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Posted: April 01, 2012

Executive edge: Bill Vidal

Hispanic Chamber of Commerce chief promises the Denver group will be more vocal on public issues

Mike Cote

For Guillermo "Bill" Vidal, talking about contentious topics like immigration and high school dropout rates are more than civic exercises. The Cuban native knows firsthand what challenges new arrivals to this country face.

As the former mayor of Denver adjusts to his new job as the president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver, one thing is certain to him: The business group needs to take a stand when it matters.

"What I see is great potential for this organization when you view the growing demographics of Hispanics not only in our metro region but in the state and also in the nation," said Vidal, 60, during an interview taped for ColoradoBiz TV.

The University of Colorado alumnus, who graduated with a civil engineering degree, came to the chamber in January after a long career in public service. He served as chief of the Colorado Department of Transportation under Gov. Roy Romer and as deputy mayor and manager of public works for the city and county of Denver under John Hickenlooper.

Vidal was appointed mayor in January 2011 after Hickenlooper was sworn in as governor. The city’s first foreign-born mayor briefly considered but ultimately decided not to run for the post when an election was held the following May.

Vidal said he’s happy he spent his seven months as mayor tackling important projects rather than running for office.

"What I got out of it instead was an incredible experience doing things that were necessary," he said.

In his new role, Vidal expects to draw from his heritage to find a way to reach the diverse elements of the Hispanic community, which is composed of people from different countries, cultures – and languages.

"I speak Spanish fluently, something that I will use certainly in trying to attract Spanish-speaking businesses," he said. "There is this demographic dilemma in that we have Spanish-speaking people; we have other Hispanics who don’t speak Spanish at all. But yet we’re all together, and bringing some unity to that is important."

That means Hispanics are not a homogeneous group.

"I’m Cuban. There is certainly a large Mexican contingency in Colorado, but we have Peruvians, Chileans. You name it. We have some differences even among the different Hispanic cultures, and we need to bring some unity on issues that affect us."

Among the legislative issues the chamber will be watching is a bill that would allow the children of undocumented immigrants to be eligible for in-state tuition at state universities and community colleges, a measure recently announced by Democratic state senators Mike Johnston and Angela Giron.

"We have been investing in these kids already K through 12. Those who excel who want to go to school, we ought to find a way to allow them to go to school and value their contribution," Vidal said. "There has been talk about giving residency to foreign students who want to go into engineering and the sciences. Why can’t we do that with our own kids right here?"

Vidal’s path from Cuba to the mayor’s office is a testament to the power of education and its intrinsic nature to the success of immigrants in the United States. The Cubans who fled the Castro regime in the early ’60s to come to the United States were, like Vidal’s family, primarily upper- and middle-class and considered education essential.

"My parents didn’t give me an option about whether or not I was going to college. I was going to college. There was no question about that," Vidal said. "That is the difference between poverty and making greater opportunity in this country." 

Watch our three-part interview with Bill Vidal at www.cobizmag.com

Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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