Mayor Wellington Webb will soon be gone, but he won't be forgotten.
Not when he's left his size-thirteen footprints all over this city.
Webb's name will live on at the $130 million Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building, a stunning new structure draped around the old International-style Civic Center Annex -- one of just a few endangered historic buildings to survive Webb's twelve-year tenure as mayor of Denver. Despite a city ordinance that prohibited a building being named for a living city official, Denver City Council (ten of whose members will exit alongside the mayor) last year voted to immortalize Webb in stone and metal.
But maybe that was so his name wouldn't be available for the $17 million Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, which opened just last month. Instead, that facility was named for two of Denver's black pioneers (one on the Denver Public Schools board, one on city council), both of whom were true trailblazers. But Webb doesn't go entirely unrecognized at the library. Upstairs, past a historic display that includes assorted frocks that First Lady Wilma Webb wore to official functions, is a slightly miniaturized version of the office where Webb has spent the past dozen years. The crystal tennis shoes are full-sized, though: They commemorate the footgear that Webb used in his come-from-behind bid for mayor in 1991, when he walked 300 miles in 39 days and sneakered his way to victory.
Webb had run for mayor before, in 1983, when he was a member of then-governor Dick Lamm's cabinet and said he wanted to turn Denver into the "Athens of the West" -- not with a marathon walk, but with a convergence of arts and economics. That round, he placed far behind Federico Peña, the dark-horse candidate who broke out of a crowded field to take the race from incumbent mayor Bill McNichols and Denver District Attorney Dale Tooley.
All Peña got to commemorate his eight years in office -- and hard labor digging Denver out of the deep hole it fell into after the oil bust -- was a city ordinance prohibiting a building being named for a living Denver official. But his tenure was immortalized in a stretch of road leading out to Denver International Airport, the airport he'd lobbied for, a road -- Peña Boulevard -- whose inconvenient closure during a blizzard made national news when Peña was head of the Department of Transportation.
Peña wound up in Bill Clinton's cabinet after deciding not to run for a third term. At the time, Webb was city auditor, a position he'd been elected to in 1987 when incumbent Mike Licht left to run for mayor, and "the Peña administration was never comfortable with him sitting directly across the street as city auditor, an office that was historically perceived as only a stepping stone for the mayor's office," according to To Make a Mayor, the book that the late Deborah Tucker, Webb's aide, wrote to commemorate the 1991 race. But while the auditor's office may be perceived as a stepping stone to the mayor's office, it leads down a slippery slope, and candidates who start their mayoral campaigns there tend to sink like a rock. (See Licht. See Don Mares, next week.)
Then again, being labeled the frontrunner in the mayor's race is an invitation to fall flat on your behind. The tag didn't help Tooley in 1983, it didn't help Ari Zavaras twenty years later, and it certainly didn't do anything for then-Denver district attorney Norm Early back in 1991. Early that year, the pundits predicted that Early would take the office in a walk, since he had many of the same credentials as Webb (they were both black, had considerable political experience and mustaches -- a major no-no twelve years later) and also had the big-money backers and perceived "charisma." It was Early's race to lose -- and he lost big, inexplicably turning to Hollywood transplant Yaphet Kotto for campaign advice even as Webb's big feet were coming on fast. (Kotto said he'd be making a movie about the race and promised to star as Mayor Early. Instead, he went on to Homicide. Get me rewrite!)
All told, Early spent $1.17 million on his campaign, Webb less than $400,000. It was a triumph for the Little (big) Guy.
"Webb's famous old tennis shoes became the subject of humorous parodies with some radio station personalities offering to get them bronzed, but Webb refused," wrote Tucker. "The tennis shoes represented more than a gimmick or a method of campaigning, he insisted, they represented a way of governing and a change in American politics: 'This election had national significance, but its significance is not that the two candidates happened to have mustaches, it's about independence and the influence of big money in politics. It was whether the election was going to be defined by big special interest groups or whether it was going to be defined by the little people, the people like you and me who work for a living....'"
Little people, perhaps, like those depicted in Jonathan Borofsky's "Dancers," the sixty-foot-high sculpture that was chosen by Wilma Webb (who got her own city-organized tribute two weeks ago at the Denver Art Museum), cost $1.55 million and is just now getting gussied up for the real capper on Webb's career. The 71st annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors (as well as the 2nd International Conference of Mayors) comes to town next week, bringing more than 200 mayors from across the United States and around the globe. Bringing them to the Adam's Mark Hotel, whose owner, Fred Kummer, lost big when his St. Louis facility was accused of racism -- but still won a Webb-supported, $25 million subsidy from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (costing the city the I.M. Pei-designed hyperbolic paraboloid, but gaining us those beautiful ballerinas). Bringing them to our own World-Wide Webb. Webb had started lobbying for the mayors' group to come to Denver for its annual convention even before he was elected to this third term, before he himself became president of the conference a few years ago, before the Denver economy started sinking faster than the Rockies' hopes, before the city's budget gap opened up wider than that pothole just down the street.
Webb, the underdog turned top dog, did not get out while the getting was good, and the past two years have been a fast fall from the penthouse to the doghouse. Judging from recent projections, Denver's next mayor may have it even worse. (Most likely candidate for chief of staff: the fellow who administers the lethal injections at Cañon City -- because in this economic climate, what are the odds that he'll be asked to deliver good news on the mayor's behalf?)
But for at least a week, even as Denver's newly elected mayor starts getting fitted for office, this city will glow once more -- if not in reality, at least on the video that's being produced for the mayors' edification. That can be Webb's consolation prize for losing Denver: A World-Class City, a documentary on Denver from the '90s through today (a period that conveniently overlapped Webb's entire mayoral term) that was killed by city council when it learned that the Office of Television and Internet Services had budgeted $200,000 for the project. By then, though, Webb already had his Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building -- and some of OTIS's file footage should come in handy for the mayors' video.
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Webb's also been working to secure donations -- the goal was $800,000, which neatly balances the $1 million the conference is estimated to pump into Denver's economy -- so that the mayors can be feted in style. At a reception at the brand-spanking-new Space Odyssey at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (attire: business casual). At a reception at the Denver Performing Arts Complex (business casual). At a board dinner at Cableland, Official Residence of the Mayor of Denver (invitation only, possible screening of Denver: A World-Class City, the uncut version). And at Red Rocks Amphitheatre Visitor Center (casual), to be followed by...what else?
The 3rd Annual Wellington E. Webb Music Festival.
Has a certain ring, doesn't it?