Posted: May 01, 2008
Athena Award finalist: Elbra Wedgeworth
Former Denver City Council president launched the drive that brought the Democratic convention to townBy Lynn Bronikowski
A Denver caterer ran up to Elbra Wedgeworth recently with tears in her eyes. Wedgeworth wondered what was troubling her. After a lifetime in public service she’s used to people approaching her with problems.
But this woman hugged Wedgeworth, saying, "I just want to thank you. The Democratic National Convention coming to Denver is one of the most important things that has ever happened — it’ll mean to so much to me and my business."
"Those are the kind of stories I hear all the time," said Wedgeworth, who grew up the youngest of six children in public housing in the Curtis Park neighborhood, went on to become Denver City Council president and is largely credited with launching the push to bring the Democratic convention to Denver in August. She was a finalist this year for the Athena Award from the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce.
"I really feel this is the pinnacle of my career," said Wedgeworth, who is president and chair of the board of Denver 2008, the host committee raising funds and organizing convention activities. "It will be historic whether the convention nominates the first African American or first woman candidate for president. Every time I hear Tim Russert say how history will happen in Denver, I just get chills."
Wedgeworth, 52, is busy balancing her full-time job as chief government and community-relations officer for Denver Health with convention business. One day she’s consumed with looming Medicare and Medicaid cuts, the next with the 21,000 applications the Denver 2008 committee has received from prospective volunteers.
"We need 10,000 volunteers and have received 7,000 applications from out of state, so that goes to show just how excited people are to be a part of this historic convention," she said.
Wedgeworth began her career in public service in 1989 as a City Council senior analyst, which ignited her interest in politics.
She would go on to join Mayor Wellington Webb’s administration, become clerk and recorder, a member of the Denver Election Commission and board of county commissioners. She also was director of the Denver Health Foundation before running for the council seat vacated by Hiawatha Davis in 1999. She rose to council president in 2003 and 2004. After eight years she resigned to return to Denver Health, where she says, "I feel as if I’ve returned home."
Wedgeworth attended the University of Redlands near Los Angeles on a scholarship, earning a degree in social work. "I always wanted to be a social worker. When you don’t have much growing up, everyone takes care of everyone else, so I always had a desire to help others," said Wedgeworth, who is active in several civic organizations including the board of the Downtown Denver Partnership and co-chair of the committee to redesign Manual High School, her alma mater.
Wedgeworth serves as a mentor to everyone who seeks her out, said Tami Door, president of the Downtown Denver Partnership, who nominated Wedgeworth for the Athena Award.
"She is a strong powerful leader with the compassion for those in need," Door said. "Elbra came from very little and serves as a role model in our community as to what a person is capable of accomplishing."
Wedgeworth says she never forgets her roots growing up in Northeast Denver where she worked her way up from nothing.
"Nothing was ever given to me, and I tell young people that they shouldn’t let circumstances define you; you always define yourself, and your best hope is you," Wedgeworth said.
In 2004, Wedgeworth visited South Africa to mark the end of apartheid. She frequently quotes Nelson Mandela.
"He said, ‘It’s our light, not our darkness that frightens us,’" she said. "So I try to encourage women to go to that light and don't let anything dissuade them from their dreams."
Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.