Young, brash and idealistic, Federico F. Pena was twice elected mayor of Denver on waves of optimism driven by campaigns that urged voters to "Imagine a Great City."
Throughout his tenure as mayor from 1983 to 1991, he bypassed political machines and asked neighborhood leaders and young professionals for advice in his efforts to revitalize Denver with construction of the world's largest airport, a convention center, a library and major road improvements.
Today, the 45-year-old Pena begins Senate confirmation hearings to serve as President-elect Bill Clinton's secretary of transportation. He will undoubtedly face questions from critics who fear he may have exceeded Denver's financial reach with capital improvement bond issues and the $2.7-billion airport that could leave Denver burdened with debt for years.
During the Commerce Committee hearings he will also have to explain receiving hefty campaign contributions during his 1987 mayoral race from savings and loan associations and contractors allegedly involved in land speculation near the site of the new airport, scheduled to open in the fall.
Pena, an attorney and former Colorado state legislator, also has been criticized for his relationship with Alvarado Construction Co., the largest Denver airport contractor. The company, awarded a city contract while he was mayor, later invested in a pension investment firm Pena started after he left office.
By contrast, supporters of the second Latino nominated for Clinton's Cabinet offer a portrait of a reformer and innovator without ties to the political Establishment who wrung consensus from diverse groups.
His conciliatory style, they say, raised civic aspirations and forged a non-traditional alliance of business, environmental and minority leaders who shared a common stake in the success of the projects he championed.
"Clinton has spoken a lot about the need to rebuild the infrastructure of the nation, and who better than Pena to guide that process?" said Larry Dodd, director of the American Politics Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Over the past year Colorado has been in a period of economic growth compared with the rest of the nation, and a lot of that is due to Pena and our government."
Clinton wants Pena to fuse community and business leaders with local, state and federal governments in a strategy of public investment in public works projects to replace jobs lost in defense cuts.
If confirmed, Pena faces formidable problems in leading Clinton's still-evolving plan to spend $80 billion over the next four years on infrastructure projects. The outgoing Bush Administration on Wednesday projected federal deficits rising tens of billions of dollars higher than anticipated through 1998, reinforcing the view that Clinton may give a higher priority to deficit reduction than to public works spending.
Meanwhile, minority group leaders across the nation are greeting the nomination of two Latinos to the Cabinet with pride. Pena joins longtime friend and former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, who has been chosen to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Pena "is one of the most qualified people for the job in terms of experience," said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza.
Even some of Pena's staunchest critics on the Denver City Council said that Clinton made a wise choice.
City Councilwoman Kathy Reynolds, who was never a big fan of Pena as mayor, said, "It's true that Federico left Denver a better place than he found it."
To be sure, Reynolds added, Pena's early years as mayor were sprinkled with mistakes.
After a severe blizzard in 1983, for example, Pena dispatched garbage trucks to flatten nearly two feet of snow with their tires.
"All that did was make huge ruts in the roads, which made cars bottom out," Reynolds said.
His most vocal critics worry that Pena may have recklessly driven Denver into insupportable debt and could do the same to the nation.
"I hate to throw cold water on a favorite son of Colorado, but we need a nuts-and-bolts guy to trim and save money, not launch new projects," said Colorado Republican Party Chairman Bruce Benson.
Benson cited the new Denver International Airport as a classic example of an ill-planned public works project. Bonds for the new airport, which is under construction on a windswept plain 24 miles from downtown Denver, are to be repaid with airport landing fees.
The fees "will increase the cost of moving people in and out of the city," Benson said. "We could have spent $100 million to fix the old airport by building a new runway and rearranging concourses so that they could handle jumbo jets."
Marshal Kaplan, dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver, disagreed. "Every one of the major infrastructure projects (launched under the Pena Administration) is manageable and essential to the city and the West," he said.
Pena was born in Laredo, Tex., the third of six children. His father was a cotton broker for a Mexican cotton manufacturer.
An avid jogger, Pena is married to attorney and world-class distance runner Ellen Hart Pena. They have two children.