Mayberry, BFD

When pollsters start dialing the denizens of a small city, it's all Opie gone bad.

In Denver, no one's separated by six degrees. Two, maybe. The connections are so close that back East, pollsters and political consultants marvel -- and mourn over -- Denver's coziness. It's Mayberry, they say.

So when Ari Zavaras's campaign dared to ask some negative questions about specific mayoral candidates -- Zavaras included -- during field research in January, Denverites were as aghast as if Aunt Bea had given the entire town food poisoning with the tainted potato salad she'd brought to the church social. Even before that polling was completed, outraged recipients of the Zavaras calls were spilling the beans to friends at other campaigns and in the media -- making work particularly difficult for researchers still in the field.

Candidates, too, were quick to shake scolding fingers at the Zavaras campaign.

But that was before those fingers started dialing.

When my phone rang this past Saturday, it wasn't Floyd the Barber calling. "Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?" asked a chipper woman whose Southern accent hinted more of suburban D.C. than Mt. Pilot. While telemarketing efforts have been severely limited by the state's no-call legislation, political campaigns are exempt from the law -- and I had high hopes that I was on the receiving end of one of those notoriously nasty political push polls. Instead, though, the call started as innocently as an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, a fishing expedition straight out of Mayberry.

Was Denver headed in the right direction, she wanted to know, or was it on "the wrong track"? And of the challenges facing the city, which of the following were major problems, which were minor problems, and which were "in good shape": crime and drugs, affordable housing, growth and congestion, education, the police force, balancing the city budget, drought and race.

Only after that brief civics exercise did the personality parade begin. From a list of names, whom did I feel "very positive, somewhat positive, somewhat negative or very negative" about? Wellington Webb. Susan Casey. John Hickenlooper. Don Mares. Elizabeth Schlosser. Bill Owens. Ari Zavaras. Jeremy Stefanek. Phil Perington.

When I actually offered an opinion on that last name, the pollster gasped. "You're the first one I've asked who knows who he is!"

Yeah, and it's not the future mayor of Denver.

Then the nitty started getting gritty. Perington, Stefanek and Schlosser didn't rate follow-up questions, but the others did. What, for example, did I think about John Hickenlooper, "a white man with zero government experience" who owned over twenty restaurants, running for mayor? (I think that if he really owned twenty restaurants, he should have cut better deals for the Westword staff when our office was located across from the Wynkoop Brewing Co., his flagship eatery.) Or about Susan Casey, who'd resigned halfway through her term on Denver City Council, necessitating an election that cost the city $252,000? Or Don Mares using his political connections to get free tickets? Or what about Ari Zavaras? As Denver police chief, he'd overseen evidence-gathering for the spy files; as head of the state Department of Corrections, he'd seen his agency charged with sex harassment...and now, in his bid for mayor of Denver, he was supported by (gasp!) Republicans. Even Penfield Tate was laid bare -- his going to bat for a sex-offender neighbor up for parole, his law firm's representation of a problematic police officer, the firm's $11 million in contracts with the city. But Tate was also the only candidate to receive a positive push, in a scripted paean to his credentials as "a former top aide to Federico Peña...a progressive leader who believes we should focus more on neighborhoods."

Only after twenty minutes and a slew of notes scribbled on my cable bill did the friendly pollster finally ask what the head of my household did for a living -- a query that most researchers put at the top of their spiel, the better to achieve at least six degrees of separation from any conflict with their candidate.

Over at the Tate campaign, research director Colin Kennedy had thought the field research was completed long before last weekend. But after checking, he acknowledged that the call to my number -- and one that followed a few hours later to Westword cartoonist Kenny Be -- had come from one of their tardy researchers out of Virginia.

Direct to Mayberry, BFD.

"Denver is a very small, networked community," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli, who doesn't have a horse in this race. "You are calling likely voters, and that means you're calling potentially half the electorate, which is already a diminished number. Just to get 500 people, you're calling a couple thousand -- given hangups or no one at home. So the odds that you're going to get a pain-in-the-neck reporter are high..."

Ditto for a political insider's spouse: Ciruli's wife recently fielded a call that posed essentially the same questions as the Tate poll, although with a twist that made her think the research was for the Mares camp. Paula Sandoval, wife of Zavaras campaign manager Paul Sandoval, received a similar call. "It was an ugly one, totally negative," says Arnie Grossman, the Zavaras communications director who six weeks ago had to field complaints about the first poll of the campaign. "What we did was still very different. We were going for head-to-head matchups for all the candidates, the perceived weaknesses of all the field, but more about our own candidate."

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