How to Pull Off a Convention

Laudatory praise of the logistics seems to reflect consensus opinion about the Democratic National Convention in Denver. To find out how the city pulled it off, GOVERNING spoke with Guillermo Vidal, Denver's deputy mayor and director of public works.
by | September 15, 2008 AT 3:00 AM

In a recent New York Review of Books podcast, novelist Michael Chabon said of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, "I had the sense that things went very, very smoothly, indeed. Some of the credit for that goes to Denver, because Denver seemed to be extremely prepared for this. Denver had the infrastructure, the transit infrastructure to handle it quite easily, it appeared to me."

That kind of laudatory praise of the logistics seems to reflect consensus opinion about the Denver convention. To find out how the city pulled it off, GOVERNING spoke with Guillermo Vidal, Denver's deputy mayor and director of public works.

GOVERNING: Give me a sense of the scope of a project like this -- how many people were involved and how many man-hours.

Bill Vidal: I can tell you that it dominated my life for over a year.

The political conventions, along with the Super Bowl and the Olympics, are the four highest security events in the United States. These four events require the kind of coordination that's really pretty consuming.

From the amount of Secret Service people and getting our police department and other police departments involved, and to have the amount of events we did, it was in the thousands. From public works, my department alone, we had about 500 people.

The other thing that I thought was an impossible thing to achieve was that my mayor (John Hickenlooper) decided we would still maintain Denver as open for business. How do you do that -- when you have to have streets closed for security, how do you have people coming downtown?

It really took a close, integrated effort between a department like public works, the fire department, the Secret Service and the police department.

GOVERNING: Tell me about coordinating between so many different agencies. Was it a matter of working together and building trust over a lot of meetings, or were you granted special dictatorial powers, or how did that work?

Bill Vidal: I think it helps that I am the deputy mayor. With that, I get an ounce of extra respect -- and I emphasize the ounce.

But we have good relations with our departments. We've had big events before -- we had the Pope's visit in '93, the NBA All-Star Game in 2005. However, this was the first event that had the post-9/11 security requirements on top of it.

Much more with Bill Vidal:

GOVERNING: It seems like you got nothing but great reviews.

Bill Vidal: I think several things worked in our favor. One was, we got wonderful weather. I mean, it was Chamber of Commerce weather. August can be rainy and hot, but it was sunny and always about 80 degrees, so delegates were out walking around quite a bit.

Also had we pedal cabs come. They did greate business. With the weather being what it was, it allowed people to make multi modal choices and they did. We had shuttles for delegates.

  And we had a share-a-bike program. It was free. In those four to five days, we had people from 29 countries and all 50 states register to ride them. We had 5,500 rides todal, or 26,414 miles.

I was just reading an email, they said 818,899 calories were burned. I'm not sure how you can measure that.

I think the fact that we had so much use of the multimodal choices was also something we were pleasantly surprised at.

But we succeeded in making this the greenest convention ever. Even for all the special events, we had recycling. Even for the media, we had composting stations set up. We now realize that it's very achievable.

GOVERNING: What sort of changes did you have to make when they decided to hold Obama's speech at the football field? What sort of wrench did that throw into your plans?

Bill Vidal: That added a twist to it when the campaign decided to have the event at Invesco. It was stressful. Where we had about a year to prepare for the Pepsi Center, we only had a couple of months to handle Invesco.

When we were dealing with the Pepsi Center, there were about 25,000 people,  with the media When we moved to Invesco, then we were talking 80 to 85,000 people.

You had to have credentials to come in, plus you had to be checked for metals. Then they had to set up a security perimeter. All the Invesco parking had been taken away for security purposes.

With the Invesco event, we knew we had the parking capacity downtown. We told people to come downtown and we offered shuttles. We even used Denver public school buses to haul people around in those shuttles.

In the meantime, we were helping with security. We were sweeping the area constantly, working with our police department to remove any obstacles, removing bricks and barrels and things like that which could have been used by someone wanting to make trouble.

We had to expand that effort to Invesco. And we had to set up a parade route, allow people to give a message, whether pro-life or whatever, a parade route to go to the Pepsi Center, now we have to provide the same type of access at Invesco.

In essence, it doubled for us what we needed to do.

GOVERNING: Having gone through this event, is there anything that looking back you wish you'd done differently, or anything you learned that you will be able to use for the next mega-event?

Bill Vidal: I had no idea we would find so much material when we were going through alleys. This wasn't literally sweeping, this was really going through with our police department through alleys, seeing if we found something strange like a gas can chained to a fence, a thing that would make you suspicious.

What I would rather have done, maybe a week ahead of time, we would have been sweeping the area, make sure we were already collecting things in advance. We had no idea whether it was stashed there or whether it had been there for a while.

The other is, the crowds for the Obama speech. Even though we told people they should plan to wait 2-3 hours, I was surprised that people did it.

Never before have I witnessed that people would go through the lengths that they did to see a political speech.

The Obama people told us that, that lots of people come from all over and they come for a long time. But people weren't prepared with water, or they thought they could leave the line to go to the bathroom. You have to think about people standing in line for a mile or two.

GOVERNING: When we talked before the convention, you said you probably wouldn't see any events yourself. Did you get a chance to actually see any of what you spent a year preparing for?

Bill Vidal: Most of the time, I was right here (in his office). I went to the media party before it started, that was on Saturday.

I just barely got to Invesco Field at 7:30 to see the Obama speech and I was lucky to get in. (My wife) was there already, and I was able to meet her right as the video for Obama started.

But there were really just too many things going on for me to get to anything.