Shootout at the Not-So-Okay Corral
Mile High bigwigs like to think of Denver as "the city that has reinvented itself for the 21st century." At least, that's how they touted it in a 24-page, $370,000 ad supplement in the September edition of Forbes ASAP magazine. Headlined "Convergence Corridor: Technology With Altitude," the insert was part of a huge, metro-wide PR campaign to attract more high-tech businesses to the Front Range and to give Denver a "brand."
But the rest of us know that the only brand that will ever be permanently burned into the side of this beloved cowtown is that of the Old West or, more accurately, the Wild West. Denver may have reinvented itself for the point-and-click age of the 21st century, but it was born in the point-and-shoot era of the nineteenth century. And there's still nothing we like better than a good gunfight: Witness the contest over, well, guns themselves.
The 1999 Columbine High School massacre set Colorado up to become the primary target in 2000 for people on both sides of the gun-control issue, from the NRA's Charlton Heston, who visited Boulder in March, to Million Mom March supporter Rosie O'Donnell, who donated $10,000 to SAFE, a Colorado gun-control group. Caught in the crossfire were the vast majority of Coloradans, who had to listen to just about everyone with an agenda pop off on the subject at every opportunity. At the center of the powderkeg was the relatively tepid Amendment 22, which came about only because the state legislature couldn't bring itself to do anything about guns -- despite the High Noon feeling on Capitol Hill. The proposed amendment, pushed by SAFE and Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed at Columbine (and who sat with Hillary Clinton during Bill Clinton's State of the Union address in January), passed by a whopping 70 percent of the vote in November. It mandates that people who buy guns at gun shows undergo the same background checks as people who buy guns at stores.
A few of the year's more epic clashes didn't involve firearms, but sometimes we wished they had. Take the duel between former US West CEO Sol Trujillo and current Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio: Now, there's a showdown we would have loved to have seen in the middle of 17th Street. Draw, pardner! And may the most bloated, egocentric and highest-paid CEO win! Although the two men helped initiate the merger of their companies, the dangerous duel leading to the finalization of the deal found both men with itchy fingers on their triggers. Originally, Trujillo and Nacchio were to have shared power in the joined company, but Trujillo backed out in March amid swirling rumors that Qwest was courting other companies, a revelation that infuriated him. Adding to the drama were critical comments from Nacchio regarding US West's corporate culture and business practices. "You can't have the reputation where I pick up Fortune magazine last week and I see their name 'US Worst,'" Nacchio was quoted as saying. "That's bad business. We have a strong opinion about how fast that ought to be fixed."
And fix it he did -- the name, anyway. Immediately after the merger was approved, Nacchio had a banner with the blue Qwest emblem placed on top of the white US West sign that had towered over downtown. Nacchio should be happy to hear that customers and analysts no longer call the company "US Worst." It's now known as "Qworst."
The quickest draw in the West this year was probably Governor Billy "The Kid" Owens. (Or is that the quickest drawl in the West?) When he wasn't changing his mind about everything from gun control to education to growth or campaigning for his buddy and fellow Texan George W. Bush, Colorado's governor was shooting it out with everyone from John and Patsy Ramsey, for whom he might as well have put up "Wanted: Dead or Alive" posters around the state, to Barbara Walters, whom he mocked after she interviewed the couple in March on ABC's 20/20.
"In your interview, you had a chance to really follow up," Owens told Walters the next week on Good Morning America. "You had a chance to give America some new information on this case. And yes, they came to you with no preconditions. But, you know, they didn't go to Peter Jennings, they didn't go to Tom Brokaw. They went to you. And I think we should have expected more from that interview."
"I have to say, Governor," Walters responded, "I rather resent your implication that if they had gone to Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw, they would have had a tougher interview. I think the interview was relatively tough."
In separate interviews later that month, Owens said he thought Walters was a lot tougher on him than she was on the Ramseys, and Walters said she felt sorry for the governor because of the way he was acting. "I thought, 'Oh, poor governor, I mean poor soul, he's sort of losing it,'" she remembered.
Owens even shot the sheriff when he criticized Jefferson County's John Stone for not cooperating with the Governor's Columbine Review Commission or releasing the tapes Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had made before their attack on the school. About the only person the Kid didn't berate publicly was his seventeen-year-old daughter, Monica, who was suspended for two days from Smoky Hill High School after she and some of her classmates were busted for drinking alcohol on a school trip to Louisville, Kentucky.
All in all, 2000 was a year in which the bullets flew with both deadly accuracy and random abandon, and the local cowboys and Indians relished every opportunity to show who wears the biggest gun in town. So hide the kids and shutter the doors as we take you on the wild ride that was turn-of-the-century Colorado.
For a year fraught with shoot-'em-ups, 2000 began with less than a bang. The city, paralyzed by doomsday predictions and Y2K fears (remember those?), declared martial law instead, sending hundreds of cops in riot gear to accost the few thousand brave souls who dared to show their faces in LoDo. The entrances to that part of town were eventually closed entirely, and Mayor Wellington Webb dispatched Denver's lone police helicopter to hover over Larimer Square while he hunkered down in the emergency bunker in the basement of the City and County Building.
The biggest party around these parts was...anyone? Instead of enjoying themselves, it seems that most of Denver's citizenry stayed home, huddled up with emergency generators, dehydrated food and double-barrelled home-security devices, watching TV as the rest of the world partied. The sun rose on January 1, though, and cell phones, pagers, Palm Pilots and Internet connections still functioned properly, as evidenced by the number of complaints the city received about the dreary evening. Red-faced city officials, led by mouthpiece-in-charge Andrew Hudson, hastily defended their actions while at the same time announcing plans for a big bash this New Year's Eve, which they declared the actual, official beginning of the Millennium.
In other words, Denver will party alone this year. Isn't that the first sign of a problem?
The Millennium hoopla was quickly forgotten, however, as other elected officials, jealous of the attention being paid to Denver's political leaders, climbed all over each other to see who could be the biggest dolt. Lieutenant Governor Joe Rogers took an early lead when his penchant for bickering with his boss, Governor Bill Owens, and other gaffes landed him in the hot seat -- specifically, as the unofficial target of two legislative proposals that would allow future gubernatorial candidates in Colorado to select their own running mates. Although he initially appeared to support the idea, Rogers later suggested that Owens step aside and allow the lite guv to veto the bill. He didn't, and Owens now will be able to select his own running mate in 2002. Get that resumé ready, Joe. (Of course, Jumpin' Joe may actually leave before he's kicked out if you believe the rumors that he's on the short list for a position in the Bush administration.)
Our ornery cowpokes in the Capitol -- which ones were wearing the white Stetsons and which ones were in black is up to you -- did a lot during their three months in session. They passed a law sponsored by Arvada Republican Mark Paschall that bans the recognition of same-sex marriages that have been legally performed outside of Colorado; they passed a law giving special protection to gun makers so they can't be sued in Colorado; and they seriously considered a proposal from Englewood Republican John Andrews to force public schools to post the Ten Commandments on their walls. Yes, while Denver was attempting to position itself as the city for the 21st century, the legislative class of 2000 was firmly established as the elected body that had reinvented itself for the nineteenth century.
Lakewood Democrat Mike Feeley, no stranger to showdowns, summed it up best: "It's unbelievable. It's all God, guns and gays. We've wasted time on the Ten Commandments bill and on the same-sex marriage bill, but the bulk of work is still ahead of us. We're not done with guns, the education package isn't anywhere close to moving along, and we haven't done anything on growth -- but we're making sure gay people can't get married.
"You can sure tell this is an election year."
Indeed. And as Feeley pointed out, these lawmakers will be remembered more for what they couldn't do: enact laws to deal with the two subjects that Coloradans most wanted them to tackle -- guns and growth.
Of course, new gun restrictions wouldn't have helped Ismael Mena, the 45-year-old Mexican immigrant and father of nine who was gunned down by Denver's men in blue during a September 1999 no-knock raid at the wrong house. And although $400,000 won't bring him back, that's the amount the city paid to settle the matter this past March.
Mena's death spawned an agonizing year's worth of questions and tortuous soul-searching. The city altered its rules on no-knock warrants and acknowledged the distrust between police and citizens; police chief Tom Sanchez and public safety manager Butch Montoya both lost their jobs; Joseph Bini, the police officer who had signed the warrant with the wrong address on it and who took the fall for the whole affair, gave several tearful apologies in court and on TV before being sentenced to twelve months' probation for his role in the raid; and activists from the Justice for Mena Committee criticized every aspect of how the situation was handled, from the settlement amount to Bini's plea agreement to no-knock raids in general.
Reading about no-knock raids got old after a while, but Denver won't have to worry about being oversaturated by newspaper stories much longer -- not after the long-rumored but nevertheless surprising announcement on May 11 that the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post would enter into a joint operating agreement. The end of Denver's bitter, decades-long newspaper war, which still has to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department, acknowledged what pundits had predicted for years: that this town ain't big enough for the both of 'em. JOA documents revealed that the Rocky has been lying on the ground bleeding from a hole in its belly for the last few years, while the Denver Post stood relatively unscathed. Morale at the Rocky -- already hurting after the Post won a Pulitzer a month earlier for its Columbine coverage while the News only managed a prize for its Columbine photography -- plummeted after the announcement; staffers there had been under the impression that they were winning the war.
The Rocky may be bleeding, but the biggest casualty of the year could be United Airlines, which was attacked by an angry posse of airline customers eager to hang the company from the nearest tree.
United, which controls about two-thirds of the air traffic in and out of Denver International Airport, started canceling and delaying record numbers of flights last May, in the process garnering an incredible amount of negative publicity (including Westword's own "What United Did to My Summer Vacation" contest). The problems had resulted from turbulent contract negotiations between the airline and its pilots' union; although things began to improve in the fall, United had already lost business to Frontier, its main competitor in Denver, and severely angered many of its customers. The airline apologized, offering perks to its Premier members and promising to try harder. But contract negotiations with mechanics and flight attendants in the fall led to more delays and cancellations -- just as the holiday travel season was warming up, too.
Wisely, United's PR people eventually quit trying to fight the publicity fires.
Not giving up, though, were actual firefighters, who spent the summer putting out fires of another kind -- real ones like the Mesa Verde fire, the Hi Meadow fire in Jefferson County and the Bobcat fire in Larimer County, which together burned hundreds of thousands of acres and destroyed dozens of homes in all parts of the state. The fires, coupled with a record-setting number of 90-degree-plus days, made for one long, hot summer.
Things didn't cool off any as Columbus Day -- or is that Italian-American Pride Day? -- rolled around, and a real shootout, cowboy-and-Indian style, was barely averted. For the first time since 1991, the Italian community scheduled a parade for downtown Denver -- which inspired vows to stop the parade, possibly with violence, from local activists and representatives of the American Indian Movement, which has been trying to abolish Columbus Day on the grounds that Christopher Columbus was a slave trader responsible for the near-genocide of their ancestors. Meddling city and federal officials and clergy members of various denominations only made things worse in the weeks leading up to the parade by trying to broker a treaty. Although an initial agreement was reached in which the Italians said they'd rename the parade the March for Italian Pride and the Indians said they'd call off the protest, the Italians quickly reneged, saying they'd been coerced by an implied -- and illegal -- threat from the city that their parade permit would be pulled if they didn't agree to a truce. This infuriated the Indians, who called everyone liars and redoubled their protest planning for the October 7 event. Nearly 500 cops helped keep things in check that day; although protesters held up the parade for about an hour, chanting slogans, waving signs and trading insults with Italians, no one was hurt. Police issued 147 citations, but they were all for the relatively minor infractions of loitering and failing to obey officers. After the parade, organizer C.M. Mangiaracina called protest leader Russell Means a " knucklehead" and vowed to have another parade next year. Means promised to be back in 2001 as well, possibly with a new and more violent strategy. "I'm sorry, but the day of Gandhiism and Martin Luther King tactics is over," he told the crowd. Since then, the activists have refused to meet with religious leaders and have also asked that a special prosecutor be appointed to handle most of the 147 arrest cases. That request was granted in mid-December.
The election season came along just in time to give Colorado a cooling-off period. Although emotions did heat up over a few ballot initiatives and races, most of the local elections were dull, dull, dull. Democrat Ken Toltz tried to drag out the gun issue in his effort to unseat 6th Congressional District Republican representative Tom Tancredo. Although Toltz had raised a lot of money, he must have armed himself with blanks, because Tancredo easily won re-election. About the most exciting part of the season was when a posse of third-party candidates, including Libertarians, Greens and Natural Law folks, mounted up and went after the Rocky Mountain News to protest the fact that the paper's election guide had ignored them completely.
Those elections left us with a new gunslinger -- and money-flinger -- in town. Twenty-five-year-old Internet multimillionaire Jared Polis took aim at a state Board of Education seat with nearly $1 million and put another $125,000 into the successful campaign for Amendment 23, which will increase funding, albeit only slightly, for education. Polis, whose sincere face and knitted eyebrows became a common sight on TV in the weeks before the election, faced a little recount drama of his own, though, before finally beating Republican incumbent Ben Alexander by a mere ninety votes.
As the year wound down and plans for Denver's delayed millennium celebration came to the fore, city officials realized that the man they'd hired to orchestrate a giant fireworks display on the 16th Street Mall, Pierre-Alain Hubert, wasn't the man they thought he was. Although he'd been touted as the creator of last year's magnificent fireworks program in Paris -- the one you were probably watching as you piled up candles, bottled water and cans of chili -- he wasn't, it turns out. Whether the mistake was made by the man, his publicity agent or the city seems to have been lost in the translation. Oh well, c'est la vie.
In honor of the real start of the millennium, it could well be time for Denver to put down its weapons. That won't be easy: Gun control is likely to be one of the most bitter issues in the legislature again this year. But as Lakewood state representative and licensed firearms dealer Scott McKay said last February to Denver Democratic representative Ken Gordon (now a senator) after Gordon bought a .22 Ruger at a gun show to demonstrate how easy it was to do: "Being that we're buddies now and we both have the same kind of .22, would you like to come with me sometimes?"
What a beautiful thought -- not a bang, but a whimper. Happy new year, Denver!
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