Trial by Ire

The candidates in the Denver's DA's race refuse to come to order.

Every politician loves a parade, but Bill Ritter and Craig Silverman were marching to a different tune last month in Montbello.

Incumbent Denver DA Ritter and his challenger both showed up with throngs of supporters at the northside community's thirtieth-anniversary parade. It was a feel-good event that provided an unlikely setting for political street theater. But in the bloodletting battle for Denver district attorney, no place is off-limits--and no subject is out of bounds.

Just as the parade was getting started, Eileen Fitzsimmons, the wife of Denver prosecutor and Ritter lieutenant Gerald J. Rafferty, saw Silverman walk by. She couldn't pass up the chance to exact a little payback from the man who has turned her husband into a human punching bag over his handling of the grand jury that investigated Denver International Airport. And Fitzsimmons picked the one topic sure to hit home with Silverman: the three times Colorado's higher courts have accused him of prosecutorial misconduct for making innappropriate comments to juries.

As a crowd of parade-goers looked on, Fitzsimmons says, she turned and asked, "Are you Craig Silverman? He said, 'You know who I am,'" she recalls. "I said, 'Well, you can call me Mrs. Prosecutorial Misconduct.' Then he called me a shithead, and I said, 'You can call me Mrs. Prosecutorial Misconduct, because only my good friends call me shithead.'"

After taking her own place marching in the parade, Fitzsimmons says, she continued to shout to the crowd, "No prosecutorial misconduct! Vote for Bill Ritter!"

"I thought it was a really funny incident," adds Fitzsimmons. "I guess he didn't think it was funny."

In fact, Silverman, a man known for his volcanic temper, was livid. But he insists he responded with nothing more than a slow simmer--and both he and his campaign treasurer, Tonie Benetti, who was present, vehemently deny that he used profanity. "That's baloney," says Silverman. "I knew they were trying to provoke a reaction, and that was the last thing I was going to do. Maybe someone in the Montbello crowd called her that, but I didn't."

Wherever he goes these days, the 6-5, 200-pound-plus Silverman's reputation as a big man with a short fuse precedes him. But the mustachioed challenger sees the Montbello incident as an indictment of his mild-mannered opponent, a former friend with whom he crammed for the bar exam and drank beer after long days at the office. "I couldn't believe that Bill didn't put a stop to it," says Silverman, who worked for Ritter for thirteen years before quitting his job as a chief deputy DA last June to run against him. "[Fitzsimmons] was walking right next to him."

Ritter says he couldn't have put a stop to anything because he didn't hear Fitzsimmons say anything about prosecutorial misconduct in his presence. Fitzsimmons, though, is gleeful when recalling her encounter with Silverman, known for his aggressive style in and out of the courtroom. "I went to City University in New York," she asserts. "I went to school with 19,000 Craig Silvermans."

In Denver, however, there is most definitely only one Craig Silverman, and he has made the DA's race one of the most memorable in years. When Silverman chucked his status as a lifelong Democrat, declared himself an Independent and entered the contest, the run for DA quickly overshadowed such seemingly inconsequential questions as who will replace Pat Schroeder in Congress. Dubbed "one of the hottest local races in the West" by the Washington Times, the Denver DA's race has drawn national attention both for its sheer rancor and for its brutally frank discussion of core criminal-justice issues. And it could serve as a litmus test of whether liberal Denver remains at odds with the increasingly conservative mindset of the nation on issues such as the death penalty and the appropriate treatment for drug offenders.

Ritter and Silverman, both forty and both career prosecutors, are opposites who hope to attract. Ritter grew up poor on a farm east of Aurora, one of twelve children born to a mother who spent time on public relief and a carpenter father who left when Ritter was in the eighth grade. He had brothers who went through the Head Start program, and after graduating from Gateway High School in 1974, he put himself through the University of Colorado and Colorado State with the help of federal grants. A devout Catholic, he took three years off from his DA's job in 1987 to serve as a volunteer lay missionary in Mongu, Zambia.

"I have a political ideology in part informed by my background," says Ritter. A central tenet of that ideology is that a prosecutor should do more than just put people in jail; in Ritter's view, the job also involves the legal equivalent of preventative medicine--sending prosecutors into classrooms to talk to schoolchildren, attempting to reform juvenile offenders before locking them up, and giving drug offenders a chance to wipe their records clean by participating in court-sanctioned dryout efforts. As the DA told a debate audience last month at the Brown Palace Hotel, "It's not just about the adjective of being tougher."

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