InnerView: Federico Peña

Back in the saddle, riding hard for Obama

By John Schroyer

Former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, 59, jumped back into the world inside the Beltway last fall after a long hiatus from national politics.

Peña spent most of the ’90s as a member of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet. Contrary to expectations, however, Peña didn’t align himself with the wife of his former mentor, choosing to endorse Illinois Sen. Barack Obama over Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Shortly after the endorsement last fall, Obama named Peña to serve as one of his 13 national campaign co-chairs.

Peña’s political career began in 1979, when he was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives. He became mayor of Denver in 1984, a post he held until 1991, when he began working on Bill Clinton’s first national campaign. In 1993, Clinton appointed Peña secretary of transportation, and, in 1997, Peña became secretary of energy.

After just a year in that job, however, Peña left Washington and joined the Denver office of Vestar Capital Partners, a global venture capital group where he still serves as a managing director.

As the Democratic National Convention quickly approaches, The Colorado Statesman caught up with Peña just after he taped an interview with KBDI’s Aaron Harber, in which he said his decision to endorse Obama was not an easy call, and came only after a thorough review of the senator’s positions on a myriad of issues.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

1. How do you feel that your involvement with Sen. Obama’s campaign has changed your outlook on national politics?

I absolutely believe he is a once-in-a-lifetime presidential candidate, because he is genuinely unique. He’s unique in terms of his personal history, his personal background. It gives him a very different view of the world. And, secondly, he’s had this ability to understand the undercurrent of discontent in this country, and connect to it, and — more than that — to energize it and to mobilize it. Nobody’s been able to do that for many, many years.

When you’re someone like me, who’s been involved in politics for a long time, there’s a point where you get a little — not complacent — but a little jaded about whether change can actually happen. You sort of begin to think that there will always be powerful groups that make it difficult for real change to occur.

Barack has brought back the old belief I had many years ago — that I inherently have — that individuals can make a difference. We are not powerless. We are very powerful if we exercise our vote and if we get involved in changing our communities. And Barack has reignited that belief in me and in many people.

2. What clinched your decision to support Obama over Clinton?

It was the week before his debate in Miami (early September 2007). By that time, I had fairly much concluded that I was going to endorse him, so the question became, when should I do that? I was thinking we would roll it out over a period of three or four weeks, but then I thought, ‘Wait a minute. He’s going to be out in Miami in three or four days, and all of the candidates are going to have significant Hispanic surrogates there, and he doesn’t really have anybody.’

I thought, ‘I better do this now to help him.’

3. Instead of focusing on several states in the Rocky Mountain West, as many national Democrats, including DNC Chair Howard Dean have been doing, might it be easier to focus just on Ohio? If Obama carries all the states Kerry won in 2004 plus Ohio, he would get more than the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

It’s different permutations. If you lay out the game plan, there are different paths you can take. Another path to 270 is through Florida. Florida’s one of our (four) targeted states. So there are different ways to get there, but this is doable for two reasons. One: The West is changing. Two: In all those four states — New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Florida — the Hispanic population will be key.

4. In a recent stop here, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson also said that the Hispanic bloc throughout the country will be the key to the White House.

That’s right. Absolutely. I wrote a paper for Barack on that. That’s why the campaign decided to focus on those four states. I did the analysis for him. I said it to him months ago.

I said, ‘This is what you have to do. All you have to do is look at the data. You look at the number of Hispanics (in those four states) and you calculate, over the last two presidential elections, what percent a Democrat won or lost by. And it was less than 5 percent, compared to the Republican candidate. The Hispanic vote in each of those states makes the difference. But you need 65 to 70 percent of the Hispanic vote (rather than 60 to 65 percent).

5. A few months ago, James Carville famously called Bill Richardson a “Judas” for his endorsement of Obama over Clinton. Have you faced any kind of acrimony from Clinton supporters over your role in the Obama campaign?


None whatsoever?

People have called me and expressed disappointment, but not like that. One, I did it early. And two, people know me, and I’m a straight shooter. I made it very clear to the campaigns; I called Hillary’s campaign and Bill’s campaign, both, two days before I made my announcement, as a matter of courtesy.

6. Former President Clinton made a somewhat tepid endorsement of Obama about a week ago. It’s been suggested by some observers that there’s still some tension between the Clintons and the Obama campaign. Is that the case?

Let’s separate President Clinton from Hillary Clinton, because Hillary Clinton has campaigned for Barack. She’s going to be in New Mexico very soon, and she’s going to Nevada to campaign for Barack before the convention, I believe.

I was with her and Barack in Washington, where we met with 50 of her top Latino supporters in a room, and she made it very clear that she was supporting Barack and was asking them to support Barack. From there, they walked out into a large ballroom at the Mayflower Hotel and spoke to her financial team and asked them to support Barack. So she’s already on record as campaigning for Barack.

As for President Clinton, I don’t know. I heard about his comment where he said that nobody is prepared to be president, and I guess that’s one of those general lines you could make about anyone. That means that he wasn’t prepared to be president, and neither was Hillary. There’s a certain truth to that statement. How do you prepare to be president? But I’m still very hopeful that President Clinton will campaign for Barack, and he’s basically said that he will campaign for him.

7. So there isn’t any lingering ill will?

I think there is a decreasing amount of disappointment that Sen. Clinton and President Clinton have about losing the primary. I think every day they’re feeling more comfortable in accepting the political reality that Barack Obama’s going to be the nominee. I think every day they’re becoming more and more supportive of him. And we’re getting many of her former supporters on board now.

8. Paris Hilton mocked Sen. (John) McCain in a recent Web video as the “oldest celebrity in the world.” During your interview just now with Aaron Harber, you referred to McCain as representing an “old-world” style of politics. Is McCain’s age going to be a primary issue in this race?

It’s there. People see it. They’re going to see the contrast when they see both of them at debates. Everybody knows how old McCain is and everybody knows how old Obama is.

But what’s more important are their ideas. McCain’s ideas are mostly about the past, and Obama’s ideas are mostly about the future.

9. Why do you think a number of national polls have shown McCain and Obama in a dead heat?

It’s a close race.

I always marvel at people who say, “Barack should be ahead by 10 points.”

I’m thinking we should be behind. We’re running against a guy who’s been in Congress almost 30 years, ran for president before, is a war hero and is known all over the country.

And who’s this 47-year-old essentially unknown senator from the state of Illinois running for president for the first time? (Laughs.) We should be behind. We shouldn’t be winning this thing. When you think about it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense right now. The fact that we’re slightly ahead or tied, we’re very comfortable. We’re going to be fine.

10. Have you enjoyed being back in the game?

Yeah. It’s been rewarding, because it’s allowed me to put some of my skills and knowledge back to work that have been sort of sitting idly for a while. I think I’ve been able to help the campaign substantially.

(As for) Barack, the fact is, he is young.

He’s got very good judgment, but having people like me and (former Senate minority leader) Tom Daschle and (former Clinton cabinet member) Bill Daley and lots of people of our generation who have been through this a few times has been very helpful to him, to at least minimize his mistakes. And we have minimized our mistakes. This has been a brilliant campaign. When you really think about it, this is textbook.

11. What’s next for you, after the campaign’s over?

After he’s elected, I think there may be some additional advice I can give him as he thinks about moving into the White House. Once he’s in office, I see my role ending.

12. Back to your firm then?

I’ll just stay here in Denver and raise my kids. I have no intention of moving back to Washington.