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Denver, awaiting the Democrats, hits rocky patch

Times Staff Writer

For nearly a decade, city leaders here have wooed the Democrats, hoping to lure their national convention to this often-overlooked town and showcase its new public transit system, bustling downtown and sweeping views of the Rocky Mountains.

Municipal leaders were jubilant when they won the right to hold this year’s event. But the convention is raising questions about whether this perennial booster town has bitten off more than it can chew.

The host committee is as much as $10 million short in fundraising, and financial difficulties have forced it to cancel two dozen parties for delegates. Denver officials are scrambling to deal with the logistical challenges of Barack Obama’s acceptance speech being held at an outdoor stadium instead of in the arena where the rest of the convention will take place. Even special daisies that the city bred partly to show off for the convention are failing to sprout.

Criticism has been so harsh that this month the host committee felt compelled to issue a news release defending its much-mocked catering guidelines, which recommend organic produce and color-coordinated meals and discourage fried food.

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“It’s an embarrassment, particularly for the political class,” said Floyd Ciruli, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party who is now an independent pollster unaffiliated with the convention effort. “At this point, everybody’s thinking about the burdens rather than the benefits.”

Local political leaders and the host committee insist everything is fine, and that any bumps along the way will be overshadowed by the attention showered on the city next month.

“That’s a little bit of white noise around the perimeter,” said Mayor John Hickenlooper. “Did we ever dream we’d have a candidate of this historic magnitude? Did we ever dream we’d have a candidate who’d make his acceptance speech in front of 80,000 people and have to turn away another 80,000?”

Nonetheless, at a conference on Western issues last week, Hickenlooper referred to the event as the “blasted convention” and compared it to a summer he spent painting a house for which he was never paid. “If we’d known back then what we know now, we’d never have done it,” he said, before quickly adding, “and what an incredible shame that would have been.”

Last month the host committee said it was $10 million short of its $40-million target, but it now refuses to discuss fundraising totals.

Officials blame several factors: The drawn-out primary battle sapped would-be donors. The economic downturn has hit Denver hard because the city’s relatively modest corporate base includes struggling companies such as Frontier Airlines, which is reorganizing under bankruptcy law protection. And business leaders say attention and money are being diverted by union-led ballot initiatives that they are fighting, measures they insist could destroy their livelihoods.

Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said his organization was going to donate $250,000 to the convention but had to hold back $150,000 to fight the initiatives. “There’s a lot of calls on the money right now,” he said.

Denver leaders say they are determined to meet their goals. “We will find the money and get it done,” Clark said. “When you’re an aspirational city, you don’t walk away from your place on the world stage.”

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Since it raised money to lure the transcontinental railroad away from Cheyenne in the 1860s, Denver has tried to will its way to greatness. A hundred years ago it held its last Democratic National Convention to showcase its then-mayor’s attempt to build a European-style “city beautiful” with grand boulevards and Beaux-Arts statues.

In the last decade, Denver has built an immense airport, now the world’s 11th busiest. It revived its faded downtown, now speckled with clubs, restaurants and condos, with a new wing on its art museum designed by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. It has invested in a $6-billion project to build 119 miles of light rail.

Denver competed unsuccessfully for the 2000 Democratic National Convention, which was held in Los Angeles. The city was the sentimental favorite this year for a Democratic Party eager to highlight its new reach in the West. Hickenlooper vowed the convention would be the most environmentally friendly one yet.

Problems swiftly surfaced, starting with fundraising. The host committee told caterers they should make “every effort” to ensure that each plate consisted of 70% organic food and 50% fruits and vegetables; include nothing fried; and contain at least three of these five colors: red, green, yellow, purple/blue and white.

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After caterers complained and the policy was mocked in the media, the host committee put out a defensive news release saying the guidelines were voluntary and fried food would still be available.

“That was not a good start, creating the food police,” said Councilman Charlie Brown.

To add insult to injury, special “Denver daisies,” bred for the city’s 150th anniversary in November and designed to bloom during the convention, are having a hard time growing. Only about a third have blossomed -- an issue so serious that the City Council heard a report on it this month.

For their part, many Denver residents, apparently fearful that security measures will paralyze the compact downtown, say they plan to skip town the week of the convention.

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Steve Farber, co-chairman of the host committee, denied that the city was in over its head. He said fundraising had picked up since Obama clinched the delegates needed for the nomination last month.

“We had confidence in the city, and I really believe the companies within the city and Colorado have stepped up,” he said.

Ciruli said the convention would probably be a success, especially for Democrats eager to expand out of their base on the coasts.

“The backdrop is still working very well for them,” he said of the national party. “I’m just not sure it’s working very well for Denver.”

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.

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