GETTING A READ ON THE MAYOR
When a book about Wellington Webb's 1991 campaign for mayor of Denver hit local bookstores in April, a number of Webb's political foes were certain something fishy was going on.
After all, the author of To Make a Mayor is Deborah Tucker, who handled public relations for Webb when he was city auditor and now holds down a $45,000-a-year job writing speeches and brochures for the mayor. Her book was printed and distributed by a quasi-vanity press in Maryland only after a local bookstore owner and Webb supporter promised to buy the first 500 copies. It offers an extremely flattering depiction of Webb, describing him at one point as a "big, gentle Teddy bear that [children] felt compelled to hug and climb on." And it happened to come out just days before the May 2 general election, in which Webb faced three challengers trying to derail his campaign for a second term.
Skepticism was running especially high over at the mayoral campaign of Denver City Councilwoman Mary DeGroot, then mounting the most serious challenge to Webb. Her supporters suspected that the tome, in which Tucker devotes 172 pages to Webb's performance in the '91 campaign without ever actually interviewing the candidate, was a piece of campaign puffery masquerading as serious literature. "We didn't think that the timing [of the book's arrival] was coincidental," DeGroot says now.
But Tucker insists the release date of To Make a Mayor was pure happenstance. "It was a coincidence," she says. "I'm not smart enough to be able to have pulled that off."
Though Webb took time out from the 1995 race to autograph copies of the book at the Tattered Cover Book Store (his preferred inscription: "Best of Life"), Tucker says the mayor didn't participate at all in the preparation of the manuscript. Tucker says she wrote the book during a year's sabbatical from City Hall and that she was a "stickler" about not devoting city time to the project. The volume, she adds, is meant not as a piece of pro-Webb propaganda but as an "absolutely" objective work of political history.
"I honestly tried with all my heart to not be biased," Tucker says. "I just said it like it was."
The book, Tucker's first, opens on November 28, 1990--the day former Denver mayor Federico Pena announced he would not seek a third term--and closes with Webb's inaugural on July 1 the following year. In between, it recounts Webb's come-from-behind victory over former Denver district attorney Norm Early and Republican attorney Don Bain, the two early favorites in the race.
"What I wanted to do more than anything was document how any person who wants to lead a city does not necessarily need to go the route of conventional politics [and concentrate on raising money from special interests]," Tucker says. "Democracy in its raw form still can work. That's the overall point."
As an underfunded underdog, Tucker argues in the book, Webb used a populist, issues-oriented campaign to best his opponents. The linchpin of Webb's victory, she writes, was his highly publicized, three-week walk through Denver city neighborhoods before the May general election, which gave him free media exposure and brought him into contact with the city's average citizens.
"That was decisive," Tucker says. "It was the key to his win, without question."
(Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli disagrees, crediting Webb's victory more to problems in the Bain and Early camps. Early got tagged with the label of "Pena surrogate," Ciruli says, and Bain lost popularity after he advocated halting construction of Denver International Airport. "He [Webb] could have walked the entire city forty times, and if those other two things hadn't happened, it wouldn't have mattered," Ciruli says.)
Tucker's account is based almost entirely on articles about the campaign from Denver's two daily newspapers. Indeed, the book contains no interviews with any of the candidates--including Webb. Tucker says she asked Webb "a thousand times" if he would give her the inside story of the race, but he turned her down. "He didn't tell me anything," Tucker says.
Webb spokesman Briggs Gamblin says the mayor is "very pleased about the book." Gamblin says he isn't sure why Webb didn't grant Tucker an interview. "He never shared that with me," he says.
Tucker, 42, served as Webb's public-information officer while he was executive director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies under former governor Richard Lamm and in a similar post during Webb's stint as city auditor between 1987 and 1991. After Webb's election, she joined his administration as his scheduler before quitting to write the book in December 1991. She returned as a Webb speechwriter a year later.
"He's my mentor," Tucker says.
In the book, Tucker portrays Webb as far more qualified to run the city than either Early or Bain. Webb, she writes, was the "most knowledgeable about the city and its issues" and had a "penchant for hard work." He "sincerely held no prejudices," "loved and studied people" and was "as comfortable with the president of the United States as with a poor, sharecropper farm hand."
The book isn't a nonstop lovefest, however. Tucker writes that Webb could be "Machiavellian" and "unmerciful" in the heat of political battle (though she offers no specific examples of ruthless behavior). And she acknowledges that Early, whom Webb faced in the runoff after edging Bain in the general election, had Webb beaten hands down in the looks department.
The district attorney, she writes, "was daring and dashing. He was a former track star who kept his svelte, six-foot-one-inch body in shape by regularly working out at the exclusive Denver Athletic Club. He was outgoing and strutted confidently with shoulders thrown back, dressed handsomely in designer suits."
Webb, meanwhile, "had a paunch that couldn't be ignored."
Early could not be reached for comment, and Bain says he hasn't read the book, adding that he's "never heard of it." He does say, though, that Webb's victory had less to do with his neighborhood walks than with the Bain camp's decision to concentrate exclusively on attacking Early before the general election, giving Webb a free ride. Bain says if he had gone after Webb instead, "we could have knocked [him] out in the first round."
To Make a Mayor was published by University Press of America (UPA) of Lanham, Maryland. The firm's acquisitions editor, Michelle Harris, describes UPA as an "academic publisher" but notes that the company is not affiliated with a university.
UPA agreed to print and distribute 700 copies of the book in paperback after Denver's Hue-Man Experience Bookstore, which specializes in African-American literature, agreed to buy 500 of them.
Harris insists that UPA is "not a vanity press." But Dick Rowson, publishing consultant to the American University Press in Washington, D.C., who is familiar with UPA, says book contracts that require prepublication orders are "in effect...a vanity form of publishing." Tucker's book sells for $19.95.
Tucker says UPA gets to keep all proceeds from sales of the first edition of the book, but she will earn a small royalty if there is a second printing. Tucker says she hopes to continue her career as a writer and is currently looking for an agent for a recently completed novel.
Tucker's book appears to have received a mixed reaction since its release. Hue-Man Experience owner Clara Villarosa, a Webb backer who has donated $225 to the mayor since 1993, says she sold 250 copies to the Tattered Cover, another 50 to the four Benjamin Books outlets at DIA, and kept the rest herself, so far selling about 100 copies to the general public. Villarosa says she agreed to purchase the books partly as a business decision and partly "to be supportive to the mayor." Cathy Langer, projects manager at the Tattered Cover, says the book "hasn't been a runaway bestseller, but it's been selling steadily." At DIA, however, Benjamin Books operations manager Renata Warner says her stores have sold only a handful of copies. "Nobody's been particularly interested," she says.
Villarosa says she has complained to the publishers of both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News because neither newspaper has yet reviewed the book. "It has gotten absolutely no publicity," Villarosa says. "People don't know about it.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.