Guest Columns

HUDSON: HE PLAYS A MEAN GAME OF SMALL BALL

Hancock’s greatest asset is his enthusiasm

GUEST COLUMNIST

Every political observer recognizes that the Denver Mayor’s Office is the sweetest political job in Colorado. It pays far better than serving as Governor, and the City Council needs to drum up a two-thirds majority to overturn a single provision in the Mayor’s budget. It’s a strong-mayor arrangement that enables Hizzoner to shape the city and its priorities as he or she sees fit. There are plenty of patronage slots for loyal supporters. Developers, 17th Street bankers and assorted movers and shakers regularly make the trek to City Hall to genuflect and kiss the ring behind the big desk on the second floor. Consequently, there is always a grumbling coterie of malcontents scanning the horizon for a replacement — someone who will embrace their smarter, more far seeing vision for Denver.

With re-election looming less than a year way, earlier this week Michael Hancock delivered his third State of the City address in the atrium auditorium at the Denver Art Museum. Chairs were set out for 400, but the crowd swiftly overflowed into the lobby. The Governor was in attendance, not so much to add gravitas to the event, but, facing a tough re-election of his own this November, to bask in and benefit from his successor’s evident popularity. Denver has again emerged as a preferred nesting ground for the American construction crane since Hancock was first elected in 2011. Real estate prices have rebounded following the great recession, and jobs, business start-ups and retail spending are all on an upswing. Potholes are being filled, orange barrels frustratingly obstruct traffic whenever you turn a corner and Lodo is developing a Times Square vibe. What’s there to complain about?

This Mayor has not been a Pyramid builder. Throughout the Peña, Webb and Hickenlooper administrations there was always some big project on the front burner: DIA, convention center expansions, the convention center hotel, FASTRACKS, various stadiums, Union Station, larger museums and a new jail and justice center. With just a few stumbles, Denver residents repeatedly approved the bond issues and tax increases these required. Hancock has been smart enough to realize that in a down economy Denver’s voters had reached a place of profound infrastructure fatigue. While the economy has been catching its breath, his administration has engaged in what his critics have derisively dismissed as ‘small ball.” What they miss is the appreciation of city residents for the perceptible improvement in municipal services.

The Police Department still has a way to go and Chief Robert White has not been the consummate diplomat the police union hoped for, but the bully boy days of intimidation appear to be behind us. The recent revelations of incompetence and arrogance in the Sheriff’s Department may require another imported managerial broom, but is hardly a challenge that the Mayor appears unwilling to tackle. In fact, he has much to brag about and he did. Libraries are open longer, as are community recreational centers. Wait times at motor vehicle offices have been cut in half, which can only mean that they were truly horrendous, as my recent hour long sojourn felt tedious enough. DIA is humming, light rail is funneling weekend revelers into town and Denver parks are being renovated despite a few dust-ups over land transfers and City Park’s “Super Playground.”

The Mayor expressed concerns about the shrinking stock of affordable housing despite efforts to construct more units. Homelessness and the astonishing costs generated by just “…300 individuals who suffer from mental illness and addiction and make their homes on Denver’s streets (and who) experienced 14,000 days in jail, 2,400 visits to detox, 1,000 arrests and 600 emergency room visits,” running up a tab of $11 million dollars. Expressing a desire to break this “…cycle from streets, to emergency rooms, to jails and back to the streets,” he advocated for introducing new and proven prevention programs rather than an endless revolving door of remedial services. The Mayor also recommitted to the city’s children, pointing out the success of Denver’s Preschool Program, which voters will have to re-authorize next year. He was obviously proud of the 57,000 Denver kids now carrying rec center cards. He would like to see that number grow to a 100,000, providing a place away from gangs, drugs and street violence.

Perhaps Hancock’s greatest asset is his enthusiasm for his job. It is obvious that he loves the city where he was raised, the public schools that educated him, the youth programs that shaped him and the future he seeks for future generations. When he claims that, “the New West is dawning in Denver,” it doesn’t sound corny. He isn’t likely “…to rest until the city of opportunity extends to everyone.” In the meantime, he will keep playing a mean game of small ball. When he asks voters to give him another four years next May it will be hard to argue he hasn’t earned them. In a few years he may even talk us into another civic project — something practical and medium sized, preferably.

Miller Hudson is a longtime observer of the goings-on at City Hall. He is a former state representative in the state legislature from Denver.