If Denver International Airport were up and running, Mayor Wellington Webb wouldn't have to be. After all, the Denver mayoral election isn't until next May. But Webb, prepping for a second major contest, won't be sprinting on the sleek new tarmac of DIA. This will be an extremely muddy track.

Three hardened veterans--city auditor Bob Crider, city councilwoman Mary DeGroot and lobbyist John Frew--are already sniffing the roses. Now that they're officially candidates, this election promises to be a real horse race between four political animals.

And Webb will start off carrying the most weight--baggage from the would-be airport's nightmarish BAE system.

Here's a look at the contenders as they approach the starting gate:

Webb: 53 years old. Out of the state legislature, state bureaucracy and the auditor's office. Four years as mayor. Fondness for spreading hay around to stablemates.

Crider: 56 years old. Out of the auditor's office, city council, Denver Public Schools board. Has hung around the elected officials' trough for nearly a quarter of a century. Vast race experience: opponent of busing while president of school board.

DeGroot: 43 years old. Out of the city council. Veteran Washington Park campaigner. Stays in middle of pack until there's an opening. Known for nipping at Webb's heels.

Frew: 38 years old. The least-known (publicly) of the four candidates. Sired by former senator Tim Wirth, various other Democrats and business types too numerous to mention. Ran the pro-DIA campaigns in late Eighties. Usually likes slick track but can handle muck; campaign manager for Wirth in the 1986 Senate race against Ken Kramer that was so dirty the national media covered it. Frew quoted at the time: "If we win this race, people will say, `It wasn't pretty, but we got the job done.'" It wasn't; they did: Wirth won by two percentage points.

For now, big money's been plunked down on Webb, with Crider trailing, DeGroot lagging far behind and Frew an unknown quantity.

Webb: Campaign coffers held balance of $180,000 as of last June 30. Fundraisers in D.C. and Denver helped generate $58,000 in contributions during first six months of 1994. Much of money has come from lawyers and consultants who do business with city. Biggest contributors so far this year have been consulting firm CH2M Hill and lawyers with Patton, Boggs & Blow.

Crider: Had balance of $45,500 as of June 30. Contributions during first six months of 1994 totaled $17,000, including $2,000 each from ex-Rocky Mountain News editor Michael Howard and gas baron Cortlandt Dietler.

DeGroot: Campaign balance of $7,700 as of June 30.
Frew: Not in public office, so no campaign reports. His clients in past three years, according to lobbyist-registration records, have included several entities trying to squeeze good deals from the city and its taxpayers: the Paradies Shops (DIA concessionaire booted out of DIA earlier this year after its top official was convicted in an Atlanta airport bribery scandal), MarkAir (formerly bankrupt Alaska airline that almost got a $30 million handout from the city), the Coors Field stadium district (seeking zoning and infrastructure decisions from city), the Denver Nuggets (seeking release from McNichols lease), Central Parking Systems Inc. (angling for airport parking contracts), Jetway Systems (Utah firm that makes passenger-boarding walkways for airports) and the Greater Denver Corp. and United Power Inc. (angling for economic development at DIA). Other clients include health-care provider FHP Inc. and construction firm J.A. Walker Co. Inc.

Press clips:
Webb has Post position so far, nabbing gratis front-page ink in the daily for supposedly stepping in against air pollution and cronyism. Fawning profile of him by Christopher Lopez in paper's November 27 Sunday mag. Best campaign story to date? Michael Booth's droll August 5 account of airport press conference that Webb turned into campaign event. Post buried it on A18.

Crider, from inside spot as auditor, has garnered plenty of press as airport critic.

DeGroot, also fighting from inside position, has come across as council's most vocal critic of airport's management.

Frew such a skillful lobbyist that reporters almost never refer to him as a lobbyist. Papers quick to mention him as "influential" or an "insider" or a "behind-the-scenes strategist" in "government affairs."

May 1989: City council abolishes "living in sin" zoning restrictions that prevented unmarried couples from sharing a household. Councilman Crider calls the change "a sad, sad day in the history of Denver." Councilwoman DeGroot says: "Zoning, I believe, should be used to determine land use and density but not relationships."

January 1994: Crider and Webb clash over a 1991 investigation of Webb crony Charles Rutland. Investigator B.J. Haze says Rutland told him: "The mayor is upset over your investigation. You work for the mayor...You do not work for the auditor." Haze's report says Crider told him to investigate Rutland. Haze and Crider then say Crider didn't order him to investigate Rutland. Hmm. Then Crider says he told Haze specifically not to investigate Rutland. Hmm. Hmm.

February 1994: Irked at DeGroot's airport questions, Webb tells her, "Put on a hard hat and go to the field." She goes to DIA and reports back, "It's beautiful. We just don't know how much it's going to cost."

February-September 1994: In February Crider cuts off Webb by rejecting a $60,000 bill to city from Webb crony Steve Farber for work on the Winter Park lease. Seven months later Webb cuts off Crider's budget by $104,000.

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