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May 28 was a classic Memorial Day-weekend Saturday in the metro area. It was a day to spend time with the family in the park or take in a Rockies game at Coors Field.
It certainly wasn't a day to be inside a stuffy second-floor office in Aurora, waiting for Lieutenant Governor Joe Rogers to arrive. But that's what members of Friends and Families of the Imprisoned were doing, having given up their Saturday to hear him speak. They learned, however, that Rogers had stood them up for the second time in two months.
Friends and Families is a local group that lobbies against mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Most of the organization's 200-plus members are middle-aged and elderly black women who have one or more sons in federal prison serving ten to forty years for selling illegal drugs, typically cocaine.
Joe Rogers holds the highest state office of any elected black Republican in the country. He's also one of five Republicans currently running for Congress in Colorado's new seventh district, which encompasses the aged suburbs that form a rough semicircle around Denver's northern half. One of these suburbs is Commerce City, where Rogers grew up.
Commerce City is also where many of the Friends and Families members raised the sons who are now in prison. A number of these mothers live there still, and they are all registered to vote.
When campaigning before black voters, Rogers sprinkles his speeches with the words "our people." And when his people in Friends and Families invited Rogers to make an appearance at their monthly meeting on April 27, he accepted, two weeks in advance. The morning of the meeting, however, he backed out. News of his cancellation arrived by a phone call from an apologetic aide, who explained the lieutenant governor had unexpected family issues that required his immediate attention. Rogers rescheduled for the group's next regular meeting, on May 28. The mothers were disappointed, but they understood; after all, they have families, too.
It was not to be. Again, Rogers's aide phoned the group's Aurora office that morning, pleading family matters.
This time, the mothers were angry.
"I think he had an emergency family cookout he had to go to," said one.
"We got family issues, too," cried another. "Our sons are in prison, and they're going to be old men by the time they get out! I knew we couldn't trust no black Republican."
Had he shown up, Rogers would likely have heard variations on the same sad theme. Yes, our boys did wrong, the mothers would have told him, but did they really do ten years' worth of wrong, 25 years' worth, 30 years, 40?
Since mandatory drug minimums were passed in the early 1990s, Colorado's black prison population has spiked up 60 percent. One in nineteen black men in Colorado is now in prison -- ten times the rate for whites. Among black men in their mid-to-late twenties, the number is closer to one in nine.
Last April, Rogers was quoted as saying, "I'm obviously deeply bothered by those statistics."
Obviously, the mothers would have told him, "So are we." They would have asked candidate Rogers what, exactly, he would do about mandatory minimums were they to help him get elected to Congress. They would have asked if he planned to pose the hard questions, such as why only 5 percent of the black men in federal prison on drug charges were convicted of high-level drug dealing -- that is, why are corner crack dealers serving decades of time? They would have asked Rogers if he intended to press his peers in Congress to carefully consider just what and whose purpose is being served by locking up so many of his people.
That's what the mothers would have asked on the sunny Saturday of their Memorial Day weekend.
Candidate Rogers rescheduled for the night of June 6.
Then, once more, he canceled.
Rather, he half canceled. His aide called to say that Rogers would be more comfortable getting together for lunch with Friends and Families co-founder and president Emma Phillips, rather than standing before the entire group.
So Phillips, a 66-year-old grandmother whose only son began serving a 25-year sentence for possession of crack cocaine in 1996, met Rogers at Bennett's, a barbecue joint on Peoria Avenue in Aurora.
Rogers was nearing the end of a rough week. Two days earlier, state auditors had released a report that accused him of misusing state funds. The report said he should pay back $5,800 in "inappropriate expenses," including trips for his wife. The auditors detailed a total of $12,000 in "completely unsubstantiated" expenses and also called into question $52,100 paid to consultants with no contracts or time logs. Rogers didn't attend the public briefing on the report. He sent his chief of staff instead, and later told reporters he'd been too busy reading to schoolchildren to make it.
"All this time, I've been thinking he's been canceling because he doesn't want to be associated with our group," Phillips said shortly before her lunch with Rogers. "Now with all this coming out, I'm not so sure that we want to be associated with him."