Sitting down with Guillermo ‘Bill’ Vidal, you are immediately taken with his peaceful and calming demeanor. The 62-year-old former immigrant, former Denver mayor and former state transportation director exudes a quiet confidence. But, while these subtle qualities are evident, there is also no doubt there is great substance.
Despite the unassuming exterior, Vidal is one of the most polished and skilled political and professional talents in recent Colorado history. He will soon be exiting his job as President and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver, another top flight position for a man who has answered the call when executive talent has been required.
Vidal, whose personal story reads like a modern day Dickens fable, plans to remain in Denver barring an offer ‘he can’t refuse.’ He leaves the Chamber job after two challenging years. But the truth is he never imagined himself running the show in the first place. More than anything, he says, fate came calling; he simply answered the door.
When he took the job, the Chamber had just gone through a high profile tumble that saw his predecessor’s name appearing daily in the papers and nightly on the news. He was named in a criminal complaint that forced his resignation. Vidal restored calm and credibility to the body but not without dealing with a few challenges from within and without.
Some members, he recalls, thought he was not doing enough to help their businesses or the Chamber’s growth. “I lost a few folks,” he says. Without naming names, Vidal says others told him he was becoming “too Democratic.” Under Vidal, the Chamber supported the Assets Bill---in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants---and a bill that provided drivers licenses to undocumented. He also stood behind Amendment 66, school finance reform. Vidal says it is true that the Chamber gave its support but only with board approval. He explains but offers no apology for his positions.
To know Vidal, it helps to know a bit of his history, which is rooted in a pre-revolutionary Cuba. A pre-revolutionary Cuba is a concept that, for many younger people, has never existed. Cuba has been a political persona non grata nation to this country for a half century.
But the events of fifty years ago on that island nation are part of Vidal’s real-life DNA. The revolution changed his and his family’s life in a way that transcends simple drama. The whole thing plays out like a Russian novel. His parents had few choices; stay on the island and conform to the autocratic rule of a dictator or take their chances. They took their chances, putting their three boys on a plane bound for Miami and an uncertain future.
In just hours, life went from stability and sunshine to a silent scream in an orphanage in Pueblo, Colo. Palm trees became smokestacks in a steel town and language — the stuff of questions, requests and orders — became mostly unknown sounds. For a ten-year-old, Vidal may as well have landed on the dark side of the moon.
But, as he has throughout his life, he made the most of his situation. He mastered the language, graduated from college and found a path that put him on track for a grand adventure. With an engineering degree, he worked at the state department of transportation, ultimately becoming its director under Gov. Roy Romer, a man Vidal speaks of in superlatives.
Later, he accepted then-Mayor John Hickenlooper’s offer to run Denver’s Public Works and serve as Deputy Mayor. When Hickenlooper became governor, Vidal took the city’s top job and briefly toyed with the idea of running for mayor.
While there are parts of that story that remain private and leave the impression that being mayor — the elected mayor — is the job he really wanted, Vidal decided being the best acting mayor was better than being the best wannabe mayor.
“I had a list of things I wanted to accomplish,” Vidal said, who had less than a year to work on his agenda, an agenda that did not include a political campaign. “I just could not have lived with the thought that I would have spent seven or eight months as mayor and not have accomplished a thing.”
What might have been is not something Vidal worries about. But the reality is that there remains a sore spot — perhaps even resentment — as a result of a campaign waged by Gov. Hickenlooper that challenged Vidal’s integrity. Hickenlooper is on record as saying Vidal gave his word that he would not run for mayor. Vidal says without hesitation and with unwavering conviction that no such promise was ever given. The conversation, he says, never took place.
But after nearly forty years of solving problems and overseeing billion dollar budgets, Vidal now wants to take some time with his wife, Gabriela, to decompress. His wife is also dealing with breast cancer and Vidal has put her welfare at the top of any lists.
Not long ago in a quiet conversation with his wife, Vidal recalled her saying, “I don’t know if we’ve done enough.” As he remembered the poignancy in her words, it resonated. So, as they begin the next step of the journey, Vidal wants to “look for purpose” and how to contribute to the greater good.
His altruism comes from life. “Not everybody comes from a mom and dad who nurture you and have the money to send you to college,” he says between sips of coffee. Vidal says he will never stop trying to change the things he can. “Somebody helped me when I came to this country.”
Sports and physical fitness — he works out regularly — will always be part of his life. Perhaps, there will be a trip to Cuba. But, Vidal leaves no doubt that lots of time will be budgeted for writing in the days ahead. He has already written his autobiography, “Boxing for Cuba: An Immigrant’s Story of Despair, Endurance, & Redemption.” He has ideas for two more books swirling among his thoughts. One is tentatively titled, “The Accidental Mayor.”
While there remains much to consider and perhaps undertake, Vidal is a man at peace with his accomplishments; not so much as a badge of honor but more as a testament to someone willing to work for a greater good.
He is thankful for the peace that finally came between him and his father, a staunch conservative whose views differed from his moderate son. “He would not be defeated,” Vidal remembers of his late father. Roberto Emiliano Vidal, a respected pharmacist in Cuba, sacrificed everything to come to a new country where he took bottom rung jobs, including janitorial, because his pharmacy credentials were not accepted here. But in his sixties, his father finally earned a license as a pharmacist and the right to once again be called “Dr. Vidal,” in his Florida community.
Beside his father and Romer, Vidal also includes his mother-in-law, Raquel, as one of his heroes. A widow at a young age, she raised four children in a strife-torn Chile, each of whom earned graduate degrees and became successful. “Her will and guidance enabled that to happen.”
And then, there are two others — an individual and a movement — who are heroes he knows he can never thank enough. One he never met, the others include too many to ever know. But, on a nearly daily basis he gives thanks to each.
“Dr. Martin Luther King and the people who worked for civil rights are heroes,” Vidal says. “None of this would have been possible without them. I walked through the doors they opened.”