Ask anyone who’s worked in the city over the last three decades, and they’ll tell you that few legacies beam brighter over Denver than Elbra Wedgeworth’s.
The longtime city leader was the youngest of six children and grew up impoverished in a public housing project in Curtis Park. Nevertheless, she’s trailblazed her way to becoming the only person — and woman of color — in Denver’s recent history to hold substantial positions in all three branches of city government.
Soon, though, Wedgeworth will finally rest.
Now nearing her mid-60s and after more than 30 years in public service, the powerhouse politico will retire at the end of the year, stepping down as the chief government and community relations officer of Denver Health and Hospital Authority.
Although she said she’ll miss dearly the patients and dedicated staff with whom she’s served alongside for more than 10 years, she’s closing this chapter without qualm.
“Being a public servant has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “I don’t regret anything about it.”
Whether it was bringing the Democratic National Convention to Denver in 2008, overseeing the successful reopening of Union Station in 2014 or serving as the first African American woman to chair the Downtown Denver Partnership, ask Wedgeworth to pick her proudest achievements from her life’s lengthy list, and she shakes her head with a smile.
She can’t. Because it’s not who she is.
“Giving back,” she amends. “Getting things done to benefit the people of Denver.” That’s where fulfillment is found, she said.
Wedgeworth has been serving the city since 1989, when she began her career as a senior analyst for Denver City Council. Five years later, she accepted the role as the clerk and recorder and soon after worked in former Mayor Wellington Webb’s office as a member of the Denver Election Commission.
She was elected in the late '90s to Denver City Council, eventually becoming president, and represented District 8 for two terms through 2007.
After accepting her appointment that same year as chief government officer of Denver Health, she eventually would play an instrumental role in the $1 billion bond passed by Denver voters in 2017 that funds the hospital’s new outpatient medical center, which is expected to increase capacity by up to 50%.
Former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has called her a “mentor” and credits her for teaching him “how to be a mayor.”
“She’s been a champion for the last and the least from the beginning,” he said in a video honoring her as the 2018 Ripples of Hope award recipient. “She’s done incredible things.”
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock echoed Hickenlooper's praises, deeming Wedgeworth a "guiding light and inspiration ... a confidant and counselor and a dear personal friend.
"The impact she has made on Denver and our future cannot be overstated," he said.
Wedgeworth attributes much of her success to values instilled by her parents.
“You can be somebody, but it’s up to you,” she said, recalling their words. “Just set your mind to something and keep your word and your integrity. It will happen.”
Imparting her parents’ wisdom to the next generation of city leaders, and serving as example for them, will be a focus in this new phase of life, she said.
But first, she’s pausing to “exhale,” reflect and figure out — outside of public service — “who is Elbra anyway?” To help her with that, she’ll spend time with her family and friends, who’ve supported her every step of the way.
It’s time, she said. “I owe them that.”