Election Day weather in Denver was extraordinarily snowy on May 17, 1983, apropos for the defeat of long-serving Mayor William McNichols, age 74. Mayor Bill had botched Denver’s 1982 Christmas Blizzard and finished third in the first round of Denver’s mayoral voting.
The June run-off election pitted recent Denver DA Dale Tooley, 49, against former state legislator Federico Peña, 36. When Tooley resigned his decade-long job to focus solely on replacing McNichols, Gov. Dick Lamm appointed Tooley ally and Chief Deputy DA, Norm Early, to be my next boss, and Denver District Attorney.
To win the June run-off, we expected Tooley, aka “Mr. Denver,” would acquire most of McNichols’ voters, frightened by the radical Hispanic activist Peña. This newcomer had arrived less than 10 years prior, and from Texas!
However, Peña’s brilliant campaign manager, Tom Nussbaum discovered and exploited an unusual three-day window for registering new voters for the June run-off. The Peña campaign organized and arranged transportation for thousands to come to Denver’s City and County Building to register.
From our fourth-floor District Courtroom windows, Denver prosecutors were astounded to see the throngs encircling our building. Team Peña found 6,000 previously unregistered people willing to brave massive lines to register to vote!
When Peña beat Tooley by about 4,000 votes, we followed our former boss over to Currigan Hall to congratulate Peña. There was no bellyaching about illegal voters, improper counting or rigged elections. With class and conviction, Tooley told the community to support Peña’s mayoralty.
Peña’s excellent new memoir titled “Not Bad for a South Texas Boy, A Story of Perseverance,” begins with Denver’s dramatic 1983 election. We learn Peña’s disciplined perseverance was instilled by his deep and loving family roots in South Texas.
The Peña family had for 10 generations lived just north of the Rio Grande River, embracing capitalism, education and Catholicism. Gustav Peña, Federico’s enterprising father and proud Texas A&M graduate, instructed Denver’s future mayor to attend UT-Austin, instead of A&M, and to become the family’s first lawyer.
In Austin through law school, Peña changed, grew his hair long and opposed the Vietnam War. Fred Peña, the name nuns gave him at grade school, went back to being Federico.
After beginning to practice law, and while on his way to California, Peña planned only a short visit with his younger brother, Alfredo, who was attending DU Law School.
But when Federico saw the Front Range, it was love at first sight. He decided to stay. Denverites in House District 5 liked what they saw in this natural born leader with brains, charisma and tenacity.
In Colorado’s Capitol, Peña served two productive terms, rising to House Minority Leader. In his book and on my recent podcast, Peña describes how he and Republican legislators respectfully communicated, compromised and produced results.
“Institutions are no better or worse than the people in them,” Peña says.
Of his 1983 victory night, Peña writes about credible death threats making him miss his own post-election party. Throughout his book, Peña describes indignities and hardships he’s experienced as a Hispanic, but Peña was undeterred in his focus to improve Denver.
Setting his sights on revitalizing the Central Platte Valley and LoDo, Peña envisioned and then funded the phenomenal results we now take for granted. Peña dedicated himself to obtaining Major League Baseball, and after eight years, his persistence yielded our Colorado Rockies.
Mayor Peña is remembered for “imagining a great city” that included Denver’s new airport, after expansion of Stapleton Airport became impossible. Once labeled “Federico’s Folly,” DIA became a boon for Colorado despite its ongoing complexities.
Building Denver International Airport was a herculean task. Peña was rewarded in 1992 with appointment by President Clinton to be Secretary of Transportation and later in 1996, to be Secretary of Energy. Talk about an impressive resume.
The ever-optimistic Peña believes his career contains lessons for today. American bipartisanship could re-emerge, he told me, especially if there is a galvanizing exogeneous event.
Peña thinks 65–70 % of Americans could still “come together during this very turbulent and treacherous time and find a way to make our country, our city and our state even better.”
Peña says he’s now part of the “frustrated center.” When his Cabinet days ended in 1998, Peña returned to Denver. He’s happily married since 2006 to media maven Cindy Velasquez, a match made by Denver Dependable Cleaners’ legend Warren Toltz. Peña has worked decades in lower downtown Denver in capital finance and nonprofit ventures.
In 2008, despite entreaties from the Clintons, Peña met then-Sen. Barack Obama at Jeffco’s airport. Peña became Obama’s national campaign co-chair. Both these leaders of color, thought once by some to be radical leftists, have proved over time to be moderate family men and capitalists.
While Peña mostly avoids discussing former President Trump, he decries bigoted, dangerous authoritarian rule rising around the world. Peña has proved repeatedly he “will not abstain from matters of importance to our nation.”
With his fine book, Peña continues to make solid contributions and continues making South Texas and Denver proud.
Craig Silverman is a former Denver chief deputy DA who also has worked in the media for decades. Craig is columnist at large for The Colorado Sun. He practices law at the Denver law firm of Springer & Steinberg, P.C. and is host of The Craig Silverman Show podcast.
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