DENVER -- It has been nearly 30 years since Federico Peña became the city’s first Latino mayor.
James Mejia was still just a sophomore at Denver’s East High School when Peña, a 36-year-old Latino lawyer, won a surprising upset over a 14-year incumbent mayor at a time when few minorities held public office in Colorado.
Mejia, who is one of 10 candidates on the mayoral election ballot this year, says he grew up admiring Peña.
“I remember seeing him become mayor back then – he was Latino and young, and so was I,” Mejia said in an interview at his Northwest Denver campaign office. “He was a real trailblazer in a lot of ways, and looking back I didn’t realize what the ramifications of his successes were to my life.”
Standing shoulder to shoulder at a news conference, Peña recently endorsed Mejia to be Denver’s next mayor -- not because he is Latino and only the second one with a real shot at being elected to office, but because he’s the “best candidate, who just happens to be Latino.”
Denver voters have already begun filling out their mail-in ballots in preparation for the May 3 election. If one candidate doesn’t win more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face each other in a runoff election on June 7.
Mejia, who held top positions in the city and was a former school board member and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program, is favored to be one of the runoff candidates, depending on which candidate’s polling you rely on.
Candidates in Denver’s mayoral race are non-partisan. The city’s current interim mayor, Bill Vidal, a Cuban immigrant, took the helm in January after John Hickenlooper became Colorado’s governor.
In some ways his campaign strategy is similar to Peña’s, even though the political landscape in Denver has changed so much.
When Peña ran for mayor in 1982, only 18 percent of the city’s residents were Latino, and only about 7 percent of the city’s Latinos were registered to vote. Today, about 32 percent, or 190,965, of the city’s residents are Latino, according to Census 2010 figures. When Peña ran there were few, if any, Spanish-language media outlets. Today the most watched and listened to radio and TV media outlets in Denver are Spanish-language.
But like Peña, Mejia is running on his qualifications rather than his ethnicity. Mejia doesn’t expect Latinos to vote for him just because of his last name.
”Back in those days," Peña recalled, "the media referred to me as the Hispanic candidate, and I said ‘You don’t refer to my opponents as the Irish-American candidate, so why do you refer to me as the Hispanic in the race?’”
“Today things are different," Peña said. "The media has different attitudes and we now have a president who happens to be African American and an environment where people are looking at an individual’s credentials. They won’t just vote for a Latino because he’s a Latino.”
Latinos in Denver can still make a difference at the polls, but no candidates in the race can expect to seal them up as a voting bloc, Mejia conceded.
“We are 35 percent of the city, but that population growth doesn’t matter if Latinos don’t get out and vote,” Mejia said. “I would like people in Denver to think of me like they did about Peña in that I have the understanding of issues that are important to all the different communities in Denver while still knowing what’s important to the Latino community.”
Manny Gonzales is a Denver-based writer and communications specialist.