Living Dialogues episode 39: Joseph Ellis – 2008 U.S. Elections – Historical Tipping Point and Evolutionary Perspective – Part II
The son of a cotton broker, Federico Peña moved with his family to Brownsville, Texas, where he grew up. Federico graduated from the University of Texas Law School and served briefly as a legal aid lawyer in El Paso and, after 1973, in Denver. The bright, young attorney with the ponytail worked in private practice and as an attorney for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. In 1979, he won election to the Colorado House of Representatives, where he became leader of the minority Democrats. In 1983, he upset incumbent William H. McNichols, Jr. and other political veterans to become Denver’s first Spanish-surnamed mayor.
Federico Peña proved to be one of Denver’s most ambitious, energetic and able mayors. He worked to give Denver a new airport, a major league baseball team, a grand new central library, a new convention center and restored many parks, parkways and public buildings, resurrecting the City Beautiful-era dreams of Mayor Robert W. Speer.
Peña set aside one percent of the cost of all municipal building projects (over $1 million) for art. He championed historic preservation, helping to give Denver more than 33 historic districts and some 350 individually designated landmarks. Although easily winning a second term, Peña declined to run a third time in 1992. In 1993, President William J. Clinton selected him as Secretary of Transportation. In 1998, Peña returned to private business and a private life in the city he had greatly bettered.