INCOMPLETE ASSIGNMENT

ETHNICITY WASN'T SUPPOSED TO BE AN ISSUE IN WELLINGTON WEBB'S SEARCH FOR AN EDUCATION CZAR. IT IS NOW.THE BLACKBOARD BUNGLE HOW MAYOR WEBB'S SEARCH FOR AN EDUCATION CZAR WAS HIJACKED BY RACIAL POLITICS.

Mayor Wellington Webb threw around a lot of promises during his campaign for re-election last spring. But few have turned sour as quickly as the one he made to the schoolchildren of Denver: to appoint a cabinet-level "education czar" for the city.

Five months after the election and more than two months after the beginning of the school year, Denver is still waiting for its school czar. A Webb aide says the mayor may make an announcement this week--and claims Webb has waited this long so he can ponder the impact of a court ruling ending forced busing in Denver. But there's a simpler explanation for the delay: behind-the-scenes ethnic politics that tore a gaping hole in Webb's carefully constructed selection process.

After a tough election this past spring in which the Webb campaign and its supporters never hesitated to play the race card, the mayor promised to "heal a city" divided. But it's proving a hard promise to keep, especially now that some of his most ardent supporters during the campaign have played a few cards of their own--all over who will get the nod as the city's high-paid "liaison" to the Denver Public Schools.

In one corner stands a faction of some of the most active members of the Hispanic community, who claim credit for getting Webb re-elected and argue that because Denver Public Schools is overwhelmingly dominated by Hispanic students, the city's education czar should be Hispanic, too.

In another corner is city councilwoman Joyce Foster, who has pushed Webb to appoint her own council aide, Carol Boigon, to the $60,000-to-$70,000-per-year post. If Boigon doesn't get the job, Foster's good graces--and her considerable influence in Denver's Jewish community--may be lost.

Finally, Webb has to contend with his own search committee, a group of 27 ethnically diverse citizens from high school students to university chancellors who volunteered to take a list of 286 applicants and from it find the right person for the job--with the understanding that the process would be free from political cronyism.

It didn't take long for Webb's neatly orchestrated exercise to go haywire. Despite the safeguards taken by the search committee, the appearance of cronyism remained when its job was done. One of the four finalists chosen by the group--and Webb's favorite--was none other than Boigon, who not only was Foster's preordained pick but had taken the summer off from her city job to work on the Webb campaign.

Before Webb could make an announcement, though, a group of other Webb supporters got wind of Boigon's apparent selection and went ballistic. That group of minority politicos--most prominently Denver Housing Authority boardmember Nita Gonzales and state legislator Glenda Swanson Lyle--set out to ambush the Boigon appointment. The mayor's office responded by putting off the decision, sputtering about Webb's "comfort level" with the four finalists and hinting that the entire search may be scrapped altogether.

Even Webb staffers don't seem to know what the mayor plans to do about the mess. Aide Peter Groff insists that his boss still intends to make his selection from among the four finalists recommended by the search committee. But mayoral spokeswoman C.L. Harmer tells a slightly different story: Webb, she says, told her only that "he'll make his decision from the pool of 286 candidates who originally applied."

One thing is certain, sighs Harmer: "This is the appointment from hell."

Webb's record on educational issues was a soft spot at which mayoral opponents Mary DeGroot and Bob Crider took aim in last spring's campaign. Webb responded to the charges by taking up the banner himself, pledging to appoint a cabinet-level position that would act to find efficiencies in coordination between the city and the school system. The position was nicknamed "education czar" by the press and the Webb campaign. And the mayor rode it to victory.

That dramatic win, however, came only after a mayoral campaign noted for its racial divisiveness. Webb began the volley of angry charges and outraged denials in October 1994, even before challenger Mary DeGroot announced that she was in the race. "Mary thinks if she sees four or five black people sitting together that they're automatically plotting an overthrow," Webb told a reporter. The mayor later apologized for the comment, but the race card, once dealt, continued to be played.

When DeGroot attacked the city's minority contracting system as corrupt and accused Webb of cronyism, the mayor's supporters fired back that DeGroot's charges were poorly disguised attacks on affirmative action. When DeGroot said the mayor was soft on crime, the Webb campaign accused DeGroot of refusing to attend forums sponsored by black and Hispanic newspapers--newspapers that later penned editorials supporting Webb. Webb supporter Ana Marie Sandoval called DeGroot a racist at a press conference--and she wasn't the only one to conjure up the incendiary term.

One of the loudest shots fired at DeGroot came from Webb supporter and District 4 city councilwoman Joyce Foster. The wife of the popular Rabbi Steven Foster of Temple Emanuel said her fellow councilwoman's proposed "maximum-harassment policy" for gang members was nothing but a "code word" for hassling black and Hispanic youths. Foster also accused DeGroot of playing on racial fears by opposing a curfew detention center in the mostly white neighborhood of Washington Park. The Fosters lent their considerable political weight to the Webb campaign, even inviting the mayor to Temple Emanuel and asking him to address the congregation.

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