Propelled by his youthful dynamism, the public's appetite for change and, arguably, Mother Nature's intervention, a relative political upstart named Federico Peña was elected mayor of Denver in 1983.
Peña, a Denver lawyer and Colorado's Democratic state House minority leader at the time, ousted the aging, longtime incumbent, Bill McNichols, that spring in the wake of a winter snowstorm that famously paralyzed the city for days — and sealed McNichols' fate.
Peña went on to helm the city for two terms. During that time, he spearheaded the effort to build Denver International Airport; played a pivotal role in recruiting the Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball franchise; developed a new convention center; and, by many accounts, revitalized the city's economy as well as its cultural life with enhanced infrastructure and amenities.
And that was just the start of Peña's decades in the limelight. After leaving City Hall in the 1990s, he served twice in the Cabinet of President Bill Clinton and by the 2000s was distinguishing himself in the financial world of asset management.
By any measure, he's one of Colorado's most accomplished — and consequential — politicos in decades. So, what's his take on the state of the political firmament in 2019? The current crop of Democratic presidential contenders and their tilt toward the left? The growing relevance of Latinos in Colorado and U.S. politics?
And what about Colorado's transportation woes — from the perspective of a political figure who made a name for himself as a transportation innovator?
It's all in today's Q&A.
Colorado Politics: Your career arc in elected and appointed office could be called both meteoric and epic. As a young Denver lawyer, you won a seat in the state House and in short order became minority leader. You went on to defeat a long-serving incumbent and member of a connected political family to become the nationally prominent mayor of a major American city. You then served in not one but two Cabinet posts in a presidential administration. Which of all the positions you’ve held at any level of government has been the most fulfilling and meaningful to you?
Federico Peña: The most fulfilling and rewarding of my political positions was mayor of Denver. Unlike the Colorado legislative and federal Cabinet positions, I could affect people’s lives almost immediately and most directly at the city level.
As a result of my administration’s actions, we could see citizens get jobs at various infrastructure sites; witness the revitalization of neighborhoods; support small businesses with city loans; clean up our polluted air, and invest in critical infrastructure (DIA; Convention Center; Cherry Creek Center; Denver Dry; etc.)
While I could change laws as a legislator and make domestic and global policies in Washington, D.C., the positive effects on people’s lives were somewhat removed and took more time to realize. I essentially felt more connected to people’s lives as mayor.
- Denver mayor, 1983-1991.
- U.S. secretary of transportation, 1993-1997.
- U.S. secretary of energy, 1997-1998.
- Senior adviser to the Colorado Impact Fund since July 2014; senior adviser of Vestar Capital Partners 2009 to 2016.
- Represented his Denver district in the Colorado House, 1979-1983, including as House minority leader.
- Earned bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Texas at Austin.
CP: You distinguished yourself as a transportation champion and innovator while mayor and, later, during your tenure as U.S. transportation secretary. Years after your stint in Washington tackling the nation’s transportation woes, your own state has yet to rise to the challenge on basic transportation issues like highway and transit funding and backlogged upgrades to its transportation grid. You probably have been trapped in the same traffic gridlock as the rest of us — in the city where you once were mayor! What do you believe should be done to get Coloradans from Point A to Point B? What should be the policy priorities?
Peña: Transportation funding at the state and local level requires leadership. This means that state leaders must travel across Colorado to inform citizens of the importance of investing now and to demonstrate to citizens that postponing investments will only cost more in the future.
Citizens must understand the economic damage done to our economy by delaying transportation investments. The longer it takes to move goods and services across our state, the more unproductive our companies, employees and citizens will become. Leadership requires taking a bold stand and showing one’s strong convictions to the general public.
At the local and regional levels, we have fallen behind the massive increases in traffic. Not only do recent local bond revenues for transportation need to be invested quickly and strategically, but must be invested with strict oversight to avoid waste and abuse of tax dollars.
The proposed Denver transportation division will be helpful if it can begin to implement pilot projects to alleviate bottlenecks. RTD does not focus enough on the demands of the inner city and thus a city-focused entity is essential.
Cities across the globe are using new technologies to develop “smart cities,” and we fully implement coordinated traffic signalization, electronic information signs and variable speed limit signs, and provide real-time traffic data to websites, social media, mobile apps and local media stations.
We must prepare the metro area for vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-pedestrian, and vehicle-to-infrastructure technologies which are quickly emerging. Autonomous vehicles are coming, and we must have the infrastructure in place that is “intelligent,” with sensors prepared to accommodate these new technologies.
In addition, we should experiment with electric “gypsy” vehicles, ride-sharing programs, and also embark on a creative marketing campaign to encourage more riders to use RTD’s systems more frequently. New amenities on rail cars can encourage more ridership by making transit travel more productive and fun.
We cannot continue to simply widen roads or pour more concrete as that will only encourage more vehicular usage. (The T-REX project was supposed to reduce delays on I-25, but congestion has worsened. ) New “last mile” connections with vans or smart gypsy cars must be used to take people from stations to key destinations (e.g. Cherry Creek Center). We must provide citizens with more options (creative and fun ride sharing arrangements) to discourage vehicle miles traveled.
Without effective, affordable, reliable and practical options to go to work or shop, people will continue to ride “solo” in their cars and add to additional congestion pollution, and delays. Numerous national studies have quantified the costs to families, companies and our regional economies from increasing gridlock. We need to offer new ideas ( e.g.,congestion pricing) which are being implemented across the globe and make Denver and Colorado the smartest transportation entity in the United States.
CP: Recap for us how you first got Bill Clinton’s attention and eventually were brought into his administration. Did the two of you become well acquainted over the years, and are you still in touch?
Peña: While I met Gov. Clinton while he was in Denver for a speech in 1991, I was not a FOB as his longtime friends and associates were called back then. But in December 1992, I was asked to head the transition team for the president-elect, which I did for several weeks that month. I had emphasized that I did not want a position with the new administration as I had just started my asset-management business.
After we submitted the transition plan for the Department of Transportation, I traveled to Brownsville, Texas, to visit my parents for Christmas. I received a call at the Albuquerque airport informing me that the two individuals who were being considered for the head of DOT had not worked out and that Clinton wanted me to head the department. Late that night I agreed and was announced as the nominee for secretary of transportation on Dec. 23, 1992.
I had a good relationship with President Clinton as secretary of transportation, and he subsequently asked me to join his second administration as secretary of energy. We have been together at various functions since I left D.C. and remain friends.
CP: You are a Democrat who streamlined the federal bureaucracy as transportation secretary, substantially trimming your department’s payroll; who crafted policies that advanced overseas oil and gas development as energy secretary, and who helped open up global aviation markets. All during an administration noted for its overall support of free trade.
It was the kind of stuff — as quipsters now put it — that has some of today’s Republicans yearning for another four years of Bill Clinton. It’s also the kind of stuff, though, for which one hears very little support among the current crop of populists seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Does it dismay you to see at least a few of the contenders seemingly blow a kiss of sorts to socialism? How would you characterize your own politics, and has it evolved over your decades in public life?
Peña: My basic political views and values have not fundamentally changed since I have been in elective office. I believe that our democracy only remains intact if people vote. I worry that the comparatively low voter turnout in presidential elections results in mediocre public policy, which is strongly shaped by powerful interest groups and lobbyists.
The recent mayoral general election in Denver elicited less than a 40% turnout. When I ran for mayor in 1983 and 1987, the turnout was 71%-73%. I believe that we need a massive voter education campaign throughout the country to ensure that our elected officials are truly working for the interests of a majority of Americans.
I believe our capitalistic system is the best in the world, but it must be adjusted and improved to benefit many more Americans. The middle class is losing economic strength and working families are barely surviving. If this trend continues to worsen, we will witness millions of Americans dissatisfied and disillusioned with our democratic political system, and we could experience more social unrest in future years.
When Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the ACA were enacted, some called those programs socialistic. Those laws were established to try to adjust American capitalism to work in a more balanced manner for more Americans. We still need further adjustments to our capitalistic system to ensure that it works better for hard-working citizens because the system as currently operating is favoring a select group of Americans.
The “invisible hand” of Adam Smith needs to be “outed” and we need to adjust American capitalism to reflect changing demographic, educational, and cultural forces in America. Socialism qua socialism is not the answer in the United States.
CP: How important is it for Colorado’s burgeoning Hispanic population — both its historic Latino community and its relatively new one — to see more Latinos elected to higher office in the state? In your estimation are we overdue for a Hispanic governor? For another Hispanic mayor in Denver?
Peña: The Latino community in Colorado and the nation is an important and positive economic, social, military and political force. It will only grow in importance in years to come. Recent studies show that Latinos are the fastest growing entrepreneurs in the U.S.; that Latinos are graduating from colleges and universities in record numbers; that they are absolutely critical to our workforce and military strength; that they are powerful consumers of goods and services; and that they are becoming more prominent in politics.
It would be good for our nation, state and city to have more Latino elected and appointed officials, not because they are Latino, but because they will serve all Americans with competence and compassion. Today, we have a deeper bench of talented and capable Latinos ready to serve if given an opportunity.
When I was elected mayor of Denver, Latinos were only 18% of the population and only 8% of registered voters. I ran as a mayoral candidate who would serve all the people of Denver. I did not run as a Latino mayoral candidate. I was, and still am, proud of my background and heritage, but the media labeled me as the “Latino” mayor. My predecessor was not labeled the “Irish” mayor.
I was an early supporter of Barack Obama, not because he was an African American presidential candidate, but because he was the best candidate and he became a great president. He was proud of his racial background, but that is not why he was elected twice as our president.
We must move away from racial and ethnic political labels and elect great mayors, governors and presidents who happen to be Latino, Black, Asian or of another ethic background. Denver is ready for another Latino mayor and Colorado is ready for a Latino governor. The nation is ready for a Latino president. They will be competent, hard working and compassionate and will represent each of their respective constituents.
CP: While officeholders come and go, and even the most recognizable names can fade from the public’s memory, you already have at least one lasting legacy many of your peers could only dream of: a major thoroughfare that bears your name — and that just about every Coloradan will travel at some point. What else would you like to be part of your political legacy if you could choose it?
Peña: While I am honored and humbled to have a highway or building named after me, I would like to be known as the mayor or Cabinet member who tried to improve the lives of people. I opened up government to citizens who had not previously been welcomed or invited to participate to lead. I am most proud of the many talented individuals who helped us create a great city and who themselves went on to become prominent leaders in their respective fields. Some citizens tell me that I gave them hope, that they were proud to have me lead during challenging times, that I did so with honesty, integrity and hard work. Que mas nesesito?
CP: What’s next for Federico Peña?
Peña: I have been blessed with much and I want to continue to serve our community as a private citizen. I have been involved in several nonprofit efforts to improve education and health care. I still care deeply about our democracy. I will continue to support candidates and political causes that will advance our nation, state and city in a positive and constructive manner, by uniting all citizens, and by working for the benefit of every American with compassion and bold new ideas.
Many still urge me to seek higher political offices, but I believe it is important to welcome new leaders with new ideas and new energy. In Denver and throughout our nation, we have a new breed of young and passionate citizens who are promoting bold ideas in areas like climate change, gun violence, and racial, ethnic and gender discrimination. Current leaders and our political system in general must not only welcome these new leaders but encourage them to be even more involved. I have supported some of these new leaders because a nation which does not grow in new knowledge, energy, and citizen participation will flounder and decay.