Kwame Spearman talks about his experience as a CEO a lot.
He mentioned it enough times during a debate of Denver mayoral candidates that one of his opponents referred to him as “our CEO” during a rebuttal.
But Spearman, the co-owner and chief executive officer of the Tattered Cover Book Store chain since December 2020, is adamant someone with his experience is just what the city needs in its next mayor.
Other candidates in the race might have detailed policy proposals, but he has a vision and that’s what matters most for a leader, he says.
“What I can tell you is the first thing that will happen when you sit in that seat and you get the full picture and all of the data is those policy plans are going to change, the specifics are going to change,” Spearman said. “But your vision can remain the same. And your ability to recruit the best people can remain the same. And that’s what the city needs.”
Born and raised in Denver, Spearman is an East High School graduate. His mom is a longtime Denver Public Schools teacher and administrator and his father worked in the city’s IT department during Mayor Wellington Webb’s administration.
Spearman may tout his business experience frequently, but the cornerstone of his campaign isn’t economics, it’s empowering neighborhoods to have more say in how the city is run.
That means giving neighborhoods like Hilltop and Park Hill more say on things like new development and public safety in their boundaries. Instead of broad, city-wide plans, he is pitching crafting tailored actions for unique parts of town.
“We are not going into specific neighborhoods like Cap Hill that are majority renters and figuring out innovative ways to keep rental costs low,” Spearman said. “We are not making our residents feel seen and being heard. And that’s got to change on day one.”
Spearman is a Denver product but he spent a significant amount of time on the East Coast earning a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, a law degree from Yale and a master’s of business administration from Harvard. He’s one of a handful of mayoral candidates with an Ivy League pedigree.
His professional life includes time as a business consultant and the head of an expansion for a co-working company that went bankrupt during the pandemic.
He said he was drawn to return to his home city and be the face of a new ownership group for the storied Tattered Cover by the bookstore’s struggles and by images he was seeing of social unrest in Denver over the summer of 2020 amid the George Floyd protests.
He’s taking a leave of absence as the bookseller’s CEO while running for mayor, something he says the company’s board fully supports. But Spearman’s tenure as the boss there has had its own controversies. Less than a year into his time at the helm, the company was subject to a third-party investigation into alleged ageism and workplace bullying.
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Spearman has denied the allegations at the heart of the investigation and defended his record as CEO noting that the company has continued to grow under extremely difficult economic circumstances for small retailers.
Right now, what he sees in Denver is a city that is making it harder for companies like Tattered Cover to succeed. Rising crime, a painfully high cost of living and homeless encampments are all weighing on the bookstore’s future. He contends he is the right leader to tackle those big problems.
“Quite frankly, the Tattered Cover has employees who are two to three paychecks away from being incredibly housing insecure themselves. So we have to continue to innovate because the system is failing those people,” Spearman said. “We need a political outsider who’s going to come in with a point of view on how we can lead. So that’s why I’m running.”
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