Stevie from the West Side
Steven Farber is a political and sports powerbroker whose biggest impact may be in the field of health care
Published in 2007 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine
on March 9, 2007
Updated on September 8, 2016
It was 1998 and Steven Farber was surprised by the voice on the other end of the phone: Bill Owens, the man who had just been elected the first Republican governor of Colorado since 1975. As a lifelong Democrat and campaign manager for outgoing Gov. Roy Romer, Farber hadn’t exactly been stumping for Owens’ gubernatorial bid, so he wondered what the future leader of the state of Colorado wanted. Turned out he wanted—and got—a meeting.
“We chatted,” Farber remembers, “and he said that he would like to enlist my support over the next four years as governor. He said he might call and ask for my help.”
When Owens told Farber to think it over, Farber waved him off.
“I said, ‘You know, Governor, the fact that you came over and reached out to me shows me what kind of governor you’re going to be.’” In 2003, Farber was appointed to Owens’ Commission of Civil Service Reform.
That Owens would reach out across party lines also tells us something about the man to whom he was reaching. Farber’s name has never appeared on a ballot, but he’s one of the city’s top powerbrokers, and his downtown Denver office is adorned with photos of some of America’s most powerful politicos: Bill Clinton speaking at a 1994 Denver engagement at which Farber introduced him; Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at Farber’s house in 2004, during a fundraiser for President Clinton’s presidential museum and library. Farber has twice dined at the White House as a guest of George H. W. Bush and has a 23-year friendship with Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
Farber is especially active in politics at the local level, working with the likes of Gov. Owens, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, former mayor Wellington Webb and Rep. Mark Udall. Former mayor Frederico Pena once worked at his law firm—Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber—as did former Colorado Attorney General Gail Norton. He was a member of the Site Advisory Committee for the 2000 Democratic National Convention, and he co-chaired the host committee that is bringing the convention to Denver in 2008.
Though a Democrat, Farber, 63, is not afraid to cross political lines by supporting old friend and former Republican Sen. Hank Brown in both his political and academic careers. Brown is now the president of Farber’s alma mater, the University of Colorado.
“Hank and I were fraternity brothers back in 1961,” says Farber. “He was essentially my pledge father. If you were to say who was a perfect fit for CU at this time, many of us that knew Hank Brown would have said he’s the man for the job.”
“[Farber] supports people, not parties,” says Hickenlooper, who sought Farber’s advice when running for mayor in 2003.
With his connections and political clout, Farber could have easily pursued a career in politics, but the attorney prefers to perform his civic duty away from the spotlight. “My political aspirations are to help the people I think are most qualified get elected,” he says.
Not bad for someone who wasn’t expected to live past kindergarten.
The first time Farber’s kidneys failed, he was a toddler—so young, in fact, he doesn’t remember being sick. “If not for treatment I received at Children’s Hospital I probably wouldn’t have made it,” says Farber, who now serves on the hospital’s board of trustees. “My childhood experience definitely led me to get involved with Children’s Hospital. I think it’s one of the great institutions we have.”
Despite his illness, or perhaps because of it, he was active and athletic as a child and young man, playing sports and serving as the student body president of North High School.
“I went on with my life,” says Farber, “only being reminded from time to time by my mother that I was sick as a baby.” She told him: There’s a reason you’re here. Make the best of it.
Passing the bar wasn’t his first goal as a college undergrad, though. It wasn’t even his second. Entering his senior year at CU, Farber was pre-med, and his bachelor of arts was a distributive degree in political science, chemistry and history. His decision to go to law school was one of practicality, not passion. “If you didn’t practice law after getting a law degree it could still help you in business,” he says.
He graduated from the University of Colorado School of Law in 1968 and immediately set up private practice with two fellow graduates he’d known since elementary school: Norman Brownstein and Jack Hyatt.
“We lived the American dream,” Farber remembers. “We’d just graduated from law school. We preferred to hang a shingle than to work for other firms.”
Farber could have easily moved on to New York or Washington, D.C., hotbeds for high-profile attorneys. More opportunities existed there than in Denver, which in 1968 was very different from the Denver of 2007. But the city was a market primed for growth, and by setting up shop there, Farber had a chance to shape that growth. “It provided an opportunity to be a pioneer,” he says.
Today, Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Schreck is a national law firm with 175 attorneys and offices in Washington, D.C.; Las Vegas; Denver; Glenwood Springs, Colo.; Orange County, Calif.; Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M.
Behind all the success, Farber, known as “Stevie from the West Side” while growing up, is still Colorado to the core. Colorado is where he met his wife of 35 years, Cindy, raised three sons, and recently became a grandfather. It’s where this avid golfer, tennis player, skier and fly fisherman combined his love of sports with his legal practice. He represented the Broncos, the Avalanche and the Nuggets in their bids for new state-of-the-art sports venues—Invesco Field and the Pepsi Center—that have helped to expand and gentrify downtown Denver and bring more revenue into the city. He represented the lender when the Rockies came to town, and he helped bring the Grand Prix to Denver.
He cites the Invesco Field project as one of his most memorable and challenging endeavors. To build the new football stadium, Farber had to modify legislation and negotiate agreements with the city to get the Broncos out of a long-term lease at Mile High Stadium. Then he put the project on the ballot. Voters had previously approved a 20-year tax to fund the building of Coors Field, but the repayment was expected to take less than the predicted 20 years. With the tax already in place, he simply tied the two stadiums into that existing 20-year tax. It helped that the Broncos had just won their first Super Bowl the previous season and were on their way to a 14-2 season and another NFL championship.
On Nov. 3, 1998, voters approved the new stadium.
Five years later Farber’s kidneys failed for a second time. The eldest of his three sons, Gregg, donated the kidney that saved his life, but it wasn’t just family that rallied to his side. “The whole world came around him,” remembers Hickenlooper. “You’d never seen such support.”
Farber learned how challenging the transplant process could be—medically, emotionally and financially. He learned that more than 90,000 Americans are on the organ waiting list, and that more than 6,000 a year—18 a day—die while waiting for organs. Even for those fortunate enough to receive an organ, the necessary drugs cost about $1,200 a month for the rest of an organ recipient’s life. If the transplant process was this costly and difficult for someone like Farber, with wealth, connections and health insurance, he could only imagine how difficult it could be for families struggling to make ends meet.
So in October 2005 Farber founded the American Transplant Foundation, which raised more than $1 million in its first year, and which works at the policy level to facilitate organ donations and transplants. Though barely a year old, the foundation has already introduced legislation to improve and extend health care coverage for organ recipients, support stem cell research and legalize private organ exchange.
“Steve really wanted to give something back to make it easier for transplant patients,” says Heidi Heltzel, executive director of the American Transplant Foundation. “Steve’s resources, beginning with the board that he put together for this foundation, have really positioned us to achieve pretty much anything we’ve put our minds to.”
Indeed, though Farber may be influential in Colorado politics and sports, his most important accomplishments may be in the realm of health care. He’s served on the board of directors for the Children’s Diabetes Foundation, the Race to Erase MS Foundation, The Children’s Hospital Foundation, the Colorado Donor’s Alliance and the Rose Medical Center. He is currently on the board for the University of Colorado Hospital Foundation.
Those who knew Farber prior to the transplant are quick to point out that he is every bit as active as he was before the operation.
“Steve is incredible. He has more energy than just about anybody I know,” says Heltzel. “He hasn’t skipped a beat.”
Farber may be the John Elway of Denver attorneys, but in his office there is a trophy worth more than those Broncos’ championships. It’s the Del Hock Lifetime Achievement Award, which the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce presents to individuals who have helped shape the direction of the Metro Denver community through professional and civic work. Farber received the award in a surprise 2004 ceremony.
“I was totally shocked,” he says. “You never feel like you deserve something like that. It was very touching.
“Of course, there’s a good and a bad,” he adds with a laugh. “When you get recognition like that, maybe it’s time to retire.”
Not anytime soon. Farber recalls talking with a priest and a rabbi prior to his 2003 kidney transplant. The priest asked him if he felt he’d made his peace.
“If I don’t make it through this, I’m OK,” he told the priest. “In my 60 years I’ve done a lot of great things. I have three great kids and a terrific life.”
He reflects on that moment in the hospital, then adds, “Now I know I’ve got more to do.”