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New politics at work in Denver election



Next Tuesday, Denver will elect a new mayor. At this writing, businessman John Hickenlooper leads the nonpartisan race by 30 percentage points. Clearly, Hickenlooper's gonna win.

Hickenlooper's an interesting guy. Laid off from his job as a geologist when the energy boom of the '80s collapsed, he took his severance check and whatever else he could scrounge and opened Denver's first brewpub, the Wynkoop. Locating it in the cheapest available space, a run-down building in Denver's decaying warehouse district, Hickenlooper, together with pioneer renovator Dana Crawford, created what became LoDo. He's a new kind of entrepreneur, one who compensates his employees generously, offers them partnership opportunities, and believes in giving back to the community.

That spirit isn't confined to Denver. Thanks to Hickenlooper, a historic Colorado Springs building was preserved, new businesses were founded, and hundreds of jobs were created.

Here's the story: A dozen years ago, the historic Cheyenne Building, at the corner of Pikes Peak and Cascade, was about to be demolished. The First National Bank had made a deal to sell the property to the Pikes Peak Library District to be used as a parking lot.

It was an appalling prospect. The Cheyenne Building -- vacant, vandalized, but still structurally sound -- was one of the last visible links to 19th-century Colorado Springs. It had to be saved.

Easy to say, not so easy to do. Things started well, but then encountered major bumps. Our little band of preservationists made enough noise to persuade the deal's financier (the El Paso County Pension Fund) to back away from the transaction. But the bank had to divest itself of the property. The economy was in the pits. Absent any other alternative, I put it under contract, hoping to figure out a use.

Months went by with no luck. It looked as if I'd have to back out of the deal, hand it back to the bank, and let 'em tear it down. A day before my option expired, Hickenlooper contacted me. He thought maybe he could work something out. I transferred the option to him.

Well, we all know what happened. It took John a couple of years, but he lined up local partners (Dusty and Gary Loo among them), renovated the building and opened the Phantom Canyon brewpub. John persuaded Tony and Anna Leahy to become the brewpub's managing partners, thereby ensuring its success. Phantom Canyon still thrives, although the Leahys left a few years ago. Not that they've been idle; you'll find them at Tony's, your favorite neighborhood bar, or at The Famous, downtown's latest cool eatery.

Nice story, isn't it? And that's not the only nice story to come out of Denver's mayoral election.

Originally, there were half a dozen candidates. In the general election, no candidate won a majority, mandating a runoff between the top two finishers. (Note to the Colorado Springs City Council: How 'bout referring a runoff charter amendment to the voters in April of '05?) Don Mares, trailing by 20-plus points, refused to go negative, triggering the resignation of his campaign manager. Like Hickenlooper, he's run a positive, thoughtful campaign. To his great credit, he has put the welfare of his city, and the health of the political system, above his own self-interest.

Democrats everywhere ought to take note. Since the Gingrich era, Republicans have consistently taken the low road. GOP strategists have concluded that no technique is too underhanded, no strategy too unethical if it leads to Republican victories. Dems have tried to fight fire with fire, to play hardball with the GOPsters. Sorry, guys, but there's no way you can be as mendacious, amoral and ruthless as Bill Bennett, Tom DeLay, Karl Rove and our own John Andrews.

To lead the party out of the wilderness, you need tough, ethical folks, like Ken Salazar and Mike Feeley. And you also need a new breed of Democrat, people like Mayor-to-be Hickenlooper, who actually live by the values that Republican elected officials pretend to espouse. John Hickenlooper, who began his campaign a virtual unknown, and vaulted over four competent, experienced politicians, may have shown the way to a new politics in America. If so, it'll be less rancorous, less partisan and focused on problem-solving, not score-settling.

That's good news for Dems -- unless, of course, Hickenlooper's a Republican ...

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