At first glance, it looks like an inconsequential little controversy involving nothing more significant than some burned-out light bulbs, missing trash cans and wads of discarded chewing gum.

But in recent weeks, a seemingly mundane dispute over street maintenance along Denver's Santa Fe Drive has turned into a heated political battle. Mayor Wellington Webb and two of his top aides have intervened in the matter. City council president Deborah Ortega has weighed in on the other side. Now city auditor Robert Crider, one of Webb's chief political rivals, has wandered into the fray.

To understand why, one might do well to glance at the city's political calendar. Mayoral and council elections are scheduled for May 16, less than nine months away. Thanks to the jinxed baggage system at Denver International Airport, Webb is looking more vulnerable all the time--and in desperate need of allies for the coming campaign. Meanwhile, potential mayoral opponents, including Crider, Denver attorney John Frew and city councilwoman Mary DeGroot, are busy lining up their own supporters and taking potshots at Webb from the sidelines.

What seems to have upped the political ante in the Santa Fe Drive controversy is that it involves NEWSED Community Development Corporation, one of Denver's most important Hispanic organizations. NEWSED's two principal officers, Veronica Barela and Virginia Martinez, rank among Webb's staunchest supporters from the Latino community. Barela, furthermore, has declared war on Ortega and is considering a run at the councilwoman's District 9 seat next year.

Recently, Martinez and Barela have found themselves under fire from business and property owners on Santa Fe. The owners have been griping about what they call shoddy work by a NEWSED affiliate being paid to maintain the lampposts, trees and other improvements along the street. They've circulated a petition and complained to city hall, asking that someone else be brought in to do the work. NEWSED, meanwhile, says the owners are being ungrateful and unfair.

The controversy comes at a critical time for Webb, whose relations with Hispanics are already strained from earlier flaps this year. In March the mayor clashed with Ortega and Councilwoman Ramona Martinez in a dispute over the sale of the old district attorney's building. And he was hit with charges of racism while haggling with a prominent Hispanic contractor over payments for the company's work at DIA. Political observers say the mayor, who has pegged Denver political veteran Ruben Valdez as his campaign treasurer, needs to mend fences fast in order to stand a chance in the coming election.

The city's Hispanic voters "are pretty much unmoored," says Denver political consultant Floyd Ciruli. "They have no definite place to go. You can be sure the Frews and the Criders of the world are talking to them."

In the NEWSED imbroglio, say Ciruli and others, it's possible to discern the first signals of how the city's Hispanic leadership will align itself in the campaign. And the way it all shakes down may determine who sits in the mayor's office next year.

In 1978, when Veronica Barela first signed on as executive director of NEWSED, Santa Fe Drive was at the nadir of a crippling, decades-long economic decline. Hundreds of nearby homes had been demolished to make way for the Auraria campus, depriving the once-thriving commercial strip between Sixth and Colfax avenues of much of its natural customer base. Abandoned storefronts lined the street. Later, gangs infiltrated the neighborhood, driving customers away from those establishments that remained.

Today, Santa Fe Drive is in the middle of a slow, steady renaissance. And much of the rebirth, say those familiar with the area, is due to NEWSED's efforts.

Formerly known as the New Westside Economic Development Corporation, the nonprofit group was founded twenty years ago to foster business growth, promote Latino culture and create jobs for impoverished Hispanics living in the area. Under Barela's leadership, NEWSED has aggressively sought out grants and government loans to finance a series of successful development projects. In the process, the organization has become the neighborhood's largest property owner. Between 1980 and 1984 NEWSED built the Zocalo and Plaza de Santa Fe shopping centers--the first new retail developments in the neighborhood in twenty years. The group turned another blighted property at Santa Fe and Eighth Avenue into a Grease Monkey auto service center. Recently, NEWSED bought the old Amick Moving & Storage building at 1029 Santa Fe, where it has established a record-storage business.

"They've made a huge difference," Denver Hispanic activist Pierre Jimenez says of NEWSED. "In large measure, they're responsible for the economic turnaround on Santa Fe. You have to give them credit."

NEWSED's activities helped spark further development on Santa Fe. Two theaters--the RiverTree and the Denver Civic--opened there. A radio station moved in. And Museo de las Americas, a Latino cultural museum, made its debut last year.

Even gang activity has decreased sharply, says Charles Gurule, owner of the Big Chili southwestern-foods store. "Five years ago people wouldn't come here after dark" because of the gangs, Gurule says. But "you don't see it around here [now], even though the high school is only a couple of blocks away. It's always calm."

NEWSED's latest success is a $160,000 grant from the Maryland-based Annie E. Casey Foundation to study ways to continue improving the socioeconomic base of the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood. An additional $3 million from the foundation is expected to follow over the next six years--money that NEWSED may use to fund social services, political organizing and other "community-building activities," according to a foundation spokeswoman.

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