Pena, Choice for Transportation Secretary, Found Success After Rocky Start

January 10, 1993|By ALAN GOTTLIEB

DENVER — Denver. -- When Federico Pena announced in November, 1990 that he would not seek a third term as Denver's mayor, he surprised many people who thought he had just come into his own as a politician and administrator.

After surviving a rocky first term, winning a second term in 1987 by just 3,000 votes and then beating back a recall attempt in 1988, Mr. Pena went out in a blaze of glory.

Now, just 18 months after retiring from public life into what he had hoped would be a lucrative private investment business, Mr. Pena, 45, has been summoned by President-elect Clinton to serve as Transportation Secretary.

His qualifications for the job aren't immediately apparent, but friends and foes alike counsel against underestimating the diminutive man with big ideas -- ideas he was largely successful in implementing here.

In the last two years of his administration, Mr. Pena secured $501 million in federal funding for the new, $2.3 billion Denver International Airport, won voter approval to proceed with the project, oversaw construction and completion of a $126 million downtown convention center, convinced voters to approve a $241 million bond issue to finance a host of public improvements, talked a balky United Airlines into committing to the new airport and helped Denver win a major league baseball expansion franchise.

These final triumphs capped what had in many ways been a frustrating eight years. Although Mr. Pena, then 36, captured the city's imagination when he was elected the city's first minority mayor in 1983, his popularity slipped toward the end of his first term, as the region slid into a deep and prolonged recession.

He never regained that early popularity. When Mr. Pena left office on a high note in June 1991, his approval rating had risen to 48 percent, its highest level in years. Some of his supporters blamed racism for Mr. Pena's image problems. But in a predominantly white city that elected Mr. Pena twice and then a black man, Wellington Webb, to replace him, this argument appears weak.

For most of his time in office, Mr. Pena seemed wooden and tense in public. This, coupled with a tendency to be thin-skinned, came across as arrogance. As a result, he suffered a stormy relationship with many of the 13 City Council members and some reporters.

"He tends to polarize on issues," said Ted Hackworth, a conservative who was Mr. Pena's most outspoken critic on the city council. "He would just shut you out if you started to argue an issue with him. His attitude was, 'We're going to do it my way.' As mayor in a strong mayor system he could do that, but as transportation secretary he won't be as successful. He'll have to learn how to justify and argue his positions."

Critics also say he'll have to learn to juggle pressure from interest groups more effectively. At various times during his tenure, he angered black and Hispanic advocacy groups, which felt he wasn't doing enough to secure contracts for minority businesses on the city's slew of public works projects. And, like Mr. Hackworth, leaders of these groups say Mr. Pena often didn't heed their complaints.

Some people also complained that Mr. Pena relied too heavily on cumbersome citizens' committees he appointed to study issues and make recommendations. The committees did slow things down. But they also helped create a consensus for costly initiatives, such as the $241 million bond issue, that might well have been rejected by voters had their input not been sought.

Mr. Pena seemed to begin enjoying the job during his second term. He loosened up noticeably after his marriage in May 1988 to lawyer and world-class marathoner Ellen Hart. His fractious relationship with the media improved.

Why, then, did he decide to step down? "The tough decision that is rarely made is to look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'Have you done basically what you have set out to do?' " Mr. Pena said at the time. "I have looked at myself in the mirror, and I say, 'Yes. This is the time to step aside.' "

Critics speculated that Mr. Pena saw stormy days ahead. With air traffic down and Continental Airlines in bankruptcy, the $2.3 billion airport project faced a turbulent future. The convention center's bookings were lagging far behind projections. And Denver residents were beginning to feel over-taxed and over-extended.

There was controversy over developers -- who had contributed to Mr. Pena's re-election campaign -- profiting from the location of the new airport, 23 miles northeast of downtown.

So how will Mr. Pena fare as transportation secretary? He has an unlikely booster in Councilman Hackworth, who rarely has had a kind word for Mr. Pena. Mr. Hackworth said Mr. Pena's inexperience will serve him well in his new job, because the new $151 billion federal highway transit bill requires a new approach to how funds are allocated.

The bill, Mr. Hackworth said, makes local government an equal partner with state and federal governments in deciding which projects get funded. "What we in local government are finding in the first year is a reluctance to change. State and federal governments want to retain control. I see Pena coming in with an unbiased attitude. He has an affinity with local government and can understand why we think things can be done differently."

And, Mr. Hackworth said grudgingly, Mr. Pena is a quick study: "I'd be the last guy to say he's not a bright and intelligent

individual. He definitely is that."

Alan Gottlieb covers urban and minority affairs for the Denver Post.

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