Martinez has never been considered a Webb supporter. But the city council's two other Hispanic members, Ortega and Tim Sandos, backed her in the controversy. Eventually the full council voted to give a Hispanic nonprofit group called National Image a year to raise the $410,000 required to buy the building from the city.

Barela supported Webb in the cultural-center controversy. In a May letter to the Denver Post, she lashed out at Martinez and Ortega, accusing them of using "untruths, inaccuracies and unethical behavior" to unfairly tar Webb's image in the Hispanic community. The two councilwomen, Barela said, were deliberately fanning racial tensions between Hispanics and African-Americans, a core support group for the mayor. Barela said plans for the cultural center revealed that it actually would be nothing more than an "office building" that threatened to divert scarce funding from "real cultural organizations" serving Hispanics in the city.

Another dynamic may have been at work in the fight over the DA's building: Barela's aspirations for a city council seat. Barela moved to Denver from Westminster in 1993, specifically because she intended to run against Ortega. Then, earlier this year, Barela announced she had dropped the idea, citing her need to continue working on NEWSED's Annie Casey grant project.

But it now appears that Barela may change her mind again. Asked recently about her political ambitions, Barela said a bid for Ortega's seat remains "a possibility."

"That's all I want to say," she says. "In a few months I may decide that's what I want to do. I'm keeping my options open."

Webb, presumably, would much prefer his friend Barela to Ortega in District 9, a sprawling piece of political turf that wraps around downtown Denver, covers much of the city's north side and encompasses the booming Central Platte Valley. Ortega appears to have distanced herself from the mayor in recent months. In addition to opposing him on the DA's building and helping bring Crider into the Santa Fe Drive dispute, she deposed Webb ally Dave Doering as president of the city council in June. Pierre Jimenez calls Ortega's election an "anti-Webb vote."

Political observers say Webb can't afford to underestimate the importance of the Hispanic vote in the coming campaign. Even if the airport opens before the election, they say, many of the city's conservative whites will remain alienated by the DIA fiasco. Though black voters should continue to support the mayor en masse, he will have to vigorously court the city's uncommitted Latinos to pull off an election victory.

"Webb's got to put together the Hispanic-black coalition," says Boulder pollster Paul Talmey. "If he's sitting out there [on election day] with a high percentage of dissatisfied Anglos, a split Hispanic [vote] and all the blacks...he's out of office."

Councilman Sandos says it's a mistake to assume Denver's Hispanics will automatically vote in a block. "The Hispanic community shouldn't be looked at as one unanimous voice," he says. But Sandos also says if Latino voters abandon Webb, the mayor might be in trouble. "If that support wanes," Sandos says, "it's going to have an impact on him."

Denver political consultant Steve Wel-chert agrees that Hispanics will be crucial to Webb in May, "particularly if a Hispanic candidate doesn't emerge. If he even cuts the Hispanic vote in half," Welchert says, "he's lost it."

Welchert says Webb probably realizes he'll be vulnerable on "macro" issues like DIA. He expects the mayor to focus increasingly on smaller neighborhood issues--like the dispute over NEWSED on Santa Fe Drive--as a way to reap the support of uncommitted Hispanics and other groups.

"No one's better at understanding the Chicago element of politics than Wellington," Welchert says. "He can't hit a home run on the airport. So he's got to hit a whole bunch of singles--and hope the singles add up."

Webb can count on NEWSED's backing in the race. But that won't necessarily translate into a landslide of Latino votes, says Jimenez. "Veronica Barela and Virginia Martinez are very staunch supporters of the mayor," he says. "Their political alignment would go with Webb. But there's another segment of the Hispanic community that feels he doesn't warrant their support. They're going to look for alternative candidates."

What does the mayor's campaign staff think about all this? Campaign treasurer Ruben Valdez says most rank-and-file Latino voters haven't begun worrying about next year's mayoral race. "There's not much conversation about it in the community at this point," Valdez says. "Everybody is kind of ho-hum about it."

Denver's Hispanic leaders, however, appear to be forging their political allegiances well ahead of the electorate, Valdez says. He expects skirmishes like the NEWSED controversy to increase in number and intensity as the campaign progresses.

"What you'll see is even more of this stuff as the election draws near," he says. "It's going to get even more interesting before it's over.

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