Dennis Champine was Aurora’s mayor from 1979 to 1987. During his two terms, the city doubled in size geographically, while increasing in population from about 120,000 to 230,000. Champine, 71, has been a practicing attorney in Aurora for 13 years, specializing in criminal defense, personal injury and drinking and driving cases. A U.S. Marine Corps vet, Champine talks to us about Aurora’s changes, his time as mayor, and the unimaginable tragedy that struck the city last summer.
Q: Did you ever think you’d see the day when Aurora would have its own light rail, a world-class medical campus, a possible Gaylord hotel project, and be at the forefront of commercial suborbital space travel at Front Range Airport?
A: Not specifically, but generally. During my term in office we started to develop a comprehensive plan as to what this city was going to look like 50 years in the future. We knew there would be growth outside our boundaries, but we didn’t want anyone else to have control over that; we decided to control that. So we annexed 50 or 60 square miles while I was in office. What was clear is that this was going to be a diverse community, racially and ethnically. That was pretty exciting. We knew we would have stature in the metropolitan area because of our size.
Q: Is there anything that has surprised you about Aurora since you became mayor in 1979?
A: One of the biggest surprises was that when I was in office, Fitzsimons Army Medical Center was still here. Every year they suggested that they were going to close, and we’d go down and beg them to stay. The last year I was in office they came up again and instead of begging them to stay I said, ‘If you’re going to leave, you should just leave and we’ll do something better with this property.’ I was bluffing. I didn’t think that would happen. But it has happened. That medical complex up there is an incredible surprise and a wonderful thing for the city.
Q: Is there anything you lament about your time in office?
A: No; they were great years. But just toward the end things started to repeat themselves. I was sitting up at city council one night and somebody was talking. I found myself thinking, ‘Come on, come on, I’ve heard this so many times before.’ Then I caught myself, and said, ‘You may have heard it so many times before but you didn’t hear it from him. And if you’re not listening anymore, you need to move on.’ That was in 1986, and that’s when I decided not to run for mayor again.
Q: You never moved on to state-level politics — why?
A: I had given some thought to it after I left. But it’s partisan and our politics here were not. I was contemplating the governor’s office so I went down and started getting involved in Republican politics, but I thought, ‘This isn’t me.’ I left the party and joined the Democratic party in 1988 and thought, ‘This doesn’t seem like me either.’ I’m just not a partisan politician.
Q: Are there any projects you worked on during your time as mayor that you thought were going to come to fruition but didn’t?
A: Yes, we really thought this area (Aurora’s city center, near Interstate 225 and East Alameda Avenue) would have high-rise buildings. We envisioned at the time for it to be a downtown. But that didn’t happen. With the light rail, it might have a chance. But I think the economy will push it more than something like light rail.
Q: Do you have any advice for a newly elected official in local government?
A: Listen. So many times we go into office and we have a perception of what we think is right and what should happen. Certainly we have to be true to that, but the fact is that other people have ideas. If you listen to them, you may change your mind. There are things that I thought really strongly about, and looking back over the years, I came to find out the other side was right. For example, we used to have a city hall down on Colfax and we were outgrowing it. There was an opportunity to purchase a new city hall and I was adamantly opposed to it. But it was the right move. And in retrospect, I’m glad I was in the minority.
Q: Aurora suffered an enormous tragedy last summer with the theater shooting. How did that impact you, and did it change the city?
A: That was just shocking; not believable. But we’re seeing so much of that kind of tragedy these days. I think particularly what it has done is focus this community on how to come together. But on a larger scale, it’s a national thing. I’m a pretty strong proponent of some new gun laws and banning automatic weapons. Hopefully we’re heading in that direction.
Q: Did it surprise you the way the state banded together in the wake of the tragedy?
A: I just expect that from the human race. We are resilient. We have to be, there’s no alternative. You have to bounce back. There is a tomorrow; you’ve got to get up. It’s just who we are.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: I’m going to continue to practice law for as long as I can. I’ll ride my horse more and spend a little more time in my cabin in Cuchara, and I’m going to continue to fight my weight.
Q: What book are you reading now?
A: “A Biography,” by Scott Martelle
Q: What was the last movie you saw?
A: “Zero Dark Thirty”
Q: What was the last restaurant you ate at?
A: Thai Flavor in Aurora
Q: Your trademark fashion statement during your time in office was the bow tie. When was the last time you wore one?
A: When I endorsed Steve Hogan for mayor.
(Answers were edited for length)