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With Denver's mayoral election less than three months away, and with four Democrats in the running, tempers are flaring over allegations that the forces of Mayor Wellington Webb are attempting to hijack the local Democratic Party machinery.
The party's own treasurer questions a fundraising scheme last October in which county chair Frances L. "Francie" Miran used a party bank account to help Webb funnel money to state legislative candidates. Party regulars grumble that Miran, who as party boss is sworn to support all Democrats equally, is a Webb appointee who's stacking the Democratic hierarchy with what some call "Webbocrats." And a nasty public rift has opened over alleged attempts to punish a veteran district captain in Webb's own neighborhood who embarrassed the mayor by endorsing another candidate.
Miran, who earns $50,000 per year as the director of Webb's commission on aging, says she's gone out of her way to be fair in her party work. Others, however, accuse her of running the party as a Webb campaign auxiliary. Says one high-ranking party official, "Francie's just out of control."
Miran readily acknowledges that she used the party to help Webb play sugar daddy to thirteen state legislative candidates from Denver last fall. As she explains it, she and other Webb supporters hit up a group of the mayor's backers for donations but asked them to make out their checks to the party, not to Webb. Roughly $6,000 was collected from such powerful political entities as the law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland and statehouse lobbyist Wally Stealey. The party deposited the money, and the next day Miran signed checks to the candidates on the party's account. Webb then handed out the checks during a champagne party at the home of Donna Good, one of his top aides.
A flier printed up by Webb forces proclaimed that the candidates were being "honored" by the mayor and his wife, Wilma, and even included a list of the "sponsors" who had anted up. "My assumption during the whole time was that Mayor Webb was giving out the money," says Sheila MacDonald, who attended the gathering to collect a $1,000 check on behalf of state representative Doug Friednash. MacDonald, now working on the mayoral campaign of City Auditor Bob Crider, says she didn't realize until two or three days later that the check was actually from the party.
Miran says the money was run through the party's bank account so Webb's name wouldn't be officially attached. Candidates, she explains, often have qualms about accepting money from other campaigns and are more comfortable getting their running money from the party. The practice, she adds, is a good way for the Denver mayor to put his fundraising clout to work for fellow Democrats.
But Ric Bainter, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, says it's also a good way to disguise the source of campaign funds. "It would be my guess that those candidates were more concerned about amounts showing up on their reports from lobbyists than they were concerned about it showing up from Webb," he says.
At least one of the candidates, state representative Nolbert Chavez, refused to accept the money. Chavez says he "didn't feel comfortable" with the arrangement. The others apparently didn't share his concerns. Representative Rob Hernandez, who got $500, says he never bothered to ask where the money came from. He says it wouldn't bother him to learn that Webb did raise it. "He's a Democrat, and he wants to see Democratic candidates elected," says the longtime Webb backer.
But party treasurer Fran Coleman says she doesn't like the arrangement. In addition to raising questions about favoritism, she says, the pass-through scheme may create the impression that the candidates now owe political chits to Webb. "In all honesty," says Coleman, "I think any time you put yourself in that kind of a situation, there is reason for speculation." Adds Common Cause's Bainter, "I'm sure Mayor Webb hopes this will benefit him in his re-election efforts."
Miran says one legislative candidate asked her directly whether Webb would expect a quid pro quo. And she apparently didn't do much to disabuse him of the notion. "I said, `I bet Wellington will want to talk to you, and you guys will have to work that out between yourselves,'" Miran says. Hernandez, Friednash and other candidates interviewed by Westword insist the mayor hasn't asked for anything in return.
Some Webb opponents say Miran's key role in the fundraiser is proof that she can't run the party in an unbiased fashion. "Our basic feeling is that the chair of the Democratic Party needs to be neutral and fair," says Lisa Zoeller, campaign manager for Democratic contender John Frew. The fundraiser, she says, "is a case in point that that isn't happening."
Coleman says she's received similar complaints from party members. "I have a lot of respect for Francie, but I've been told as an officer that people see the fact that she's a Webb appointee and the chair of the county as a direct conflict," she says. "I've done everything in my power to see that she wears the right hat at the right time, and it's a juggling act."
The vice chair of the local party, attorney Beverly Edwards, recently stepped down because she's supporting Councilwoman Mary DeGroot for mayor and wants to avoid any appearance of impropriety. But Miran says she doesn't see any conflict in her own situation. "I've always been straightforward about where I am, and people don't seem to have a problem with it," she says, noting that nobody is challenging her in party elections scheduled this Saturday.
Coleman is running for vice chair in that election, a decision she says was prompted by her desire to see "the party survive as a party and not as any one individual's party." She says several party members have complained that the "Webb machine is moving in," an apparent reference to concerns that Miran may be stacking the party's district-captain slots with Webb supporters.
Miran says those charges are unfounded, noting that district captains are elected by party members in their neighborhoods. However, she doesn't deny that when it comes to the twelve at-large captains who serve at her pleasure, "I'm going to appoint people I feel comfortable with."
One of the people Miran has appointed to an at-large post is Mary Sylvester, a longtime Webb supporter who served as the mayor's director of excise and licenses from 1991 to 1993. Now Sylvester has made waves by announcing that she's challenging longtime district captain Frank Sullivan for the captain's position in District 8B.
That district includes Wellington Webb's neighborhood; in fact, the mayor used to be district captain himself. And Sullivan's recent announcement that he is supporting DeGroot in Webb's backyard has rankled the mayor. Says Sylvester, "I know Wellington well enough to say, yeah, he doesn't like it one damn bit."
Sylvester denies that she got in the race as part of a Webb-inspired plot to deliver a political paddling to Sullivan, a twenty-year veteran of the local party. Sullivan, however, appears convinced that Webb put Sylvester up to it. "I'm terribly flattered the mayor would be able to spend some time dealing with me when he's got an awful lot on his plate at the present time," he says.
Sylvester acknowledges that her decision to run will likely bring an end to her long friendship with Sullivan, who lives down the alley from her in Park Hill. But she adds that she "had not realized it was his birthright to be captain for life." Sylvester says she believes Sullivan is just angry with Webb because the mayor refused to give Sullivan's son a job at the city election commission four years ago.
Sullivan acknowledges being upset about his son's employment efforts but says he split with Webb for "more than one reason." And he says that what really bothers him isn't that Webb blocked his son's appointment, but that the mayor, a longtime friend, played dumb when confronted about it later.
Miran, meanwhile, denies being part of any plan to target Sullivan for being disloyal. "I haven't been part of any conversation on that," she says. Her friend Mary Sylvester, she adds, "is real good at respecting that, as county chair, I can't do things in the party that way.