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.

However, the tone of the articles differed substantially, in large part because of comments attributed to outside parties. The Rocky relied upon quotes from Lori Weigel of Public Opinion Strategies, who talked about Hickenlooper's strength among many disparate groups, and maintained that Mares was the first Hispanic candidate in a Denver mayoral runoff to be seen as "the insider." The Post, in contrast, quizzed several folks with a variety of opinions but leaned most heavily upon the comments of Leslie Moody, president of the Denver Area Labor Federation, who campaigned for Mares. Moody certainly provided grabby remarks, declaring at one point that "we have seen over and over again people talking about wanting a white mayor.... It says that Denver is moving further away from being a world-class city, if that's the basis upon which people are casting their votes."

By giving Moody the first and last quotes in the article, Greene and Roberts could be seen as implicitly endorsing her views -- but in an e-mail signed by both, they deny imposing any slant. "We reported what the data showed -- precincts carried and actual votes won by each candidate -- and asked some political observers for their comments," they wrote. "If the data had shown a different pattern, or no pattern, we would have reported that, too."

In her column, Rodriguez chatted with two locals -- the University of Colorado at Denver's Estevan Flores and Regis University's Ramon Del Castillo -- who felt that whites had rallied around Hickenlooper for a couple of reasons. Flores guessed that newly imported yuppies wanted one of their own; Del Castillo declared that longtime Anglo residents were fed up with two decades of minority governance. "I don't agree," Rodriguez wrote, but she didn't quote anyone with a contradictory outlook, swooned over Mares's appearance (she called him a "papi chulo") and declared, "Truth is, if there were as many Latinos as whites in Denver, Mares would've won."

Maybe not. Rodriguez notes that "in precincts where Mares carried at least 80 percent of the vote, not including early and absentee votes, turnout hit 27 percent -- three percentage points higher than the city average." Nonetheless, these turnout numbers hardly speak to a highly energized base of the sort that led to the elections of Peña and Webb. In "Black and Latino Voters in Denver: Responses to Each Other's Political Leadership," a just-published article in Political Science Quarterly, Karen M. Kaufmann, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, writes that Latino turnout in Peña's 1983 victory over white district attorney Dale Tooley was a staggering 73 percent. African-Americans didn't quite hit that height in 1995, when Webb ran against a white candidate, Mary DeGroot, but the 47 percent of black voters who cast ballots was higher than the percentages of whites and Latinos who did likewise.

For Mares to have been successful, says Floyd Ciruli of Ciruli Associates, a well-known Denver polling firm, he would have needed a far higher turnout among Latinos than he got. "If the overall vote was 30 percent, I would have expected it to, if not double, at least be 50 percent higher -- so 45 percent," he says. "That, to me, would have shown real intensity and enthusiasm. Instead it shows, if anything, that Latinos shared in the sort of malaise that was out there. They seemed to feel that he was a good candidate, but the other candidate wasn't that threatening, and it wasn't as if all the gains they'd made over the years would be lost. That wasn't it at all."

Ciruli confirms that race and ethnicity are factors in Denver mayoral elections, but often not determining ones. "We hadn't had any minority mayors before Peña, and he managed to really solidify and activate the Latino vote in the 1983 election and the 1987 re-election," he says. "Those were clearly critical elements for him; he had to have that unity. But you don't get elected in this city with minority votes. You must have Anglo votes, and a substantial number of them. And Peña got them."

So, too, did Webb, whose 1991 election also conflicts with simplistic bloc-voting theories; Denver's African-American population isn't nearly large enough to swing an election on its own, yet that year's runoff pitted Webb against another African-American, district attorney Norm Early. In Ciruli's mind, the Webb-Early contest and others since 1983 showed that whites based their votes on more than color.

"Some white voters certainly have residual prejudice," he says, "but many of them are motivated by partisanship and issues, or else we wouldn't have elected twenty years of minority mayors, sometimes with overwhelming support." Ciruli adds, "I'm a skeptic that this election showed a lot of racial polarization.... I could make an argument that we were less racially polarized than when Peña and Webb were elected."

That's certainly the spin Paul Lhevine, Hickenlooper's campaign manager, would like to put on things. He says he heard from numerous Hick supporters "of all races" who were upset about the Greene-Roberts analysis and the Rodriguez column because "they tried to paint this election as something that it wasn't. This election was about change, and about electing somebody who wasn't about the usual tired political traditions." Hickenlooper's subsequent announcement of a diverse group of transition-teamers, among them onetime mayoral candidate Penfield Tate (an African-American), wasn't a reaction to the Post articles, Lhevine stresses, but "a reflection of the way John ran his campaign, reaching out to every part of the city -- which is why we did as well as we did in every part of the city."

If representatives of the Mares camp feel otherwise, they're not letting on. The campaign wasn't thrilled with the election coverage, as indicated by a flier distributed in May by the northwest Denver outreach office. Number nine on a list of "10 Things You Can Do to Help Don Mares Become Mayor" was "Write a letter to the editor of the major papers, pointing out that you have noticed their biased coverage against Don Mares." Even so, Mares allowed former communications director Cody Wertz to speak for him about the implications of the Post articles. Wertz's quote: "We at the campaign weren't privy to what every volunteer said at every door, but we were very proud of the outreach we made in every community and the broad-based support we got around the city."

Obviously, Hickenlooper's support was much greater; he won by landslide proportions. In spite of this, Rodriguez figuratively threw down the gauntlet at Hickenlooper in her first column, writing that he's "got two-thirds of the city cheering him on. Getting that other third will be tough." Since then, her stance has softened: Her June 13 column, in which she and Hickenlooper strolled the city talking about downtown parking, was so positive it seemed like something of a make-good. (No sense running crosswise of the guy who'll be mayor for the next four years.) Meanwhile, the Post has printed a pair of additional, and prescient, campaign post mortems -- a column by Fred Brown and an article by Karen Crummy positing that Mares may have been done in not so much by his ethnicity, but by his high-minded refusal to go negative.

In other words, Mares may have spent too long in another type of Fantasyland -- where being nice pays off. Say cheesy: The June 8 edition of Spin Cycled, the Denver Post's political column, featured an item about Helen Thorpe, wife of aforementioned mayor-elect John Hickenlooper, who reportedly "grew visibly upset at having her photo taken on a LoDo sidewalk [on June 4] and verbally snapped at the photographer and then grabbed at his camera." As it turns out, there was more to the picture than that.

The Spin Cycled text stated that shutterbug Brian Brainerd was snapping shots of auditor-elect Dennis Gallagher at a coffee shop (Common Grounds, actually) when Gallagher spotted Thorpe outside and excused himself to congratulate her. When Brainerd trailed behind and started taking photos, "Thorpe apparently grew angry" and before "storming off," she "grabbed at Brainerd's camera and ripped off a sheet of paper he was using as a flash 'bounce card.'"

Hickenlooper spokeswoman Lindy Eichenbaum Lent responded by saying that Thorpe, who didn't comment for the piece, felt "ambushed" and didn't want to be seen as a public figure. On June 10, a Post editorial chided Thorpe, a former journalist, for this stance, stating, "The Hickenloopers need to understand that the ample amount of privacy afforded them as Denver citizens began to dissolve the moment John announced he was running for mayor.... Thorpe's right to privacy doesn't supersede a photographer's First Amendment rights if she's walking down a public street."

Gallagher wasn't contacted by the Post in advance of the Spin Cycled piece or the editorial, and had he been, he might have supplied a far different account from the ones published. He says he asked Brainerd and the reporter accompanying him, Trent Seibert, to stay in the coffee shop while he went to greet someone -- Thorpe, it quickly turned out -- privately, and was startled when a camera started going off in their faces. Afterward, he says, he expressed his hope to the Post pair that the entire exchange would be seen as off the record.

Seibert, who remained in Common Grounds during the impromptu photo session, remembers Gallagher telling him and Brainerd to "wait a minute" while he went to greet Thorpe. He also verifies that Gallagher asked that their encounter be off the record, "which I didn't commit to one way or the other." The mayor-to-be certainly wasn't thrilled over how things turned out. Post editor Moore says that Hickenlooper phoned Karen Crummy, who had no involvement in the incident, to express his displeasure.

No doubt there will be more displeasure to come.

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