The Young and the Restless

As the turks of Denver's black politics grow old, what's to be made of their legacy?

One night in August 1975, Colorado lieutenant governor George Brown stepped to the podium to give a speech at the National Lieutenant Governors Conference in Alabama. He almost ruined his own political career and certainly hastened its end.

Brown, a Democrat, was one of the first two black lieutenant governors in the country. The last time he had been in Alabama, he'd been marching on Montgomery. He was one of the fathers of black politics in Colorado, but he was also considered a cad, demanding adoration and respect from others but not often returning it. Nevertheless, Ebony magazine had recently named him one of the nation's 100 most influential blacks.

And there he was in Point Clear, a resort town on the coast of Mobile Bay, telling his audience of the days in 1943 when he'd been a flight cadet at the Army Air Corps base in Tuskegee, Alabama, the home of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen. During a training mission, he had crashed near Talladega, seventy miles to the north.

A farmer found Brown in his barn and branded the letter "K"--most likely a reference to the Ku Klux Klan--onto Brown's chest. The farmer said he was just being a good American: Blacks weren't supposed to be flying planes; obviously this one had been stolen. An Army search team found him, and a few days later, Brown woke up in a hospital. Thirty years later, Brown still had the scar.

Many people in the large crowd were moved to tears. They gave him a standing ovation. Newspapers across the country ran Brown's story.

Who knows? Brown might have polished it a few years later if he had decided to run for governor. But some stories are too good--or too awful, in this case--to be true. As soon as he went backstage, he was approached by Mervyn Dymally, the black lieutenant governor of California. Dymally was a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He, too, had a K.

Ten days later, Brown issued a "clarification." The wire services had gotten it wrong. Brown had inadvertently fused three or four different stories into one. The crash and branding had happened. Just not to him. The reporters had misinterpreted his words. (One Denver reporter, however, claimed he had confirmed the copy with Brown before it went out on the wire.)

Blacks in Denver apparently didn't care too much. Brown had done a lot for them. He had helped pass fair-housing legislation and repeal miscegenation laws. He had also chaired the Denver Opportunity War on Poverty Program and the Model Cities Program.

But the press went after him anyway. Commentators called his act suicide. Some wondered whether it was a sign of psychological problems. There was talk of forcing him out. His boss, Governor Dick Lamm, was grilled, too. Someone looked through Brown's travel records. Within a month he was being investigated for billing $4,000 in personal travel expenses through state travel vouchers. He was later cleared, though the grand jury concluded that "substantial violations" of state fiscal rules had occurred.

A local weekly paper, the Straight Creek Journal, editorialized that Colorado's press had seldom reacted so violently to an event: "George Brown was caught by the press, and the press seems hellbent to see its arrest through to conviction."

In 1970, Brown had told reporters that he didn't want to be lieutenant governor for fear of being "put off in some pasture where I might be lost and left out of things." And after only one difficult term, he chose to step down and was gone.

Only not quite. In 1980 he sued his former boss for $500,000, claiming that Lamm had withheld his final paycheck. The case was settled when the House agreed to pay Brown a state appropriation of $10,539.

"I think what happened was, Dick got the vote that he got out of this community because of George," says Arie Taylor, a onetime black state legislator. "Then Dick was going to say that because George was there, he didn't have to do anything else." Still, she admits, there's "not too damn much a lieutenant governor can do."

Black politicians survived Brown. By some measures, they have triumphed. Denver's black mayor, Wellington Webb, is one of the most powerful and popular politicians in Colorado. After pulling a come-from-behind victory in 1991, the former state bureaucrat and city auditor rode Denver's economic boom to re-election in 1995 and appears primed to breeze through another easy campaign this year. During Webb's tenure, the city has improved its parks and opened a new baseball stadium, a new airport, a new library and new cultural and retail amenities. The first line of a possible metro-wide light-rail system has been built; the second leg is slated to open next year. People are coming downtown in droves to shop, dine, party and live. Yet another stadium and an aquarium are being built. Home prices are soaring.

Webb has sailed through accusations of cronyism in his political appointments and in steering lucrative airport contracts to his supporters. Under his watch, Denver hosted a summit of world leaders and a visit by the pope. The mayor was recently invited to speak to London officials about his experiences running a city with a strong-mayor system. He's traveled to Africa with President Clinton (what would that Alabama farmer have thought of that?). This month, just four weeks before the election, Webb will host the National Conference of Black Mayors, which may end up serving as a pre-coronation party.

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