Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

PEÑA, FEDERICO (b. 1947)

Federico Fabian Peña was born and raised in South Texas. By age fifty-two he had logged a distinguished political career as a Colorado state legislative leader, Denver's mayor, and the head of two major federal agencies as a member of President Bill Clinton's cabinet.

Born in 1947 in Laredo, Texas, as one of six children, Federico Peña was raised in an upper-middle-class Hispanic family. His father, a Texas A&M University graduate, was a successful cotton broker. Peña's ancestors had helped in the founding of Laredo, and several held elective posts during the Civil War. His lineage, therefore, was one of both economic and political participation and success.

Peña's early schooling was in English-speaking Catholic schools in Brownsville, Texas, he was a top performer in both academics and athletics. Federico went on to the University of Texas in Austin for his bachelor of science and law degrees (1969 and 1972, respectively). In 1973 he moved to Denver where he worked with the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund and as a private attorney, focusing primarily on civil rights cases and voting issues.

Federico Peña's elective political career began at age thirty-one in the Colorado House of Representatives. In search of an aggressive leader, the Democrats selected Peña as minority party leader in only his second term. Then, in a surprise move, the promising young lawmaker abandoned legislative life at the end of that term in 1983 to run for mayor of Denver. A virtual unknown, Peña challenged fourteen- year incumbent mayor Bill McNichols and won a close and improbable victory. Peña's campaign slogan was "Imagine a Great City," and it featured a high-energy, streetlevel approach to politics and an aggressive voter registration drive bolstered by an estimated 4,000 volunteers. The new mayor's first term was rocky; he inherited a municipal budget deficit and a depressed local economy. Peña sought to "open City Hall" and establish a plan for economic recovery, but critics said he was slow to establish his cabinet, and an initial push for a new convention center failed.

In the face of opposition, Peña sought a second term. On the eve of the election he was roughly twenty points down in the polls, but again he won a close election. With an economic strategy in place, and with more experience, Mayor Peña launched a number of extremely successful capital development projects. His reputation solidified, he once again surprised observers by rejecting a run for a third term. Peña had recently married Ellen Hart, a world-class distance runner. They'd begun a family and he wanted more time at home.

But within a year Peña was back in public life, first on President Clinton's transition team, and then for four years as secretary of transportation and two years as secretary of energy. In 1998 Peña returned to Denver with his wife and three young children, entering the business world as senior adviser with Vestar Capital Partners.

Federico Peña's career in politics was marked by major achievements as well as by the criticism that comes with public life. Critics characterized him as indecisive in his first mayoral term, and in his second he was the object of a failed recall movement. But Peña was also the force behind a new Denver airport, convention center, performing arts center, and library, as well as improvements in streets, parks, and neighborhoods. Denver gained a major league baseball team during his tenure. In Washington, Peña successfully reduced government personnel and cost levels and championed the causes of mass transit and technology. He was a relentless champion of civil rights and civil liberties. Peña's expressed philosophy was that personal success flows from hard work and vision, and community success rests upon leadership, inclusion, participation, and investment. The route to Denver's International Airport is along Peña Boulevard.

See also CITIES AND TOWNS: Denver, Colorado.

John A. Straayer Colorado State University

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