how far Denver has come during the last 40 years. 

“It was great seeing the legacy of four mayors and their input, but also gaining insight into the importance of a valid transition between mayors,” said attendee Ron Thorne.

The most important transition may have been in 1983, when Peña started his term as Denver’s first Latino mayor. Peña opened the locked doors to City Hall and inspired people to get involved with their city government. He also created a trend of grass roots campaigning that his predecessors would follow.

“I knew what it was like to not be involved in city government, and that’s how we were able to address all these issues; because we had thousands and thousands of people involved,” Peña said.

Webb, who served after Peña, became the first Black mayor of Denver and always appreciated the work of his predecessor.

“We were so proud Federico had won the election, because he broke the ceiling,” Webb said. “And it’s always hard being the first.”

Peña was inspired by Denver Mayor Robert W. Speer, who held office from 1904 to 1912, and the contributions he made to the city by bolstering infrastructure from paving roads to expanding the Denver Zoo. Speer’s “City Beautiful” movement was taken up by Peña, and in turn his successors, in the form of the slogan “Imagine a Great City.” 

Webb expanded upon Peña’s open door policy by bringing himself to the doors of his constituents during his 1991 “Sneaker Campaign,” where he walked the streets of Denver introducing himself and his plan for the city to the people. 

“To me, the whole walk episode was about the City of Denver giving somebody a chance that wasn’t expected to win,” Webb said.

As the second Black mayor of Denver, Hancock had big shoes to fill, but he also understood what Webb did when he took over from Peña.

“Every mayor walked in acknowledging the contributions of his predecessor and being able to accept that baton and say ‘I’ve got to take it to the next level,’” said Hancock.

Hancock remembered one specific issue when it came to carrying that baton: the low number of youths involved in Denver Recreation Center programs. There were only 700 children who were rec center members at the time Hancock won his election, but by making their memberships free, he saw that number rise above 100,000. Hancock attributes this choice as part of what led to the decline in numbers of juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, and high school dropouts in Denver.

Aside from their desire to inspire Denverites to become active within the community, the mayors emphasized another important issue they all sought to work on during their times in office. 

“Public transit really is a signature item that elevates us to being a major city,” Hickenlooper said. “What mattered about FasTracks was bringing everyone together, and committing the will of our community to get something done.”

Hickenlooper campaigned for years on the importance of robust public transit, even upping Denver’s sales tax to fund the FasTracks project. Both Peña and Webb concurred, as they were responsible for the funding and building of Denver International Airport.

“At every critical and pivotal moment, transportation has led Denver forward,” Hancock said.

As the most senior mayor, Peña closed the evening by saying, “The future of cities are about the people in those cities.” He reminded the crowd that Denver’s long history of mayoral dedication to its citizens goes back far further than his administration. 

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