Donkeys return to Denver |

Donkeys return to Denver

Nathan Rodriguez
photo illustration by Amanda Swanson

One hundred years have passed since Denver last hosted the Democratic National Convention.

Just as the convention in 1908 was the first held west of the Mississippi, this year finds the Democrats making history by nominating an African-American candidate for president.

At Denver’s last convention, torrential rain during the first few days ruined nearly all the decorations. This year, Focus on the Family Action recently pulled a video from its Web site that had encouraged people to pray for “rain of biblical proportions” during Obama’s scheduled appearance at Invesco Field on Aug. 28th.

Even marketing has remained the same, said Bill Convery, Colorado state historian.

“Denver was only 50 years old then, and had a chance to be put in the national spotlight,” he said. “It was a fierce competition with Louisville, Atlantic City, Philadelphia and New York all contenders. But Denver promoted its mountains, the climate, scenery, and the promise of a rent-free new municipal auditorium … They also offered $100,000 to offset expenses, and it wound up being the cash that attracted the Democrats most,” he added.

Given the opportunity to showcase itself, Denver didn’t disappoint. For four days, Moffatt Railroad hauled in snow from Rollins Pass, and, with help from Denver Public Works, dumped it in piles outside the convention center.

The Wall Street Journal had reported the snow was to cool the convention center, but this wasn’t the real intent, Convery said.

“It was a formal publicity stunt. It was both a ‘welcome to the city of Denver,’ and a chance to say ‘we have the ability to make it snow in July,’ he said.

“Many of the delegates were from the south and had never seen snow … Outside the convention, there were snowball fights, and then things got a little out of hand,” he said. “Some delegates actually took the snowball fight into the convention, so 50 people were arrested, taken down to the police station, given a lecture and released.”

This year, the city plans a little more than a pile of snow outside the convention center, and officials say they’re ready to take full advantage of the national spotlight.

“Denver has never seen anything like this,” said Richard Grant, spokesman for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This is the largest welcome program in the history of the city, with more signs in stores and street signs than ever before. Everybody’s excited, but of course there are a lot of things left to do.”

With almost all of the city’s 42,000 hotel rooms booked, the DNC is officially the biggest event in the history of the Rocky Mountains, Grant said, noting there will be 17,000 journalists on hand, compared to the 10,000 at the Olympics in Salt Lake City.

“When people check in to their hotel room, there will be a red light flashing indicating they have a voicemail,” he said. “It’s a welcome message from Governor Ritter. When they turn on the TV, they’ll have a 5-minute video of Mayor Hickenlooper.”

The city has been preparing for the convention for the last 15 months, he said, which included everything from supplying buttons to hotel staff, to having hotel clerks and taxi cab drivers take hospitality courses.

In putting itself in the spotlight, Denver hopes to call attention to some of its better attributes, namely, a healthy lifestyle enjoyed by many residents.

The Wall Street Journal article, “The Greenest Show on Earth” claimed ” in addition to snow cooling the convention ” that the ‘Lean ‘n Green’ catering guidelines for the DNC include a ban on all fried food, and a mandate that each meal should include ‘at least three of the following colors: red, green, yellow, blue/purple, and white.'”

Not true, said Chris Lopez, communications director for the Democratic Convention host committee. The Lean ‘n Green menu was actually a demonstration project that caterers had the option of attending, and there aren’t any restrictions on any type of food. Instead, the main emphasis of the convention is “generally about body movement, getting out of the car and eating right,” said Lopez.

“We just tried to capture Colorado being recognized as the least obese state in the nation by encouraging people to move around, and downtown Denver is very accessible by foot and bicycle,” he said. “So we’re definitely trying to push the concept of movement and eating healthy as practical guides as people come in and experience Denver.”

To help matters, Humana and Bikes Belong, a Boulder nonprofit, donated 1,000 bicycles for the convention.

“Right now they’re being assembled and taken to bike stations throughout Denver for people to check in and check out as part of the bike sharing program,” Lopez said. “We thought this was a good way to introduce bike sharing not only for the people at the convention, but people that live and work downtown.”

The bike-sharing program is modeled after a popular program in Europe, and allows people to check out bikes for free ” with a swipe of a driver’s license and credit card for security purposes ” and return them to one of 10 stations spread across the downtown area. A lock and helmet are complimentary with each rental.

“We’re going to develop a pilot program and let it blossom into a staple of Denver’s downtown environment,” he said. “It’s going to be one of the legacy pieces from the convention this year.”

Among the other legacy pieces from the convention will be the half-dozen workshops for local businesses to help them create sustainable business plans. Environmentally-friendly suggestions vary depending on the type of business, but Lopez said restaurants may focus on composting, recycling and the type of products used, while the hotel industry may look at different light fixtures or paper products.

“Another thing with hotels is those that host delegates are introducing a sustainable key card,” he said. The concept has been used in Europe, but two Colorado companies developed the new wooden cards, which are compatible with normal electronic locks for hotel rooms. “They’re made from 100-percent biodegradable wood, which enriches the soil as it decomposes,” he said. “And all the wood comes from forests that are being managed for sustainability.”

The city also will distribute reusable water bottles, with Denver Water dispatching water wagons for free refills.

Finally, will feature a calculator that allows people to offset the carbon footprint of their travel to the city. With a swipe of a credit card, convention attendees will be able to send “counterbalancing” proceeds to the Colorado energy fund, a branch of the state energy department.

Demand for tickets to the convention has been overwhelming. According to DNC officials, more than 80,000 requests were processed in the first 48 hours.

And with an expected influx of 50,000 people to the Denver area for the convention, hotel rooms are scarce and people are turning to alternatives.

“We’ve had people come to us who had planned on sleeping in their cars or in parks,” said Brian Chesky, co-founder of, a Web site that allows travelers to stay with local residents. Chesky said the San Francisco-based site, which has members create user profiles, is making its first big launch around the DNC.

“In Denver, we’ve had more than 630 people put up their rooms or sometimes their entire homes up for rent,” he said. The majority of rentals are going for $50 to $60, but can go as low as $10 or as high as $1,000 for entire houses. “People are coming from literally every part of the country, and we even have some people from Europe coming in as well.”

To cater to convention-goers, the site offers an option where hosts can pledge a portion of their rent to the Obama campaign.

The large number of non-residents flocking to Denver coupled with the convenient placement of Labor Day weekend directly following the convention has officials upbeat about economic potential.

“Historically, conventions are break-even affairs, but the long-term potential for this year is huge,” said Kate Horle, director of communications for Metro Denver economic development. “Usually the nominee is a shoo-in at this point, but the whole country and world will be watching, so the chance to highlight the state is unprecedented.”

Convention and city officials have estimated the convention will bring $160 million to the city after factoring in everything from air travel, the average time a delegate will spend in the area, car rentals, food, beverages and souvenirs.

The short-term economic bump doesn’t factor in potential profit for future events if things run smoothly, said Chris Lopez, who argued the environmental emphasis of the convention was more than just a venture in altruism.

“We’re finding out that cities that can pull off ‘green conventions’ are more attractive to the larger conventions that are looking for a host city. That characteristic of being environmentally-sensitive can now be a deciding factor for a lot of those groups.”

The DNC may be hosted in Denver, but the Vail area should benefit as well, Lopez said. Just as Olympic coverage has featured shots of China’s beaches, which are 800 miles away from the games, DNC coverage will likely have glamour shots of the mountain communities, Lopez said. But beyond a few nice shots, a more concerted effort should bring about a decent spike in tourism.

“We’ve teamed up with Vail Resorts to market the area to both sponsors and delegates, and we’ve been hearing that a lot of people plan to bring family and friends with them, and also plan on traveling beyond the metro area because of Labor Day weekend,” he said.

It’s been 40 years since the much-maligned 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Several groups have promised to disrupt the convention, with familiar monikers like Students for a Democratic Society and Recreate ’68.

Harvie Branscomb, co-chair of the Eagle County Democrats, was at the convention in 1968 and has met with protestors who plan to be in full force in Denver.

“The protestors were not disrespectful in the least,” he said. “There are a variety of people down there, not just protestors, but a few anarchists as well. Really it’s just a lot of people who want to participate in a political discussion, and that’s what a convention should be about.”

Branscomb said the opportunity for panel discussions would act as an outlet for dissent, and doesn’t anticipate any problems.

And even though there are whispers that Hillary Clinton will be nominated, most analysts have dismissed that possibility as die-hard rhetoric.

With what appears to be a smooth, well thought-out planning process, the 2008 DNC should prove to be both an historic political event and a symbol of just how far Denver and the Democratic Party have come in the last 100 years.

“The Democratic Party now is 180 degrees from where it was in 1908,” said historian Bill Convery. “It’s still a party of the people, but ‘people’ is now defined more broadly than it was in 1908.” He said the 1908 convention hosted 1,008 delegates with just five women, “and today we have a woman who was a very serious contender for office.”

More to the point, Convery said, is in 1908, the Democrats were the party of racial superiority and apartheid.

“The Denver convention in 1908 was the first time that blacks approached the Democrats to request a civil rights platform, and they were summarily rejected,” he said. “So there’s a sort of historical resonance in nominating an African-American candidate today that reaches back to the convention from 100 years ago.”

Nathan Rodriguez can be reached for comment at (970) 748-2982 or

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