Raising the roof a mile high

Attorney Steve Farber has long been known as a powerhouse in political fundraising circles. A quick peek at the photos on the walls of his downtown Denver office offers ample clues: Farber with Bill Clinton, Farber with John Kerry, Farber with Bill Ritter. And you might spot a couple of Republicans up there, too.

But the dominant image these days on Farber’s wall of fame is a black-and-white map of the United States from a century ago printed to promote the 1908 Democratic Convention.

“See that sunny spot! That’s it!” a headline on the map says.

That sunny spot would be Denver, which a century ago was an upstart city that felt compelled to make sure the rest of the country knew where it was.

A hundred years later, Farber aims to make the rest of the world know about Denver and Colorado as organizers prepare for the onslaught of political leaders and media who will arrive in August for the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Many will be staying at hotels that weren’t yet built 10 years ago, the last time Denver was gunning for the convention.

We talked with the convention host committee co-chair recently in his 22nd floor office at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the law firm he started in the late ‘60s with his childhood friend Norm Brownstein. (We ranked the pair at No. 2 this year in our “Colorado’s 25 Most Powerful People” list.)

Q. How did you become involved in bringing the Democratic National Convention to Denver and raising money to pay for it?

A. It’s the ultimate challenge in political fundraising. Years ago, Elbra Wedgeworth, former president of the Denver City Council, called and said she would like to help bring the Democratic convention to Denver in 2008 and asked if I would be interested in being the chair in the effort.

Elbra and I had talked previously about that. In 1998, President Clinton had appointed me to the site selection committee to select the 2000 convention. I was on the other side of the table trying to determine which cities would be the best cities to host the convention. In 2000, the final cities were Boston, Denver and Los Angeles.

Denver’s issue at the time was the shortage of hotel rooms. Denver had put down Casper and Cheyenne, Wyo., as some of the hotel rooms that they would use for the convention. I suggested (to the committee) that that was probably a good idea because it was only a 20-minute drive from Casper or Cheyenne to Denver. I exaggerated a little bit. But ultimately Los Angeles was selected. Denver was not ready in 2000.

I told Elbra that I would co-chair the effort with her and that we should make some preliminary contacts with Howard Dean and members of the DNC. There were 35 cities that applied to be the host committee. And things just seemed to fall into place.

In 1908, Denver hosted the Democratic convention, the only time that one was ever held in the state of Colorado and the only time that one was held in the Rocky Mountain time zone. So other than in California, no Democratic convention or Republican convention had ever been held in the West since then. And we saw it as an opportunity for our city to showcase Denver, to showcase Colorado, and really showcase the Rocky Mountain West.

Q. You had a good feeling from the meetings with the DNC committee that it was going to happen. Tell us about when you thought, “Hey, I think we’re going to get this.”

A. You saw the reaction of the DNC members who were here, including Howard Dean, and you just had a sense that Howard Dean’s philosophy of going to each state and reaching out West, how crucial that would have been when Al Gore ran for president, how crucial it was when John Kerry ran for president, that they weren’t very successful in the Western states. Had they been, we may have had a different outcome to the election.

And we sold them on Denver and Western ideals and Western ethics. Out in the West here, it’s not a question of who your grandparents were, who your parents were. It’s a question of who you are and what’s in your heart and in your mind. It’s where the business community isn’t anti-environment, and the environmental community isn’t anti-business. We sit around the table, and we try to work on solutions.

We proposed that we’re going to have the greenest convention in the history of this country. And hopefully we’ll set a standard for future conventions that they’ll be green and responsible.

Q. The convention will have a series of symposia backed by some corporate donors. Tell us a little bit about how you cooked up that plan.

A. We had talked to representatives of many corporations in New York, Colorado, California. And some of them were disappointed in past conventions that they didn’t get as much value for their contributions at the conventions as they had hoped for. Mayor John Hickenlooper and I were meeting with a number of them and asked them, in fact, what were they looking for? What would corporate America be looking for at a convention so that it would have some value?

And through discussion that ensued, we came up with the concept of a seminar, a symposium, and whether the investment banking community would discuss public/private partnerships.

For instance, lately toll roads and infrastructure and transportation have been sold to international companies. Why are international companies buying our infrastructure? Many of our domestic companies are not interested. What an interesting topic to have some of the leading governors and mayors in this country as well as senators and congressional people discussing.

The business executive with whom we were discussing it loved the concept. So it was one that we ultimately pursued further. We have 11 topics for the convention, and to my knowledge, never before has there been symposia and seminars at the conventions. So it’s an opportunity to develop concepts, to educate people on what’s going around on other issues, from health care to drug issues, to women’s issues, to investment banking issues.

Q. Every time Mayor Hickenlooper talks about the convention, he says, “Come downtown. Don’t stay home. Don’t leave town.”

A. I think the mayor, as well as the rest of us involved, want this to be friendly to the citizens as well as our guests who are going to be here from all over, not only the United States but from all over the world. We’re anticipating 15,000 to 20,000 media from all over the world. You’re going to have a diplomatic core that comes to the convention of 300 to 500 people. So it’s a chance to showcase Denver, Colorado — what this city and this state are all about.

Q. The spotlight will be on Denver, Colorado and the West. What message would you like the international community to think about when they see this area?

A. First of all, what greater issue to showcase than you’re going to have the first African-American or woman as the nominee to the president of the United States. We dream of what this country has been and what it’s become. It’s fulfilling that dream. It’s fulfilling the freedoms that we learn about at a young age. And Denver happens to be the city that is showcasing those.

What we would like people to leave with is that Denver is a friendly community. It’s where people are interested not only in local issues but national and international issues. And as the mayor has said, come on down.

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