Getting to Know Councilman Kevin Flynn with Coffee and Car Rides

Kevin Flynn, Megan McNeil, Austin Cope, Denver City Council, Denver, City Council, Denver District 4
Kevin Flynn. Photo by Austin Cope.

This is a series profiling Denver’s City Council members. Each month we grab coffee and take a car ride in their district. Along the way, we get an intimate look at their lives, their worldview and most importantly, their goals for their districts. Go here to read past profiles.  

We meet Councilman Kevin Flynn, District 2, at Rosemary’s Café on South Sheridan. It’s a friendly place with a feeling from the ’60s— a place the ad execs from Mad Men used to come when this part of town was thriving. The waitress won’t let our coffee go below half a cup, and it’s clear Flynn meets many people here. A native to Pennsylvania, he worked as a city editor for a suburban Philadelphia daily newspaper. Flynn moved to Denver in the ’80s to work for the Rocky Mountain News for 27 years, where, ironically, he covered the City Council beat.

“It’s a good place to meet folks, everyone knows where it is,” Flynn said. “Evans kind of ends right here. That’s one of my biggest issues. That’s why I wanted to meet here.”

He points out a vacant Target near the restaurant where only a 99-cent store sits in the now-empty shopping center.

“We’re losing businesses whereas other Denver neighborhoods are adding them,” Flynn said. “While this used to be closer to the center of the action it no longer is.”

Then, an unknown number calls him, and he drops his Councilman façade.

“I got in the habit of if you’re not already in my contact list I don’t answer it, and my outgoing message says ‘This is Kevin Flynn, you must leave me a voicemail if you want me to call you back,’” Flynn said.

He still has a landline his calls are forwarded from.

“My wife would get rid of it if I would,” Flynn said.

“I get all these soliciting calls…what I’ve done, this is awful, I probably shouldn’t confess to this. What I’ve done is once I realize it’s a solicitation call, I add it to my contact list under one of several names. So guess who called me one day during the (City Council) meeting?”

He shows us his phone, and it was none other than 45 himself, Donald Trump.

“Pope Francis calls me occasionally. I’ve got Obama on there, Lady Gaga,” Flynn said.

He has this endearing quality of saving solicitation calls as famous politicians and people, perhaps in the hope he’ll get a call one day from them. So, what happens if one day they call?

“They’ll have to leave me a message first. You must leave me a voicemail,” Flynn said.

And so our interview began, uninterrupted and honest.

When asked who he would most want to receive a phone call, his answer is simple, honest and heartfelt— he said it sounds rehearsed.

“The first thing that popped into my mind, I have no idea why is my brother. I had an older brother, he was 15 when he died. He died in 1964 of cancer.”

Flynn said he was right in the middle of a tight-knit family with five boys.

“I would love to see where he is today. He was probably the best of all of us, and I just would love to see what he would’ve done. My dad is 92 next month, and still, he says not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of Dennis.”

His brother Dennis and older brother, Michael both wrote science fiction together. Michael is a well-known science fiction author, and Dennis even made up his own Latin-oriented language, “Flynnieanieab,” that they found in the attic. Kevinco-authored, The Silent Brotherhood, with his Rocky Mountain News colleague Gary Gerhardta, who has passed away. The books tells the story about the 1984 murder of KOA talk show host Alan Berg in Denver, which he covered for the Rocky Mountain News. He also authored The Unmasking in 1993.

In his words, Flynn almost “switched sides” from covering City Council to being on it. Really the deciding factor for him to run for City Council was when the Rocky Mountain News closed its doors. He ran a traffic news website for a short period before the campaign.

“You know what I tell people, pardon my language, but I say, ‘I used to cover the bastards, now I am a bastard.’ One of the corollaries of that is…outside of Chamber, there is a bullet board that has all of our pictures on it, and I started covering City Council in like 1981. As they changed over, I used to look at the faces there, and I used to go by, honestly and I thought, ‘what a collection of bozos,’ and now, my picture is up there, and I realize other people are going by and they’re looking at those pictures and they’re going, ‘what a collection of bozos!’ And so that really helps you keep a perspective, right?”

Kevin Flynn, Megan McNeil, Austin Cope, Denver City Council, Denver, City Council, Denver District 4

Flynn said his beginnings as a journalist have kept him real. He barely considers himself a politician because, to him, a political figure always has their eyes set one the next seat.

“This is what I want to do, and when I’m done with this, my wife and I will pack up the house and we’ll travel and go see the grandkids and stuff like that,” Flynn said.

Flynn grew up Catholic, something he said made him very socially aware. In 1968, Flynn, at only 16 years old, began his first presidential volunteering experience for the Eugene McCarthy campaign.

“Then I went into journalism, and couldn’t be involved in politics at all, but being involved in covering it,” Flynn said. “I always had this appetite for local government being the level of government that helps people the most. What goes on in the city and county building probably has more impact on your day to day life, or an immediate impact, than what happens at the statehouse and definitely what happens in Washington.”

We get in Flynn’s new Chevy to see his district as he tells us all about Harriet Novak, his wife. Classical music is playing, and then a tape of old, romantic, jazzy love songs his wife made for him comes on. Flynn and Harriet have an endearing story— five kids together from previous marriages and an affinity for classical music, its lifestyle and the good ole days. They dated for about 10 years and were engaged for about five.

“Her mother said if you don’t marry him, he’ll go find someone else. I said, ‘that’s not how love works.’ When you’re with the right one, you’re with the right one, whatever the circumstances are. I told Harriet one day, and I reassured her mom, I said, ‘I’ll date you ‘til the day I die, but just do me a favor, the morning you wake up and you feel that it’s okay to be a wife again, just come and get me,'” Flynn said.

So when he bought her a pair of pants from Kohl’s, she told him the next time he saw her wearing the pants, it’d be their wedding day.

“So a lot of guys try to get a woman out of her pants, I try to get her into her pants,” Flynn said.

Harriet, a teacher, used to pick Flynn up from work during the summers for a picnic lunch.

“So one day in August right before school was about to start, she says ‘hey schools starting next week, how about I come pick you up Friday for our last picnic lunch before I go back to school.’ I come down the lobby of Rocky Mountain News, I turn the corner, and she’s wearing the pants,” Flynn said.

They got married at the courthouse with 13 witnesses— family and friends. Their wedding dinner, true to them, was at Columbine Steakhouse on 3rd and Federal, a place where a full steak dinner for two costs about $35 and Flynn calls “a slice of life.”

“I took her there once in a white stretch limo,” Flynn said.

It’s safe to say without Harriet, Flynn wouldn’t be sitting in the Council chambers. She helped him knock on every door, write personal letters to constituents and even spoke Spanish to many voters.

“Even if I would’ve lost, it would have been the time of my life,” Flynn said.

We drive by his official campaign headquarters, Torres Mexican Food, where he and Harriet would go over the plans for the night and put on campaign t-shirts, Flynn’s over his leather jacket in the winter for optimum exposure.

“This is why I didn’t lose any weight while walking neighborhoods because we started here, and we’d just pick up where we left off. It was so much fun. I loved it. Every night after we’d finished, we’d come back here and have dinners, so all the weight I walked off would come back on,” Flynn said.

Meeting his future constituents while knocking on doors was his favorite part about running for City Council, it seems evident his interactions resonated deeply with him, even though he had some doors slammed in his face— a rejection no worse than he’d seen as a journalist. In fact, while he was covering the assassination of Alan Berg, the KOA radio talk show host, he was threatened with death.

“Because of a story I wrote, I got a call that one of the guys in prison who had killed Allen Burg, who was in on the killing, had put out word that he wanted…because of a story I had written. So for a couple of months I lived under the hood of my car,” Flynn said.

But with his past, Flynn learned how to connect with the variety of people in his district, crossing party and social lines.

“We got to meet so many wonderful people from all spectrums, from all age groups. I’ve got millennial and I’ve got seniors. They’re republicans and they’re democrats. They’re independents, Greens. I had a libertarian who voted for me.”

As we drive through the neighborhood, Flynn has a story for nearly every house we pass.

Kevin Flynn, Megan McNeil, Austin Cope, Denver City Council, Denver, City Council, Denver District 4

“I love them. Art is so funny. They’ve got a beautiful yard.”

“The guy who lives here is 93, great guy. He used to be on the Denver school board, and he had a yard sign for me. Harriet and I knocked on his door in I think October of 2014, when we were first doing our rounds. He and his wife, Pauline, both came to the door.  This is a non-partisan seat, but I’m a registered Democrat, and they’re republicans, but I talked to them. I told them what my goals were, and they liked what I had to say, and they put a yard sign for me in their yard,” Flynn said.

A few months later on a second round of canvassing, only Bill opened the door.

“He says, ‘yeah we’re still supporting you and everything, one thing has changed since you were here last time. I lost my wife,’” Flynn tells the story emotionally, choking back tears. “And Harriet immediately reached out and said ‘oh you poor man.’ They were high school sweethearts. They got married at 19, and so we went home, Harriet immediately made up a batch of pasta vangole.”

“This woman here had a yard sign for me,” Flynn said.

We pass a house with a cobblestone driveway. It’s the same cobblestone from the original 15th street downtown.

“The woman here when she answered the door she had an iguana on her shoulder!” Flynn said.

Flynn seems to have a real connection with his neighborhood— a connection that brings him more satisfaction than he thought.

“What gives me most satisfaction is a woman called my office one day, 93 years old…”

She had just lost her husband, who would get the mail from the end of the driveway. Not as mobile, she couldn’t get her mail anymore and asked her letter carrier if he could put her mail in a box if she put one near her door. He said no. After getting her the necessary form, Flynn told her he’d bring two off-duty police officers to yank the mailbox from her driveway after she had a new one near her door. Afterward, her neighbor called saying the woman was so thankful she was crying.

“And that,” he said as tears welled up in his eyes, “And that day I tell you when I went to bed it almost brought me to tears. It meant so much to that woman just to get her mail at her front door, and when I’m done with this, that’s what I’m going to remember. Not that we passed some great policy initiatives that did this or that.”

It’s a surprise to him he has such a soft spot for people, and while he usually claims there’s really no surprise to being on City Council versus covering it, he realized he’s astonished by the fact he’s really doing the same thing he set out to do in journalism— helping people.

“The truth is the biggest surprise is what I’m getting the most satisfaction from, and that’s not the policy stuff because I was a journalist for so many years and you’re dealing with policy. It’s people like the woman in this blue house, Virginia. She’s 94 now. She brought us in and showed us her thimble collection. She’s an original owner, she moved in in 1951. During the campaign she and her husband, her husband has passed away. She’s still living on his pension, and you saw her house, it’s gorgeous. Brentwood has had it’s up and downs— crime, deterioration, lack of city services, and she stayed for 64 years, she stayed. And it’s people like that that make you want to honor your commitment,” Flynn said.

Flynn said he recently worked to get the streets around Virginia’s house paved last year for the first time in about 30 years. While his district is becoming more diverse, many elderly people live there, and so are many he pointed out on our drive.

“Sam and Roxy, I’ve got their funeral cards under the glass on my desk in the City Hall chamber so I can look at them every meeting. They were among the first people to urge me to run, and the both have since passed me away,” Flynn said.

It’s with a heavy heart Flynn carries around death in many aspects of his life. With his brother passing as a child, his mother passing, his first wife passing and many of his constituents being older, death is more than a reality to him, it’s a driving force to live life to the fullest.

“Life is transitory and transitional. There’s a great line in the movie The Green Mile. ‘Each of us owes a death. So what are you going to make of it while you’re here, right?’ And so this is my chance because I can’t retire as a journalist, which I always thought would be my plan, retire as a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News, and they didn’t give me that opportunity. So I’m now one of the people I used to cover, but I feel like I’m still doing the kinds of things I was doing— helping people one at a time, and to me, that’s what it’s all about. (Death is) the only argument my wife and I have ever had. We’ve never had a fight about anything ever. The only thing we ever have an argument about, and it’s good-natured, is who’s going to die first. We just discussed it again this morning. It sounds morbid to say I think about death a lot. It’s not that I think about death, I think about how death is the end of what you need to make sure is a very productive, useful and good life.”

All photography by Austin Cope. Go here to check out our other profiles on city council people in our Coffee and Car Rides series. 

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