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Front-runners, step to the rear

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By Greg Romberg

Chris Romer joined a fairly exclusive club last week. Along with Dale Tooley, Norm Early and Ari Zavaras, he’s now one of the can’t-miss front-runners for Denver mayor who fell to lesser-known opponents each of the last four times the office was truly up for grabs.
In 1983, a series of questionable financial dealings by city officials and the inability to dig out from the 1982 Christmas Eve blizzard made incumbent Bill McNichols a sitting duck. Six challengers entered the race, but big money and common sense suggested that Dale Tooley would be elected.  Tooley was the incumbent district attorney who’d wanted the top job since losing the 1971 mayoral election to McNichols. Denver elections are nonpartisan, and (except for City Council at-large positions) a majority of votes is required to win. If no one gets a majority in the initial election, a runoff occurs between the two highest vote-getters. McNichols finished third behind young upstart Federico Pena, a state representative from northwest Denver, and Tooley. Pena dispatched Tooley in the runoff to become mayor.
In 1991, Pena surprised everyone by announcing that he wouldn’t seek a third term. The mayor’s race looked like a battle between Don Bain, a lawyer who’d lost to Pena in 1987, and Norm Early, who had succeeded Tooley as district attorney. Bain was better positioned to challenge an incumbent than to run for an open seat, and Early became the odds-on favorite. City Auditor Wellington Webb upset Bain to sneak into the runoff and then easily beat Early to become mayor.
When Webb stepped down in 2003, Auditor Don Mares and former police chief Ari Zavaras were poised to fight it out. Big money quickly rallied around Zavaras. John Hickenlooper, a small-business owner who had started a brewpub in Lower Downtown before the area was revitalized, joined the race. With a series of quirky ads, Hickenlooper jumped to the front of the field, finished first in the first election and beat Mares decisively in the runoff. Zavaras was a distant third.
When Hickenlooper left office earlier this year to become Colorado’s governor, another large field assembled. Chris Romer, a state senator whose father was governor from 1987 to 2003, entered the race. A former investment banker, he and his father did yeoman’s work to assemble an impressive list of supporters and a big war chest. Among his most prominent challengers were City Council members Carol Boigan, Michael Hancock and Doug Lamborn and James Mejia, the former parks and recreation manager who’d managed construction of Denver’s new Justice Center. It seemed obvious no one could garner 50 percent in such a crowded field and the real race would be between Hancock and Mejia to join Romer in the runoff. Hancock narrowly beat Mejia and then handily defeated Romer in the runoff. He’ll be sworn in as Denver’s 45th mayor next month.
While money and endorsements are always important, Denver voters continue to show they won’t blindly jump onto a front-runner’s bandwagon. It’s an important lesson those who wish to succeed Hancock will be smart to remember.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.