The Message

The Mayor's Race

Anyone who believes the issue of race in these United States has been resolved once and for all should book a one-way ticket to Fantasyland. For better or worse, ethnicity continues to influence countless aspects of everyday life, from employment and education to entertainment and sports. Yet television news rarely takes on the subject in anything other than a superficial way, and print journalism generally approaches it with great trepidation, since a piece that may please one ethnic group could piss off another.

To its credit, the Denver Post hasn't shied away from this theme of late, despite the heat it can generate. Take "Mesa County's Racial Gulf," a June 8 offering by Nancy Lofholm, which fleshed out a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that noted how few minorities were in positions of power in Grand Junction and nearby communities on Colorado's Western Slope. While Lofholm did a fine, evenhanded job of documenting a situation that's improved only slightly over a span of decades, many Mesa County dwellers were undoubtedly angered by the article anyway.

A more complex variation on this reaction took place over two items published by the Post in the wake of restaurateur John Hickenlooper's resounding victory over city auditor Don Mares in the June 3 runoff election for Denver mayor. "Whites Solid Behind Hickenlooper," a June 5 analysis by Susan Greene and Jeffrey A. Roberts (no relation), and "Mayoral Race Reveals Plenty About Race," the debut column by new hire Cindy Rodriguez, didn't prompt a deluge of nasty letters. Still, they became a major topic of debate among political insiders, some of whom felt the pieces made too much of racial factors, particularly considering that for the previous twenty years, Denver had elected mayors -- first Federico Peña, followed by Wellington Webb -- who are members of minority groups.

C.L. Harmer, spokeswoman for Webb, puts it this way: "Mayor Webb believes that Denver is a sophisticated electorate and embodies that Western spirit that doesn't care about your pedigree but wants to know if you can cut it. It's why Denver voters, who are largely Anglo, voted for Peña, voted for Webb and voted for Hickenlooper. They all represented fresh faces and visions suited for the times. It wasn't about the pigment of their skin, but about their ideas."

What, then, led the Post to its conclusions? Harmer has some ideas about that, too. She thinks turnover among reporters and editors at the paper since the arrival last year of editor Greg Moore, former managing editor at the Boston Globe, may have resulted in a loss of institutional knowledge, not to mention the erroneous sense that the dynamics in Denver operate as they do in, for instance, large East Coast cities. "You have to worry whether the Denver Post will give up some quality and accuracy in its push for hard-hitting news generated by inexperienced editors and reporters imported from other markets," she says.

Moore doesn't buy that. As he points out, Greene and Roberts have been at the Post for several years, and the paper's political editor, Rebecca Cantwell, is even more of a veteran, having spent thirteen years at the Rocky Mountain News. The same can't be said for Rodriguez, who passed on a request for an interview; another Boston Globe alum, she'd been in town only a few weeks before her introductory column saw daylight. Moore, though, gives her kudos for taking on a difficult and challenging assignment right out of the box and praises her for basing the column on reporting. According to him, "We're not trying to imprint Boston over Denver or anything like that, and I'm surprised C.L. said that."

Vincent Carroll, the Rocky's editorial-page editor, said much more. In "Race Baiters Crying in Their Beer After Vote," a June 7 column, Carroll made no secret of his disdain for the Greene-Roberts analysis and Rodriguez's column, writing, "Leave it to the Denver Post to smear a large portion of the Denver electorate with unrebutted charges of racism."

This sweeping charge may be a bit exaggerated, but a closer look at the way "Whites Solid Behind Hickenlooper" was played does reveal some mixed messages. On one hand, the article didn't appear above the fold on page one; it ran deep inside the Post's A-section as just one part of a post-election roundup. On the other, the headline seemed to go out of its way to be provocative. Indeed, reporter Greene, communicating via e-mail, writes that she "regretted" the headline "given that the story focused more on income." This contention is backed up by the first line of the analysis: "Mayor-elect John Hickenlooper -- who said early in his campaign that his first official act would be to plant flowers in poor neighborhoods -- was elected with a mandate from higher-income voters."

The information about voting trends Greene and Roberts spotlighted didn't differ substantially from data brought up by the Rocky in June 5's "Same Song, Second Verse," a report by Kevin Vaughan and Burt Hubbard that left virtually every hackle unraised. Greene and Roberts noted that Hickenlooper scored over 92 percent of the vote in "Denver's tony, 95-percent-white Country Club neighborhood" but eked out just 11.7 percent of the vote in a West Colfax neighborhood in which Caucasians make up around 17 percent of the total and the average annual household income is over $120,000 lower. For their part, Vaughan and Hubbard wrote that Hickenlooper won 282 of 299 precincts "where the population is predominantly white," and Mares took 77 of 90 precincts that were mainly Hispanic.

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