Denver is about to have its 15 days of fame, as host to the Democratic National Convention next month. I suspect one star of the show will be Mayor John Hickenlooper, my idea of the best mayor in the nation. NewWest.net recently did a good interview with the mayor, and it's a fine introduction to his winning style. It's also an audio interview.
In a sense, Hickenlooper is a variant of the Barack Obama story. He became mayor without ever having run for office, having been a geologist who then started Denver's first brewpub, the Wynkoop. He got elected in 2003 running on a platform of transparency, no backroom deals, attracting talented people to government (some from the Wesleyan gang, his alma mater), accountability, and a pro-business, tax-averse, no-problems-with-guns brand of Democrat that is now sweeping the Mountain West. By now he's the most popular politician in the state, quite a feat for a big city mayor in a conservative state.
As with Obama, Hickenlooper's new way of doing things is to be friendly, pragmatic, and full of fresh approaches, as opposed the to "reactionary liberalism" of protecting entrenched interests. He says he learned valuable lessons running his pub:"Everybody should be forced to spend six months running a restaurant, because when you're doing that, you learn right off the bat that there's no margin in having enemies, right? If somebody has a bad experience, you'll do everything you can, even if you can't make it right, to make sure they know that you care and that you're listening, that you hear their complaint. Otherwise for 15 minutes every day, they'll try to ruin your reputation. It's the same principle in politics. Instead of people fighting over these little differences, so that they can't keep finding common ground on the big issues. I think people would be much better served, you know, to work harder at the little issues, and make sure you don't disrespect somebody, make sure the person feels like they've been heard."
It's worked out pretty well, as far as I can see from afar. First thing he did was to patch things up with a feuding suburb, Aurora, and 18 months after taking office, this regional statesman had passed a whopping, eight-county measure to expand light rail. He waded into problems like homelessness (give the hard cases free apartments and don't worry overmuch about most of the homeless people, who are only temporarily in need of some shelter) and schools (looking at merit-based pay and intervening early with struggling students). He really cares about the arts, and Denver now has the most generous public funding of the arts in the nation, about 10 times greater than the Seattle region. The cowboy town is now a genuine literary center, as well as being the Capital of the New West.
Denver is clearly a city on the rise, shifting into a new economy model from the oil-and-cattle economy of most of its past. It's becoming a science region, despite the lagging University of Colorado. People move to the region with a strong interest in maintaining its quality of life, creating a more diverse mix, getting things done. The rugged individualism is getting tempered. "I always tell people that there were a lot more barn-raisings than shootouts at the OK Corral," Hickenlooper likes to say.
Mostly, under Hickenlooper and his new breed of Western politicians, there's a desire to move beyond adversarial standoffs and shootouts. Denver's politics seem to aim at big solutions that cut through the local pieties, rather than the kind of gestural and lifestyle politics of amenities cities like Seattle. It reminds me of when we used to think this way in Seattle when we, too, were a city on the rise, solving problems that stymied older places. Now we're a city that's daunted by the tough issues.