Joy in Mudville

Bright spots in a down-and-dirty campaign season.

My next-door neighbor, a caring, creative and very patient man, ran for Denver City Council. On garbage day last week, his recycling bin held a tidy stack of now-obsolete campaign signs.

Years of hopes and dreams, going out with the trash.

But a political bid doesn't always end with such wince-inducing pain. Unlike so many others who found their lives in the dumpster last week -- Ari Zavaras, whose million-dollar campaign couldn't buy more than 13 percent of the vote; Alby Segall, who went to bed thinking he'd made the District 5 runoff, only to wake up and discover he was 51 votes behind -- some candidates took pleasure in the sheer act of running.

Eyes on the prize: Barb Scott.
Larry Winter
Eyes on the prize: Barb Scott.

Jeremy Stefanek, for example, a thirty-year-old political novice who got bumped from the ballot for failing to follow the proper petition procedure. "I had a blast," he says of his brief bid for mayor. "I felt it was a great, great experience, and it won't be my last time running."

It was Barb Scott's first time, too. She got in the race late, propelled by motives that would do a civics class proud. She was president of the Baker Historic Neighborhood Association when the group went before Denver City Council in January to submit its long-range plan developed under the city's Blueprint Denver project, and there she saw years of hard work buried beneath a developer's push to build two fourteen-story residential high-rises at Broadway and Fourth Avenue. She saw councilmembers wooed by lawyers and lobbyists working for Fentress Bradburn, who persuaded them to exclude the block from the Baker plan. "I saw them all out, wined and dined, the night the neighborhood got screwed," she remembers.

Scott was so amazed -- and appalled -- by what she'd seen that a month later she decided to run for council herself. "These people need to do their own research, not rely on the research of a paid lobbyist," she says. "What they did for development, for lobbyists, for attorneys! I thought I'd step in and do something for our neighborhood, or at least try."

And not just for her neighborhood, but for the entire city -- the city she's lived in for all of her fifty years. "I remember what Mayor McNichols was like," she says. "Talk about old-boy stuff. Federico Peña was such a miracle, really, after that. It felt so positive. He really reached out -- to the young, to newcomers, way beyond just Hispanics." (But Peña's heritage did inspire changes at Scott's business, a graphics company: She was the first typesetter in town to add a tilde so that Peña's name could be spelled correctly.)

Twenty years later, Scott sensed a similar change blowing through Denver, with Mayor Wellington Webb leaving office and term limits removing ten of the sitting councilmembers, leaving room for fresh faces and voices. "Peña was kind of innocent, like me," Scott says. "I think I can make a difference. He really did."

So with less than a month until petitions were due, Scott went down to the Denver Election Commission -- which may not be able to find its absentee ballots, but was very helpful for someone walking in off the street interested in becoming a council candidate -- and then set out to collect her signatures.

In the process, she rediscovered her love of Denver and the people who live here.

One day, Scott and her two children headed to Globeville (the 9th is one of the city's geographic oddities, stretching from northwest Denver to Globeville and down through LoDo to Baker). Scott knocked on one door and asked the woman who answered if she would sign a petition. That depended, the woman said, on how Scott felt about pet snakes. Scott knows all about snakes -- particularly the lobbying, lawyering kind -- but she admitted that she didn't know anything about pet ones. "How do you feel about pet snakes?" she asked. The woman responded by bringing out a box turtle that had been abandoned in her yard and unleashing a speech about the importance of protecting animals, including snakes. She wanted to make sure that city council would never pass anything against pet snakes.

While her daughter played with the turtle, Scott said she was pretty sure she could support pet snakes. "We were there fifteen minutes and got her signature, but we also made her a friend," she remembers. And then, as the Scott family continued knocking on doors, the woman ran down the street to catch them. "My son's eighteen," she told the budding politician. "He wants to sign your petition."

Scott's days on the campaign trail were filled with such small, personal pleasures, which balanced out the rumormongering, the backbiting. "I'm not interested in politics per se," she says. "I'm interested in this city. I'm interested in the people, the architecture. I'm interested in how people get from here to there."

And by May 7, here's where Scott had gotten: With the city's shortest campaign and about $3,000, she'd secured 697 votes -- 12 percent of her district. But she'd also found renewed faith in her city.

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