A lot of people gasp at the mere thought of running a marathon. James Mejia has completed 72 of them.
And the onetime Denver mayoral hopeful and former Denver Public Schools board member says he has picked up some life lessons with each race. Most notably: "You may start slow, but if you persevere, you can finish strong."
He didn't win his sole attempt at the mayor's office in the 2011 Denver primary, but he certainly finished strong. He placed in the top three in a crowded field, and there wasn't much daylight between him and either of the other two.
What did he learn from that episode of his life in Colorado politics and policy? He shares some up-close-and-personal thoughts in this week's Q&A.
Mejia also offers his perspective about the ongoing rift among his fellow Democrats over education reform, he sizes up Denver Mayor Michael Hancock's re-election prospects as he seeks a third term — and he ponders whether he will ever again seek elective office himself. Read on for the details.
Colorado Politics: You grew up in a large family — lots of siblings — and your parents’ professional lives were all about kids. Your dad was a decades-long DPS teacher. It’s easy to see why you’ve said you grew up in a family where education was the most important investment one can make. And you of course went on to serve on the Denver Public Schools board. As a Democrat, what is your take on the rift in your party over public education? On one side are a host of Democratic luminaries who’ve supported education reforms including charter schools, merit pay and accountability measures nationally and in Colorado — from the past two Democratic Party presidents to our new new governor. On the other side are teacher unions and presumably much of their rank-and-file, bolstered by a resurgent liberal and populist wing of the party. Where is it all headed?
James Mejia: My mother started picking beets with her migrant farm family in the fields of Northern Colorado at the age of five. My father sold used newspapers in downtown Denver. Both were facing predictably dire family outcomes until they decided they wanted more and met at the University of Northern Colorado, both the only ones in their families to make it to and through college.
They lived the power of education and passed that on to us. That’s why without comment, report cards were posted on the refrigerator; after-school extracurriculars were expected, and getting into trouble was not tolerated. One generation from hardscrabble fields and tough downtown streets, all 13 of us went to college.
Both of my parents modeled how learning should be fun and whenever you are having fun, you can learn. One of the reasons we moved to Park Hill when I was a child was so that we could safely walk to high quality neighborhood schools. I fear that ideal has been lost in many Denver neighborhoods. School choice has brought in some interesting opportunities, but getting to know the kids in your neighborhood has not been an attribute.
I believe that education reform is the new litmus test for Democratic candidates and the major line of division in federal, state and local races. This clear line of “Are you a reformer or not?” is a false division but one that too many people use in judging candidates. Rather than listening to the nuance of strengths and weaknesses of education reform, yeses or nos are sought to conveniently place candidates in boxes of favorable or not favorable.
This division was seen for the first time on a wide scale in the Romanoff-Bennet Senate race, it was a huge factor in my mayoral campaign, and is THE deciding factor in school board races across the state. The issue is once again the unstated dividing line in the teachers’ contract negotiations with Denver Public Schools, with those supporting neighborhood schools and higher teacher pay lining up against education reformers. Though there are exceptions on both sides, education policy makers on both sides have made this issue the major cause of division within the Democratic Party in Colorado over the last decade.
- Managing partner, Pan American Business Services; president and CEO, Mejia Associates; two-time president of Denver's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
- Ran for mayor of Denver, 2011; finished a close third in the primary behind former state Sen. Chris Romer and now-Mayor Michael Hancock.
- CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, 2007-2011.
- Oversaw construction of Denver's new justice center for the administration of then-Mayor John Hickenlooper, 2004-2007.
- Served on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education, 1999-2003.
- Manager, Denver Parks and Recreation, 2001-2003.
- Was an adjunct professor at the University of Denver and Metropolitan State University of Denver.
- Deputy director, Mayor's Office of Economic Development, 1999-2001.
- Holds a bachelor's degree in marketing from the University of Notre Dame; holds an MBA from Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, and a master's degree in public policy from Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.
CP: As a former DPS board member, how do you rate the policies and performance of the current board and school district administration?
Mejia: As a former school board member, I was very proud of the work we did to engage teachers in driving decisions around curriculum and community driving neighborhood education decisions. I believe that successive boards have strayed from those ideals. At the heart of the district, a teacher is in the classroom interacting with Denver’s children for the longest part of their waking hours. It is incumbent on the central administration to tap into the experience teachers are having — their successes and challenges — and engage teachers in driving the educational model.
I fear that too often we are dictating to teachers instead. We have been losing good teachers in droves, both because of how we are compensating them but also because of a lack of true engagement on how children should be taught. I am optimistic that under the leadership of [new DPS Superintendent] Susana Cordova, who started out as a teacher and principal, and who understands those challenges, that DPS can get back to placing the role and input of teachers in top position at the district.
Until we get back to the ideal of every student being able to walk to a high-quality school in their neighborhood, I believe we are falling short.
CP: You came in third in the 2011 Denver mayoral primary — but you were only a hair’s breadth behind the second- and first-place finishers. Only the top two advanced to the general election, in which ironically the primary’s winner, former state Sen. Chris Romer, wound up losing to the man still serving as mayor today, Michael Hancock. All the others in the crowded primary had trailed far behind you top three. Clearly, you had a following. What takeaways have stuck with you from that experience? Anything you’d have done differently in hindsight?
Mejia: A wise man once told me that if you run for office, you should always be prepared to run a second time if you don’t win. I wasn’t prepared to run a second time and that is one of my many takeaways from a close loss.
I knew Hancock was my biggest challenger but my campaign team convinced me otherwise. That was a good lesson in trusting your own instincts when your name is on the ballot. It did my team no good to target Romer, who started the campaign with name ID in the 40th percentile and who we knew would make the ballot. The campaign was really a race between me and Hancock.
Quite candidly, pundits will point to what I could have and should have done differently and/or better, but in my heart of hearts I believe I didn’t win because I wasn’t happy. With challenging family conditions, I struggled and I believe that inevitably comes out in your campaign. That is also why I wasn’t prepared to run four years later.
Despite losing the election, I am constantly reminded of the legacy of even running in the first place. That legacy shows up around town when people approach me and tell me they are thankful for modeling the possibility or when my kids still proudly wear my campaign t-shirts to bed.
CP: Mayor Hancock has raised a lot of money, as expected, as he gears up to seek a third term this year. More than ever, it could be said he now represents an entrenched establishment in the face of wide-ranging populist discontent with rapid growth and its many ripple effects on the city. Handicap the upcoming mayor’s race. You’ve served in the current mayor’s administration as well as that of his predecessor. What do you think are Hancock’s strengths and vulnerabilities as the incumbent going into the next election?
Mejia: Incumbency in the Denver mayor’s office has always been a powerful force. That force is Hancock’s greatest strength. It is unfortunate at a time of great prosperity and development in Denver that, as a city, we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to address longstanding problems.
Along with increased development I would have expected additional park land, improved streets and sidewalks, and Vitruvian architecture. The things for which Denver has become known, especially the idea of a “city within a park,” has been diminishing over the years and is a far cry from when we increased the urban park footprint by 50 percent during the [Wellington] Webb administration.
Hancock’s biggest strength is that many capable individuals at the top of their game are not running. Waiting for four years when the seat is open and theoretically easier to obtain and less likely to upset those benefiting from current policies is not the right strategy. I believe that competition makes the process and all candidates better.
CP: Denver has had two African-American mayors and only one who was Hispanic so far — in a city that is fully a third Latino and a state with more than 1 million Latinos. Is it time for another Hispanic mayor — or should it matter what race or ethnicity the mayor is? Is it significant that Denver has yet to elect a woman mayor?
Mejia: Denver has actually had two Latino mayors — Federico Peña and Bill Vidal. [Vidal, Denver's deputy mayor, served as mayor for six months in 2011 when John Hickenlooper was elected governor and did not run for election.] There is a new crop of young people from different ethnicities that are highly capable of putting forth brilliant ideas to run the city. I look forward to watching future campaigns.
It is high time that Denver elect a woman as mayor, that Colorado elect a woman as governor, and that the United States elect a woman as president, not just because they are women but because they are the right candidates. For too long a glass ceiling has existed, making that hard, but I believe that no longer can such capability and credentials be ignored. However, in order to win, they have to run.
As a father to three amazing girls, I will tell you that they are not waiting for someone to tell them they can. They join a cadre of highly capable and motivated young women that will someday run our city, state and country.
CP: You have run dozens of marathons. Do you still compete? How do you like to spend your spare time?
Mejia: I have run 72 marathons and have been blessed with the genetics to stay injury free. I also continue to play ice hockey and tennis year round and ski in the winter. I enjoy all of them and am fortunate to live in Denver where I can continue to recreate.
Marathoning in particular has taught me a lot of lessons — you may start slow but if you persevere, you can finish strong. Big accomplishments take preparation and sacrifice. Your biggest challenge in life is often the mental limitations you put on yourself. If you can rely on yourself, you are well resourced. Quiet your mind and your body will follow.
CP: We have to ask — of course: What are your plans for elective office in the foreseeable future?
Mejia: I may have learned the most in politics from losing the mayoral race. It was especially difficult to lose in a city I love so much. One of the biggest lessons to come out of my time in government and politics is that you need to be happy to best serve people. I got into government and politics because the importance of public service was modeled by my parents. I stepped away to find happiness in other facets of life and to position myself to one day come back to public service fully energized. If and when I get back in, I will be a better candidate.