Federico Pena was born and raised in Texas, where family members going back several gen¬ erations held public office. Pena’s great-grand¬ father was the mayor of Laredo during the Civil War, and his grandfather was city aider- man there for twenty-five years.
Pena was an honor student at St. Joseph’s Academy in Brownsville. He grew up during the turbulent 1960s, an era of student protests and radical politics, which shaped his liberal political ideology. He attended the University of Texas in Austin, where he earned his bachelor of science degree in 1969 and his law degree in 1972.
After law school, Pena went to work in an El Paso legal aid office that offered free legal assistance to poor Hispanics and other minori¬ ties. In 1972, he moved to Denver, Colorado, and went to work at the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He then worked for the Chicano Education Project. Both organizations are prominent advocates for Hispanic civil rights.
In 1979, Pena won a seat in the Colorado General Assembly, where he served for two terms with distinction. He won an award for the Outstanding House Democratic Legislator and was chosen to be the House Minority Speaker.
In 1983, Pena made a bold run for mayor of the city of Denver. In a city where Hispanics made up only 18 percent of the population, he was a long-shot candidate. Although early polls gave him only 3 percent of the vote, he waged an aggressive campaign and won the election.
Four years later, he was reelected. During his two terms as mayor, Pena gained national attention for his ability to survive controversy and push through difficult projects, such as a new airport and a new convention center. In 1991, he decided not to seek a third term, even though polls for the first time made him the favorite.
A year after Pena stepped down as mayor, U.S. president Bill Clinton appointed him Secretary of Transportation. While in Washington, D.C., Pena maintained his inde¬ pendent political style by incorporating his own philosophy into his policy decisions.
His high profile actions often offended big business.In 1994, he ignored staff recommendations and issued a finding that the C/K model pickup trucks manufactured by General Motors constituted a safety hazard.
He also upset the automotive industry by promoting the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which encourages local governments to plan for alternate modes of transportation, such as rail and bicycles. After leaving the Clinton administration in 1998, Pena accepted a job as managing partner in the Denver office of the investment firm Vestar Capital Partners.