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The Denver mayoral race turns into a tempest in a Tea Party pot

Just when you thought this mayoral campaign couldn't blow any harder, Tom Tancredo enters the ring. Not that the five-term congressman, one-time presidential aspirant, one-time gubernatorial candidate and all-time House Crazy asked to get in on the action. But once the negative ads start, how much lower can you go?

Tancredo.

A couple of political pros who'd already thought that Romer had hit bottom with his anti-Hancock ad were unlucky enough to be among the hundreds of households called last week by an anonymous pollster, so clueless about Colorado that he referred to Denver's former mayor as "Frederick Peena." During his dozen-minute spiel, he reeled off a series of statements about the current candidates for Denver mayor, asking about the effectiveness of those statements in influencing your vote on a scale of 1 to 10. One of the questions was a somewhat negative query about Chris Romer, alluding to the investment mess in New Mexico. But all the rest were aimed at Michael Hancock, pointing fingers at his city pay-raise vote and creationism flubs in a variety of ways. "It was really nasty," says one communication director who got the call. "Gross," says another.

Just about the only thing the Peena-ista didn't ask: Would knowing that Tom Tancredo had endorsed a candidate affect your vote?

But that was coming. The Tancredo connection was about to blow up, and blow up big, the way all Typhoid Tom controversies do — whether he wants them to or not.

The new calls started this weekend, from yet another unnamed political operative, this one with a slight Spanish accent. At one home in southwest Denver (his neighbor got the same call), the father of a politician found this message on his machine:

"Chris Romer was being endorsed by former mayor Federico Peña. His opponent was being endorsed by Tom Tancredo. We all know that Tancredo has repeatedly attacked our community. Tancredo has supported devastating policies that lead to racial profiling and policies that make it more difficult for our children to receive affordable health-care coverage and access to quality education. We can't afford to have someone in the mayor's office who doesn't understand the issues we face. There is a clear difference in the candidates in this race. Please vote for Chris Romer for Denver Mayor."

On Sunday, Crisanta Duran, a new legislator who was named Romer's deputy campaign manager two weeks ago, sent out her own e-mail, headlined "Why Tom Tancredo's Endorsement of Michael Hancock Matters."

"It's not surprising that Tom Tancredo endorsed Michael Hancock," she wrote. "Michael's position on 'Secure Communities' is simply unacceptable. 'Secure Communities' has done little to make our neighborhoods more 'secure.' In fact, it has resulted in 5,880 American citizens being wrongly identified by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as being undocumented persons and subject to deportation in the past year alone. Racial profiling is never acceptable. No victim should ever be afraid to call the police for fear of being deported. There is no doubt that the 5,880 American citizens identified probably do not look like Roy, Rachel or Chris Romer. They probably look like me, James Mejia or maybe even Michael Hancock. Yet, Chris Romer is the only candidate in the Denver Mayor's race who is willing to make the pledge to opt out of this program and demand an end to racial profiling. There are some voters who have told me that they are having a difficult time deciding who to vote for in this race. Let's face it, Chris may not be the first person you'd like to grab a beer with. But the one thing that we know about Chris is that he has always stood up for what he believed was right, even if it wasn't easy or popular. He fought for undocumented students to gain access to the American dream by receiving in-state college tuition. He reformed the payday loan industry in Denver so companies couldn't charge ridiculous interest rates. He cracked down on the mortgage industry and supported tougher regulations for brokers to protect consumers from dishonest lenders. Chris has a clear track record of standing up for progressive values. Now it is time to stand with him. Vote for Chris Romer for Denver Mayor."

Duran is right about a few things she mentions in her missive: Romer did stand up for in-state tuition, reforming the pay-day loan industry, and other progressive causes. But she's wrong about a few things, too. Romer is a fine person to have a beer with. And Tom Tancredo has never endorsed Michael Hancock.

I know, because last week I had a beer over lunch with Tancredo and Peter Boyles, former colleagues at Colorado Public Television's Colorado Inside Out, men with whom I share very few political beliefs but occasionally a few laughs — and always a strong appreciation of the First Amendment. In fact, the last time I'd seen Tancredo, it was when I moderated a panel discussion on immigration between him and Gustavo Arellano, author of Ask a Mexican. This time, our plan was to catch up not just on immigration, but on other recent Tancredo tempests in a Tea Party pot, including being labeled a "big bully" by Dan Maes and grappling with MSNBC's Martin Bashir over whether Tancredo would have preferred "the death of the President as opposed to bin Laden." But our discussion quickly moved on to Tancredo's life growing up in the political hotbed of northwest Denver (we were at Gaetano's, just a mile away from where he was raised and got his first job working at the original Elitch Gardens) and the current mayoral race.

Boyles, who'd tried to launch the candidacy of out-of-this-world Jeff Peckman in the first round of the election and supported Danny Lopez back in 2008, has had Michael Hancock, who went to high school with his producer, on his show a couple of times since he and Romer moved to the runoff. You'd like Hancock, Boyles told Tancredo. He was a poor kid with a tough childhood, like you.

The next morning, Boyles informed his radio audience that at lunch the day before, Tancredo had announced that he was endorsing Hancock and would soon do so on the show. It didn't take long for the Romer campaign to ask me if this was true. I reminded the campaign that Boyles had previously pushed Peckman, then added, "Don't know if Tancredo will go on, or actually formally endorse Hancock...hard to know if an endorsement from Tancredo helps or hurts...."

"That's what you get for going to lunch with Peter Boyles," says Tancredo.

Tancredo is not afraid of owning up to his statements, every whistling-Dixie, bomb-mecca-loving one of them. Which is why when he says that he's never endorsed Michael Hancock, you can believe it. Here's what he told Boyles at lunch, and here's what he says now: "If I lived in Denver, I would vote for the guy. That's it." Why? "For one thing, he's not Romer," Tancredo points out. "Second, he has a compelling life story. But I did not formally endorse him."

And he would have said the same to the Romer and Hancock campaigns, if anyone from them had contacted him. A Denver Post reporter did ask Tancredo after rumors of the purported endorsement started spilling; he says he told the Post reporter the same thing he repeated to me: that if he lived in Denver, he'd vote for Hancock — but that's no formal endorsement. When I asked Romer campaign spokeswoman Laura Chapin for their source on Tancredo's Hancock endorsement, she said they'd relied on the Post story. But then, she also said that the official campaign was not responsible for either of those unsavory calls and that Duran, well, she was probably working on her own — just like that Hancock campaign staffer who got smacked around for heckling Federico Peña when he endorsed Romer.

Even if a 527 political group — a rare bird in a mayoral race — is doing the dirty work, the materials mentioning Tancredo have a suspicious similarity to those used by the Romer campaign, Hancock campaign officials point out. And, no, they haven't called Tancredo, either, and don't plan to. "Tom Tancredo has not endorsed Michael," says Hancock spokeswoman Amber Miller. "We did not solicit his endorsement, and Michael would not accept it."

In a city whose last three mayors have been Peña, Denver's first Hispanic mayor who's indeed now backing Romer, as is James Mejia, the candidate Peña was originally supporting; Wellington Webb, Denver's first black mayor, who's endorsed Hancock; and a gangly white brewpub owner, John Hickenlooper, who's now governor and so far working very hard not to endorse anybody, the days of predictable bloc voting have gone the way of Gaetano's mob ties. But even so, with just two weeks until the election, the candidates are fighting hard, and the Latino vote — if it really exists — could push either candidate over the edge. Or, in the case of Hancock, off the ledge — if people really believe that Tancredo is supporting him.

"I feel so powerful," Tancredo says. "I'm waiting for the check from the Romer campaign, and then I will go out on the stump.... You'll see me on television with my endorsement if Romer pays enough."


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