Imagine a Great Campaign

It takes more than money to make a mayor. You have to know your way around Colfax, when to cry Republican and how to handle a drag queen.

"Webb was hell-bent he would win there," recalls one City Hall veteran who campaigned with him. "We went door-to-door and knocked. This guy answers the door and says, 'Hey Judith, that big colored guy you're supporting for mayor is here.'"

Just fifteen minutes away, a candidate might want to stop at the busy intersection of Ninth and Corona, in the heart of Capitol Hill. With an eclectic mix of gays, twenty-something concert-hoppers and graying hippies, one local political wag refers to the area as "the pierced precincts." But don't let the counterculture ambience fool you: Capitol Hill has one of the highest rates of voter turnout in the city and is essential to a winning campaign.

Next, our would-be mayor might visit one of the large African-American churches in northeast Denver, finding a well-organized and politically savvy group of parishioners led by a dynamic minister. While blacks make up just 11 percent of Denver's population, they've managed to create one of the most powerful voting blocs in the city, helping to propel Webb into office for three terms.

It might seem impossible for you to carry these three politically divergent areas, but Webb did it in 1991. He won support from many conservative voters by touting his experience as auditor and vowing to keep a close eye on the city's enormous financial commitment to the construction of Denver International Airport, while liberals liked the idea of electing Denver's first black mayor.

That rainbow alliance is exactly what a Denver politician needs to win.

"I think to win citywide, you need a coalition of white liberals and blacks or Hispanics," says Denver City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who has twice won a citywide election as an at-large candidate.

But the multiracial goodwill that made Webb mayor fell apart during his first term, and his political career nearly ended in a re-election contest that exposed the fault lines of race and class underlying Denver's easygoing facade.

In 1995, Denverites were frustrated and angry over DIA's repeated opening delays, which had added hundreds of millions of dollars to the project's cost. After taking office, Webb had steered several airport contracts to longtime political supporters in the black community. Charges of cronyism filled the newspapers, putting the mayor on the defensive. Since many of the contracts were tied to the city's affirmative action program, the controversy soon had a racial edge. Although Webb killed several of the most controversial contracts in early 1993, the allegations emboldened his opponents.

Then-city councilwoman Mary DeGroot mounted an angry campaign against Webb, accusing him of bringing a touch of "old Chicago" to city government. Her political base was in Washington Park and the largely white neighborhoods south of Colfax, and she bested the mayor by 61 votes in the May election, forcing a June runoff. (A candidate has to win at least 50 percent of the vote to be elected mayor without a runoff.)

Race suddenly became an issue for a city that prides itself on racial tolerance.

"People were really divided," Barnes-Gelt says. "It wasn't about Mary and Wellington; it was about good and evil, black and white, right and wrong. It was very polarized."

To win the runoff, Webb needed a big turnout in minority-dominated neighborhoods north of Colfax. To galvanize this base, he began to imply that DeGroot was a racist.

"Webb played the race card hard to save his skin," says Eric Sondermann, a Denver political consultant who ran the DeGroot campaign. "Webb did overwhelming numbers in the black community, and he got comparable numbers in the Latino community."

DeGroot's and Webb's tactics exemplify how Denver politicians have been plotting strategy for years, viewing the city as a collection of ethnic and economic enclaves with Colfax Avenue as a rough dividing line. Neighborhoods south of Colfax were overwhelmingly white and middle-class, while the black population was in the northeast quadrant of the city, and Hispanics lived on the north and west sides.

Politicos knew that Jews tended to live on the east side near Temple Emanuel and that northwest Denver was anchored by Italian and Hispanic families who had lived there for generations. Park Hill was seen as one of Denver's core progressive neighborhoods, a place where liberal white lawyers and professionals had banded together to maintain racial harmony with black neighbors, helping launch the careers of such politicians as former U.S. representative Pat Schroeder.

Country Club was Denver's silk-stocking district, where politicians went not necessarily for votes, but for money. Washington Park and the neighborhoods around the University of Denver tended to be young, white and liberal. The neighborhoods west of DU were blue-collar and had a high concentration of union members. The west side was heavily Hispanic, with an emerging Asian population clustered around the intersection of Federal and Alameda.

Most neighborhoods still maintain their defining characteristics, but dramatic shifts during the past decade have started to affect city politics. Denver's population grew by 87,026 during the '90s, reversing a three-decade trend of people migrating to the suburbs, and the huge infill projects at Lowry, Stapleton and in the Central Platte Valley are expected to draw tens of thousands of new residents. Montbello and Green Valley Ranch are also attracting thousands of newcomers by touting their room to grow.

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