Trial by Ire

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

But if Ritter became a prosecutor at least in part to do good works, Silverman has a much more unsparing view of the job. "I don't want to teach social studies," he says. "There's more than enough to do as a prosecutor." A publicity junkie who's tried cases on Court TV and gone behind the microphone to provide on-air commentary himself during the trials of William Kennedy Smith and O.J. Simpson, Silverman is also a hard-liner who advocates maximum punishment for criminals, cringes at Ritter's attempts to reform juvenile offenders with an arts-and-crafts program, and vows to eliminate the Ritter-backed Denver Drug Court if elected. He's still chafing over Governor Roy Romer's decision to appoint Ritter instead of him when former DA Norm Early resigned in 1993. And even Silverman's many enemies describe him as one of the most artful prosecutors ever to set foot in a Denver courtroom.

While Ritter's quiet ways make him an unlikely candidate for high office, Silverman has chased the limelight like a plant bending toward the sun. The son of a prominent Denver attorney who has contributed $10,000 to his campaign and a mother who brings her friends to lick envelopes at campaign headquarters, he grew up in a comfortable home in east Denver. He made all-city in basketball and golf at George Washington High School and went on to graduate with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average from private Colorado College, where he doubled as a basketball star and rabble-rousing sportswriter for the school paper. Silverman is still remembered there for the prep-league brouhaha he touched off by commenting on the hairy legs of the women's basketball team in a satirical column.

It wouldn't be the last time Silverman's flair for bombast--satirical and otherwise--would land him in the headlines.

Silverman and Ritter first crossed paths at the CU law school, where they studied together and were teammates in intramural sports. Hired on the same day in 1981 by then-Denver DA Dale Tooley, they roomed together during office retreats in Estes Park and went on to dance at each other's weddings. But their friendship was long ago shouted down in a fundamental split over the proper role of a prosecutor.

Ritter is a disciple of Tooley's, a man who held his prosecutors to a high moral code, telling them they had a responsibility not just to put people in prison but to dispassionately dispense justice. Silverman, by contrast, has long sought to level the playing field against defense attorneys, testing the limits of what the law will allow in an ongoing effort to put away criminals whose exploits inspire in him a personal sense of disgust.

Earlier this year Silverman resigned his chief deputy's post to run against his boss. And ever since then, he has kept Ritter on the defensive, branding him "timid" in what has become a campaign mantra and issuing voluminous position papers picking apart Ritter's handling of specific cases. He has blasted the incumbent's decision not to seek the death penalty in high-profile homicides, ridiculed Ritter's failure to return a single criminal indictment at DIA and, in a move that has enraged former co-workers in the DA's office, brought his opponent's religious beliefs into the campaign, last month branding Ritter a "born-again" whose status as a devout Catholic was interfering with his ability to adequately punish criminals.

Silverman, who is Jewish but says he hasn't been blessed with a strong religious faith, danced away from the "born-again" comment after a brief storm of media scrutiny last month. He exhibited similar soft-shoe talents over a campaign flier raising questions about Ritter's Catholicism that Silverman workers distributed in heavily gay Capitol Hill in August. The flier touted Silverman's prosecution of gay-bashing criminals and, in a peculiar footnote, described Ritter as a "fundamental Catholic" who had an interest in "converting people." Silverman now disavows the flier, which a still-angry Ritter describes as a thinly veiled effort to portray him as a homophobe with ties to the religious right. "It's just despicable that he would use that language," says Ritter. Says Silverman today, "I don't even want to discuss religion. It's not an issue for me."

But though seemingly born to the role of provocateur--his own father's first piece of advice when he announced for the race was "Keep your cool"--Silverman is a hard man for political sharpshooters to pin down. He's the de facto GOP candidate in a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans by two to one, but he has largely eschewed the support of the city's 17th Street business establishment, collecting money instead from friends in the Jewish community and suburban developers with ties to Jordan Perlmutter, the real estate mogul for whom his father serves as in-house counsel. He's been roundly excoriated by many of the city's prominent liberals, yet he is adamantly pro-choice while Ritter is pro-life, a situation that has prompted the Pro-Choice Colorado PAC--whose political director is the daughter-in-law of longtime Denver Democratic activists Bill and Shirley Schley--to endorse the Independent candidate. Silverman has won the backing of gay groups for his support of same-sex marriages and his prosecution of anti-gay predators; his Capitol Hill flier even referred to a man who taunted and pointed a gun at a drag queen as a "homophobic scumbag." And, like Ritter, Silverman backs gun control, in effect trumping Ritter on the issue when in 1993 he took on the National Rifle Association by forming the nonprofit group Parents United--No Children's Handguns (PUNCH).

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