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"Here comes this lawyer Don Bain, a well-known figure in the Country Club community but not anywhere else, with a personality as bland as Melba toast," says one Denver campaign veteran. "With a humorous tongue-in-cheek campaign, he delivers a message that the mayor is out of touch. It damn near took Peña out of office."
Peña was saved in the June runoff by a huge turnout among Hispanic voters. Many of them hadn't voted in the first election, but the campaign went into high gear to get them to the polling booths, and Peña eked out a 3,000-vote margin to win re-election. Turnout for the runoff jumped by 16,500 over the first round.
"Four hundred people left Peña's headquarters at four o'clock with voter lists in their hands and fanned out all over the west side," recalls Barnes-Gelt, who worked for the campaign. "Over the next few hours, we turned out thousands of voters."
That may have been the last time the Latino community really flexed its muscles in Denver. Despite huge population gains, the predominantly Hispanic council districts, 3 and 9, have the lowest voter turnout in general elections. While an estimated 52,352 Hispanics are registered to vote in Denver, only 35 percent of them participated in the November election.
It might be expected that another Latino running for mayor would rally the Hispanic community, but so far, City Auditor Don Mares hasn't made it happen. Instead, former Department of Safety manager Ari Zavaras -- widely assumed to be the front-runner in the election -- has won the support of several Hispanic activists, including former state representative Frana Mace and former fire chief Rich Gonzales. Wynkoop Brewing Company owner John Hickenlooper has also picked up some Latino endorsements.
"I know Hispanics who are supporting almost all of the candidates," says Angela Padilla, director of the Latina Initiative, which registers Hispanic women to vote. "I think people are looking at candidates' records and comparing them. It's not about race."
Former mayor Peña also believes the Hispanic community has become more politically sophisticated and won't vote for just a surname. They are looking at the same issues as other groups: good schools, economic security and safe neighborhoods. "Candidates have to be very targeted and focused in appealing to Hispanics," says Peña, who now works for a Denver investment firm.
But he also understands that many Hispanics still have concerns about discrimination and look for leaders sensitive to that. "I do think that Hispanics have an emotional connection to certain candidates," he says. "You must give people a reason to vote. If a candidate excites the Hispanic community, that can make a difference in a close election. I think there's an opportunity for Hispanics to elect the next mayor."
Denver political consultant Steve Welchert, who was Peña's issues director for his re-election bid, says it will take time for Latinos to win political power commensurate with their numbers. "It's a maturation process; it won't happen overnight," he says. "The Hispanic community has had a number of different waves of immigration. That assimilation in a new culture is difficult."
That the Hispanic community is not monolithic isn't surprising, what with a mix of immigrants from Mexico and a dozen other countries, divisions between recent arrivals and families that have been here for generations, language barriers and class differences.
What is surprising is the comparative power of the much smaller black community. With just about a third of the population numbers of Hispanics, Denver's African-Americans wield a remarkable degree of influence.
"The African-American community is small and stable, but it has deep roots," says C.L. Harmer, a veteran of several Denver political campaigns who is now public-affairs director for the safety department. "It's more homogenous than the Latino community."
The level of political organizing in the black community, specifically in northeast Denver, inspires awe in many Denver politicos. The churches are vital community centers, so candidates must reach out to the congregations and their influential ministers if they hope to win a voting bloc. If the churches unite behind one candidate -- as they did with Webb -- it can help to swing an election.
"Politics in northeast Denver is an art," Kolomitz says. "They've been doing it for years and know how to do it. Wellington Webb understood the power of black churches and knew how to work them."
But this isn't unique to Denver; it's a fact of political organizing in any black community from New York City to Jackson, Mississippi. The church's community significance stems from the South, where it was often a safe haven from terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan. Much of the civil rights movement began in the churches, and that activism still exists four decades later.
"The church has been where you go to find out what's important in the community," says Landri Taylor, a longtime African-American political activist who is now running for city auditor.