The Young and the Restless
One night in August 1975, Colorado lieutenant governor George Brown stepped to the podium to give a speech at the National Lieutenant Governors Conference in Alabama. He almost ruined his own political career and certainly hastened its end.
Brown, a Democrat, was one of the first two black lieutenant governors in the country. The last time he had been in Alabama, he'd been marching on Montgomery. He was one of the fathers of black politics in Colorado, but he was also considered a cad, demanding adoration and respect from others but not often returning it. Nevertheless, Ebony magazine had recently named him one of the nation's 100 most influential blacks.
And there he was in Point Clear, a resort town on the coast of Mobile Bay, telling his audience of the days in 1943 when he'd been a flight cadet at the Army Air Corps base in Tuskegee, Alabama, the home of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen. During a training mission, he had crashed near Talladega, seventy miles to the north.
A farmer found Brown in his barn and branded the letter "K"--most likely a reference to the Ku Klux Klan--onto Brown's chest. The farmer said he was just being a good American: Blacks weren't supposed to be flying planes; obviously this one had been stolen. An Army search team found him, and a few days later, Brown woke up in a hospital. Thirty years later, Brown still had the scar.
Many people in the large crowd were moved to tears. They gave him a standing ovation. Newspapers across the country ran Brown's story.
Who knows? Brown might have polished it a few years later if he had decided to run for governor. But some stories are too good--or too awful, in this case--to be true. As soon as he went backstage, he was approached by Mervyn Dymally, the black lieutenant governor of California. Dymally was a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He, too, had a K.
Ten days later, Brown issued a "clarification." The wire services had gotten it wrong. Brown had inadvertently fused three or four different stories into one. The crash and branding had happened. Just not to him. The reporters had misinterpreted his words. (One Denver reporter, however, claimed he had confirmed the copy with Brown before it went out on the wire.)
Blacks in Denver apparently didn't care too much. Brown had done a lot for them. He had helped pass fair-housing legislation and repeal miscegenation laws. He had also chaired the Denver Opportunity War on Poverty Program and the Model Cities Program.
But the press went after him anyway. Commentators called his act suicide. Some wondered whether it was a sign of psychological problems. There was talk of forcing him out. His boss, Governor Dick Lamm, was grilled, too. Someone looked through Brown's travel records. Within a month he was being investigated for billing $4,000 in personal travel expenses through state travel vouchers. He was later cleared, though the grand jury concluded that "substantial violations" of state fiscal rules had occurred.
A local weekly paper, the Straight Creek Journal, editorialized that Colorado's press had seldom reacted so violently to an event: "George Brown was caught by the press, and the press seems hellbent to see its arrest through to conviction."
In 1970, Brown had told reporters that he didn't want to be lieutenant governor for fear of being "put off in some pasture where I might be lost and left out of things." And after only one difficult term, he chose to step down and was gone.
Only not quite. In 1980 he sued his former boss for $500,000, claiming that Lamm had withheld his final paycheck. The case was settled when the House agreed to pay Brown a state appropriation of $10,539.
"I think what happened was, Dick got the vote that he got out of this community because of George," says Arie Taylor, a onetime black state legislator. "Then Dick was going to say that because George was there, he didn't have to do anything else." Still, she admits, there's "not too damn much a lieutenant governor can do."
Black politicians survived Brown. By some measures, they have triumphed. Denver's black mayor, Wellington Webb, is one of the most powerful and popular politicians in Colorado. After pulling a come-from-behind victory in 1991, the former state bureaucrat and city auditor rode Denver's economic boom to re-election in 1995 and appears primed to breeze through another easy campaign this year. During Webb's tenure, the city has improved its parks and opened a new baseball stadium, a new airport, a new library and new cultural and retail amenities. The first line of a possible metro-wide light-rail system has been built; the second leg is slated to open next year. People are coming downtown in droves to shop, dine, party and live. Yet another stadium and an aquarium are being built. Home prices are soaring.
Webb has sailed through accusations of cronyism in his political appointments and in steering lucrative airport contracts to his supporters. Under his watch, Denver hosted a summit of world leaders and a visit by the pope. The mayor was recently invited to speak to London officials about his experiences running a city with a strong-mayor system. He's traveled to Africa with President Clinton (what would that Alabama farmer have thought of that?). This month, just four weeks before the election, Webb will host the National Conference of Black Mayors, which may end up serving as a pre-coronation party.
Yet in recent weeks, voices of deep dissatisfaction have been rising from the most unlikely of places: the largely black north and northeast sections of Denver. Webb's presumed core constituency. The part of town where Webb grew up and still lives.
Many blacks say they're growing impatient for progress in Denver.
A Montbello businesswoman, Stephannie Huey, is challenging Webb in the mayoral race. The Reverend Gill Ford, a Webb appointee to the city's police review board who left after criticizing the police department's handling of the Gil Webb case (in which a black youth who was driving a stolen car crashed into a police cruiser, resulting in the death of a policeman), is also running for mayor. And James "Dr. Daddio" Walker of KDKO radio planned to throw his hat into the race as well. In 1989, when Federico Pena was mayor, Walker bought the radio station with the help of a $900,000 loan from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development. Last month Walker claimed that if it hadn't been for his radio station, Webb would never have won his first election in 1991.
Walker (who did not return phone calls from Westword) never officially entered the race. "I suspect Daddio's thinking is, 'Why muddy up the water?'" says Clark Watson, president of the Black Professional Business Association of Colorado. "The message is getting out there."
The message is a rhetorical question: Have Denver's boom times made their way to black Denver? To those neighborhoods north of the condo craze hitting Uptown, north of City Park and to the northeast edge of Park Hill, or farther out, to Montbello?
In Five Points, the historic heart of black Denver, sleek light-rail cars move up and down Welton Street. On Saturday nights, mostly white crowds line up for the latest jazz show at the Casino Cabaret, a venue restored with loans from the Mayor's Office of Economic Development. A block up the street, a mostly black crowd packs the house of Brother Jeff's Cultural Center for an evening of poetry. Two major banks have opened Five Points branches in the last few years. The Deep Rock Water company has a series of buildings in the neighborhood.
But those same light-rail cars are never packed with the downtown lunch crowd, which was one big reason the line was built through the Points. There is no significant retail in the neighborhood: The city-developed Five Points Plaza is home to an optometrist, a Department of Motor Vehicles office and not much else. A popular Southern restaurant, Kal'line's, went out of business here in 1998. The most venerable symbol of Five Points--the swinging Rossonian--still sits empty, even though for years the city has been trumpeting plans to renovate the place. Most of the building is occupied by the Denver Housing Authority, but the ground-floor space where the nightclub used to be is barren.
Most Denverites have probably driven through Five Points once or twice, even if they never stopped for a bite or to shop at one of the neighborhood's handful of thrift stores. But how many have been past the once-busy Dahlia shopping center, just north of the intersection of Dahlia Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard? The square-block shopping center is home to a renovated city health clinic, Denver's Nation of Islam office, a small grocery store, a church, a laundromat, a beauty salon and a barber--and that's it. The whole place sits like a giant, broken-down ghost town filled in with cracked asphalt.
"If the city looked at it as a landlord, they would condemn it," says Ford. "It generates zero business."
Some tenants aren't holding their breath waiting for change. One of them is Stanley Doe, who's run a barbershop there for thirteen years. Pictures of satisfied customers hang on the walls, as does a framed, autographed jersey from local kid Chauncey Billups, now a pro basketball player with the Denver Nuggets. Employee Beverly Dixon says that the Nuggets will win a championship before any city-fueled prosperity comes to the area.
Customer Joe Callway, who moved into northeast Denver in 1962, points out that the area has been in decline for decades. "It used to be a thriving area," he offers. For Doe, the years of "broken promises" made by Webb and his predecessors don't much matter. "I have to work until I die," he says.
Plastered in many windows are "Webb for Mayor" fliers, and the mayor's supporters are quick to trumpet his accomplishments for black people. Between 1991 and 1997, when the city was shelling out $2.9 billion for service contracts (most of it going toward DIA), $120 million went to black-owned businesses. Webb aide Shepard Nevel says that the city had a minority set-aside goal of 3.14 percent; the $120 million figure, he says, represents 4 percent. And, Nevel adds, from 1994 to 1997, minority-owned concessions at DIA brought in $259 million. He says that the percentage of minority-owned concessions at Stapleton Airport was only 4 percent, while that figure rose to 45 percent at DIA.
"This just didn't happen naturally," Nevel says. "The mayor made a commitment to do that. I would say it showed some very strong leadership."
Myrna Hipp, head of the city's Planning Department, says that during Webb's years in office, some $31 million has gone into projects in primarily black council districts 8 and 11; she adds that $11 million of that has gone into housing projects and that the city helped get the Wyatt Edison School in the impoverished Cole neighborhood off the ground.
John Bailey, a black at-large candidate for city council, says the mayor has laid the foundation for real growth, and now it's up to citizens and neighborhood leaders to capitalize on it. "In this city, we're expecting the mayor to carry our water," he says.
Late last year, it appeared that the mayor was hoping the feds would carry his water. The city put its hopes into acquiring a $100 million Empowerment Zone grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would have pumped $10 million a year over ten years into twelve impoverished neighborhoods; of those neighborhoods, five have large black populations. In their federal grant application, Denver officials acknowledged that while the city of Denver enjoyed an unemployment rate of 3.3 percent, those impoverished communities had unemployment rates of between 12 and 30 percent. The poverty level in those neighborhoods exceeded 41 percent, 18 percent higher than for the city as a whole.
The city did not receive the grant. In the wake of the lost federal dollars, voices in the community are asking Webb when it will be their turn.
"Hey, it's eight years, and now we're going to be last again," says Les Franklin, who founded the nonprofit Shaka Franklin Foundation, a suicide-prevention organization. People in northeast Denver, he says, would "like to be the main course rather than the dessert."
Some people might argue that it's foolish to blame or praise one man for the well-being of a black community of more than 50,000--even if the man is the mayor. Ford disagrees. "He can encourage development anywhere he wants," Ford says. "Relocating Elitch's, the Pavilions downtown, LoDo, tearing up the old University Hills shopping center and turning it into a strip mall, the Central Platte Valley--that's where the city has spent all its money."
All told, the city invested $55.9 million in those projects through the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. But DURA expenditures in northeast Denver were limited to the redevelopment of the old Air Force General Services Administration site at 38th and York (a building Ford describes as an asbestos-laden, crumbling eyesore) into a light-industrial office facility and building a mixed-use project consisting of senior rental housing and retail space on what was previously a vacant site at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Downing Street. The total DURA investment for these projects: $3.8 million.
The mayor may be feeling the pressure. In late February, once the federal funding fell through, he announced that DURA was undertaking steps to create an Urban Renewal District in northeast Park Hill that will include the Holly and Dahlia shopping centers. Talk of redeveloping the centers has been on the books since the late '80s, and though Webb has revisited the idea a few times this decade, the project has essentially languished for years.
"One of the things the community made clear is that a deteriorating shopping center was a reflection of the state of their neighborhood," says Terry Ware, a former analyst for the city's planning department. He says that a year and a half ago, the mayor's office contacted him to take a look at the project. "That effort sort of fizzled out, quite honestly," Ware says. "His focus was on other projects. Up until a few weeks ago, nothing much has happened."
Many blacks, of course, say the mayor is doing a decent job. Arie Taylor points to minority youth receiving summer jobs and sounds off on Daddio Walker. "It's the same old 'What have you done for me?' crap. Those people making those kinds of statements are the ones the mayor really has been helping. This community has been playing his radio station for a hundred years."
"The economic boom has not reached northeast Denver," says Peter Groff, who heads up the Center for African-American Policy at the University of Denver. "Right now we're struggling over there. But I think this third term, he'll be able to do it."
Though reluctant--just yet--to point the finger at the mayor, who is an old high school friend, Bob Patton, the president of the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce, says there have been "lots of opportunities that could have gone in the black community that haven't been realized.
"Sometimes the expectations are higher than they should be," Patton adds. "It's easy to say he ain't doin' nothing for black people, but we're not in that room negotiating."
Others pull no punches in attacking his honor. Clark Watson distributes a profoundly anti-Webb newsletter (written by one "Mahatmas Anon"; Watson claims he is not the writer). He decries the lack of black involvement in the burgeoning Central Platte Valley. "Not one inch of any of that property is owned by a black," Watson says. "That is unforgivable in a city where the mayor is black. That is not a mayor who is negligent but a mayor who is obstructionist."
What gets lost in this debate is how members of Denver's black community can even have a black mayor to criticize. Out of Denver's 500,000 residents, only 12 percent are black. And African-Americans are not the city's largest minority group: 20 percent of Denver's population is Hispanic.
To understand how a black man could become mayor of a largely white city, you have to look deeper than the notion that race doesn't matter (though it appears true that in Denver and Colorado, individualism has always been as strong an ethnic identity as any other). You have to go back to the early '70s, when Webb and other young, smart black men in their twenties thought that instead of changing the system or destroying the system, they could use it.
Webb refused to speak with Westword for this story, but in 1973, he was far more willing to open his mouth. That year he told reporters that his campaign for a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives was funded by "poor people, people who gave fried chicken dinners to pay campaign expenses." In the coming weeks, Webb may be forced to make use of that idea again--even though the political world in which he was reared no longer exists.
In the 1950s, Denver was part of the wilderness west of the Mississippi River, where there was not one town with a black city councilmember. Here African-Americans couldn't get seats at movie theaters. Black women could not try on dresses in stores. Blacks were blocked from buying homes east of Vine Street, which earned the neighborhood a nickname: "Struggle Hill."
One block west of Vine sits a beige brick ranch home with a pink garage and soffit and a jutting layer of salmon flagstone running down the front. Elvin Caldwell built this house in 1953 and still lives in it. Before 1955, he had already served in the Colorado House for six years. But Caldwell believed the key to progress for blacks was in local politics, and in a move that other black politicians would follow, Caldwell left the House to run for Denver City Council. Caldwell benefited from the molasses-like progress of integration in Denver. Segregated housing patterns meant black populations were concentrated in the northern parts of the city, which meant that black candidates from these districts could be elected and re-elected indefinitely.
In 1955 Caldwell won a seat in District 8 and began a 25-year run on the city council. It was the longest tenure of any councilmember in the city's history. Over the years he complained about city hiring practices, and in 1970 he threatened to hold up funding for the '76 Winter Olympics fundraising committee unless there was greater minority representation on the executive board. But for the most part, he tried not to upset anyone and concentrated instead on opening a few doors for the next generation. "They say I was on the conservative side. As things came open, you could be more militant. When I came up, I didn't have a lot of allies," he says.
It wasn't until the 1960s that allies began to emerge. In the '60s, George Brown (who had been serving in the state legislature since 1955) became head of the Metropolitan Denver Urban Coalition. In 1965, Rachel Noel was elected to the Denver School Board, and in 1968 she helped persuade the board to formulate a voluntary school-desegregation plan. Arie Taylor had come to Denver from Cleveland in 1958, fleeing a busted marriage and a stint on Cleveland's city council; she would become Colorado's first black woman legislator, elected in 1972. When Brown left the legislature in 1974 to run for lieutenant governor, Regis Groff, an East High history teacher, was appointed to his seat by the Democratic Vacancy Committee. (He was elected to his first full term in 1976.)
In 1964 came the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which enforced the right to vote, outlawed segregation in public accommodations and prohibited discrimination in federally assisted programs. In 1969, eight black Park Hill parents, led by Wilfred Keyes, filed suit against the Denver Public Schools, claiming the school district was intentionally segregating students by gerrymandering school boundaries and opening new schools in racially segregated neighborhoods. The case was the first ruling on school segregation outside the South, and a year later, District Judge William Doyle made permanent an injunction against the school district. Busing began in Denver four years later.
With fair skin and light eyes, Elvin Caldwell looked white. He knew his political success rested in part on the fact that whites felt more comfortable dealing with a man who looked so much like them. But as integration persisted and affirmative-action programs began, all buttressed by the swell of "Black Is Beautiful" slogans, demand grew for black people who were, well, black. It wasn't just that the darker berry meant sweeter juice, or that Harry Belafonte had been eclipsed by Sidney Poitier--it was that whites wanted to show the progress they were making.
"I felt it in the later days," Caldwell says now. "They didn't have arms out for me. Whites wanted to be identified with darker skin."
In 1969 the Black Panthers tried to stage a "people's tribunal" accusing Caldwell of failing to serve the "needs and desires of the people." While no evidence of these charges was provided, Caldwell nonetheless wrote a letter to police that read, "So far as I am personally concerned, I won't be satisfied until every Black Panther is run out of Denver."
Caldwell hung on, allying himself with Mayor Bill McNichols. But it was understood that men like Caldwell and Brown didn't have a lot of power behind them. Inevitably, power shifted away from self-made individuals and toward organized politics. Bob Patton was the campaign manager for Bill Lewis, a young black lawyer, in his bid for the state House of Representatives in 1968. Even though he'd been a college athlete, lawyer and business executive, Lewis lost. "What spun out of that was some value in getting together, strategizing," Patton says.
More young black lawyers emerged, men who also had political ambition. Lewis, along with King Trimble, Ray Jones, Dan Muse, Norm Early and a handful of others, founded the Sam Cary Bar Association. "We weren't welcome in the Colorado Bar Association or the Denver Bar Association," Jones says.
Though ostensibly the group was interested in increasing black law-student enrollment and creating more equitable employment possibilities for black attorneys, member Gary Jackson says the organization was also interested in political activity. And they were young. Politicians like Caldwell and Brown were old; their time was up. The newcomers resented the idea that white Denverites viewed the elder black leaders as the titular heads of the black community.
Ray Jones claims they never got on a soapbox proclaiming themselves as young turks, but when others began referring to them as such, the name stuck.
"We weren't interested in destroying the system or radically changing it," Jones explains. "If anything was radical, it's that we wanted to go into the political systems and make them ours--despite our limiting numbers."
They also knew the game had to be played at the local level. In the '70s, says Jones, the balance of power in the Colorado General Assembly was shifting from urban to rural interests. "Suburbanites were lining up with the rural against the urban," he says. Jones and his cohorts saw city institutions as one battleground that would be easy to take.
Furthermore, Jones says, the mayor's office was controlling a lot of money. And as Caldwell had seen years earlier, the city council had its perks. Large populations of blacks still lived in particular council districts, which made possible the idea of standing black seats.
Before long, Wellington Webb joined their ranks. His grandmother had been one of Caldwell's top supporters, and the local boy, a product of East High and District 8, gravitated toward politics after spending the 1960s teaching, doing social-policy research and working on several federally funded poverty and job-training programs.
The turks had brought him in when a black congressman named Paul Hamilton announced he wouldn't be running for re-election and after their first choice as replacement, King Trimble, made it clear he wanted to continue practicing law.
In 1972, at the age of 31, Webb won election to the Colorado House. The same year, the turks embarked on what came to best symbolize their brand of politics: the creation of a black caucus in Colorado, part of what eventually became a nationwide black caucus. The national group was designed to create a massive block of voters and use that to leverage consideration from the major political parties. The caucus's first meeting was held at East High School in 1973. Members drew up bylaws and broke into work sessions on politics and economic development.
Jones remembers with satisfaction countless Saturday mornings when he and others would rise early to discuss problems in the community and try to figure out solutions. In 1974, Webb talked about trying to make north Denver a more politically sophisticated place. "Knowledge is power," he told a reporter. "It can't be confined to two or three black representatives. We all might be killed in a plane crash going to a conference someday. Then who would our constituents have?"
But at its most basic level, the caucus was about choosing which black candidates would be supported for which elected seats. To have more than one candidate to split voters was, in Webb's estimation, "suicide" for a black community as small as Denver's.
With George Brown out of the legislature, a senate seat was freed up and the turks attempted to plug in their man, teacher Regis Groff. While they viewed him with suspicion because he was older than they were, the turks nonetheless threw their weight behind him in a runoff against grassroots organizer Bea Hall.
"It was a fearsome battle," Jones says. "She was worthy, but we had designated Regis for that seat. It sounds cold-blooded--it wasn't any harm to her--but we had an agenda to put people in political power."
It's a stretch to view the turks as a back-door political machine, but they were shrewd. During the '74 governor's race, they joined the campaigns of all three Democratic contenders, coordinating "minority affairs" for each candidate. They were confident that whoever survived the primary would defeat the Republican candidate--and, Jones says, "whoever won, we wanted to become important to that person."
The turks stayed strong from 1971 through the end of the decade. But their success ultimately tended to be more individual than collective. In 1975, Jones was appointed a judge in county court. When he applied, he didn't expect to be selected, since he'd been a lawyer for only five years, the minimum requirement to be a judge. What's more, he had previously worked for District Attorney Dale Tooley, a bitter rival of Mayor Bill McNichols, the man who made the county court appointments. "It was a typical turk thing," Jones says. "I did that to test the water and find out how the process works. Son of a bitch if McNichols didn't appoint me," Jones says with a laugh.
In October 1977, Lamm promoted Jones to district court. "Judges can't do politics," he says, "so I was out of the game."
Meanwhile, Webb was playing the political patronage game, moving easily between state and federal government appointments: He chaired the House Democratic caucus between 1974 and 1975 and directed the Carter/Mondale campaign in Colorado in 1976. After Carter won, he appointed Webb head of the regional office of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare (the precursor to today's Department of Health and Human Services). In 1981, despite complaints that Webb didn't have enough experience in the private sector, Lamm named him to head up the state's Department of Regulatory Agencies.
When Webb left elected office in 1977, the turks supported King Trimble--who had decided at last to give politics a try--as his replacement. Trimble would be re-elected for a full term in November 1978, defeating former legislative employee Pat Fuller by a resounding count of 3,630 to 874.
As the turks progressed, the caucus, both here and nationwide, began to decline, a victim of its own success. The Colorado group did manage to send delegates to three national conventions, and both political parties eventually adopted civil-rights planks into their platforms. Jones, who eventually became chairman of the Colorado Black Caucus, credits the caucus and its state branches with strengthening local black leadership and with legitimizing black politics. "That's a legacy," Jones says. "There came to be a difference in the way black politicians and political people came to be viewed after we did our work."
But the efforts of the caucus peaked during the 1976 presidential campaign. "When you achieve that," Jones says, "some of the fight leaves you."
Although they never created a permanent black political machine, the turks--along with their friends and allies--did, over time, become prominent players in Colorado government. The Harvard-educated Jones ultimately became a judge on the Colorado State Court of Appeals. Norm Early became a district attorney--and Webb's opponent in the 1991 mayoral race. Lawyer King Trimble served a term in the state legislature and another on the city council. Dan Muse is Denver's city attorney.
Despite the early successes of the black caucus, by the early '70s, the turks had yet to put a candidate on the Denver City Council. In 1971, the number of council districts grew from nine to eleven, and District 11--Park Hill--provided another opportunity for black leaders in local government.
That seat was filled by Bill Roberts, who had come to Denver from Toccoa, Georgia, a small furniture-manufacturing town near the border of South Carolina. A military man, he had been assigned to Fitzsimons Medical Center in 1958, then discharged in 1961. He went to work for the city's parks and recreation department, then the Commission on Community Relations, and finally headed up the Metropolitan Denver Construction Plan, a federally funded project to increase minority participation in the local construction industry.
Roberts spent his free time canvassing homes in his Park Hill neighborhood, putting together a youth-league football team. Politics found him when neighborhood parents asked him to run for city council in 1971, and he sailed through re-election in 1975. He won again in 1979.
Roberts was part of a newer, more liberal faction on the council that, unlike Caldwell, did not support McNichols. Roberts says the council in those years fought to take back some control from the mayor, lowering the number of votes needed for the council to change the budget and mandating that the council had to approve city contracts over $500,000--a measure that is still in effect. "The council struggled against just being a rubber stamp," Roberts says. The council also struggled to elect a president. Contentious votes took place. In 1975, Roberts sought the presidency, and Caldwell agreed to vote for him, but at the last minute, Caldwell changed his mind and voted for himself. Roberts says he has always assumed it was the McNichols administration that pressured Caldwell to challenge him.
In 1980 Caldwell finally left the council to become manager of public safety under McNichols. His heir apparent was Hiawatha Davis, a radical who had become an ally after he decided not to run against Caldwell years before. Davis, who had been convicted of draft dodging during the Vietnam War, had instead devoted his energies to heading a citizen police advisory committee.
Davis was "outside the group," says Jones. The turks had "tested him" years earlier as a possible candidate for an open Senate seat that had been held by a Hispanic. The turks wanted to make the seat black. But, Jones says, "in his heart, [Davis] didn't have it. He didn't have the stomach. We didn't do much with Hiawatha after that."
So the turks went with their man, lawyer King Trimble, who had just come off a stint replacing Webb in the House. There was little time to organize the campaign--maybe sixty days. Trimble and Davis had both grown up in the District 8 neighborhood, had both gone to Manual, were both in their mid-thirties. "In the big picture, there wasn't that much of a difference between them," Caldwell says now.
Trimble won that election. But some constituents complained that he was inaccessible and committed to rezoning parts of residential neighborhoods to permit high-rise development. After his first year in office, the Denver Weekly News, a black newspaper, published an article titled "How to Recall an Elected Official"; the article was clearly alluding to Trimble.
After one term, Trimble was gone. He explained that his wife's health was poor, and he didn't fancy being in the public eye. He went into private practice, and his firm was the recipient of DIA bond contracts under Mayor Wellington Webb. Davis was elected to the council in 1983 and has remained there ever since.
In the '80s, Federico Pena served as Denver's first minority mayor, and many observers say he made the idea of a mayor of color acceptable. Pena had won in 1983, beating, among others, Wellington Webb.
That year, Norm Early became district attorney when Dale Tooley left the job after losing to Federico Pena in the mayor's race. In 1984 Early was elected to the post with 70 percent of the vote. Bill Roberts became the city's manager of public works, which made him a deputy mayor as well. In addition to Davis, Allegra "Happy" Haynes became a city councilwoman. Three black state legislators hailed from Denver--one of them was Wilma Webb, who served in the House from 1980 to 1992 (and would go on to become Denver's First Lady).
The '80s were a time of some optimism for black politics. Economically, the ranks of middle-class blacks mushroomed. For years black legislators in Colorado had been pressing for the state to honor Martin Luther King's achievements, and on her fourth attempt, Wilma Webb finally managed to finish what her predecessors had started, getting the MLK holiday passed in Colorado in 1984. A few years later, the mountain counties of Summitt, Clear Creek and Gilpin, along with a huge chunk of Jefferson County, put Samuel Williams into the House, a black man from a part of the state where there were (and still are) very few black people.
Wellington Webb stayed busy as well. In 1985 he joined anti-apartheid protesters outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., but said later that he could not afford to be arrested--though he wanted to--because he feared the political ramifications in the state legislature.
In the late '80s, Webb served as Denver city auditor. Early served as Denver's district attorney, fielding complaints that he wasn't as tough on white-collar crime as his predecessor and accusations by blacks that he prosecuted too many African-Americans.
Nevertheless, when Early campaigned for mayor in 1991, he was the front-runner: Tall and well-dressed, he cut a dashing image and had deep campaign coffers. Webb began the race in the rear but capitalized on his underdog image, walking the whole city to drum up support.
Among blacks, "Wellington was perceived by the people as having stayed closer to the community," says Jones. "Norm was handicapped by hostility from the fact he had been the DA." What's more, Jones continues, Early had never been in a real political fight before, so he had never had to develop fundraising or organizational skills to the extent that Webb had. "Wellington was always raising money," Jones says.
When Webb won, Early left the political realm, taking a job with Lockheed Martin.
Webb's success suggests that Denverites no longer view race as an important factor in elections. "Denver is a very, very liberal city," says Arie Taylor. "Anybody who does a good job and has a proven record, [voters] will support. People in Denver seem to me to be willing to trust people and listen to people."
There are now two blacks on Denver's city council--Hiawatha Davis and Happy Haynes--and three blacks, Senator Gloria Tanner and Representatives Penfield Tate and Ben Clarke, in the state legislature. Prominent state and local agencies and departments are headed by African-Americans, including the state Department of Human Services, the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, and the city attorney's office. Twenty years later, Colorado has another black lieutenant governor, this one a Republican.
Of the turks' legacy, Jones says, "It may be the kind of movement that lends itself to hyperbole. Maybe we give ourselves a little too much credit. But nobody has been able to deny the results."
As potential new turks step onto the stage, the emphasis on politics may be waning. A black person in office in and of itself means less than it once did. Activists tout social programs in black communities and economic development more than the need to have black elected officials.
One thing is for certain: Black Denver--as with black America--is no longer as tightly bound together by geography and membership in the lower class. The ranks of middle-class blacks continue to grow, as does the gap between the professional class and the working class and poor people they leave behind. "I think poor people are disenfranchised and they don't feel they have any power to change anything," says Patton, of the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce. "And too many of the upper-middle class--those who have benefited from affirmative action--tend to want to move to Highlands Ranch or Cherry Hills.
"When I was a kid," he continues, "I knew all the black Bronco players--they lived in the neighborhood. Now I don't know a single one of them. It doesn't mean I ought to know one of them. But my son doesn't know any, either, and he's 33 and still lives over here."
Michael B. Hancock, the new president of Denver's Urban League, believes that black people are beginning to look more closely at the substance of a candidate's position. The color of his or her skin is no longer the automatic it once might have been.
"African-Americans in large part were oral-tradition kinds of folks. If you could speak well, we liked it," he says, pointing to Jesse Jackson as an example. "Now people may say you speak well, but what's the substance?"
And the dispersion of blacks across the metropolitan region and the migration of whites back to the inner cities is increasingly becoming an important factor. In 1970, 75 percent of Denver's 47,011 African-Americans lived in north and northeast Denver; in 1990, that figure dropped to 57 percent. "You have blocks in [House] District 8 where increasingly there are more whites than blacks," Samuel Williams says of the demographic changes in the neighborhoods roughly surrounding City Park. "If we can't keep motivating candidates, we can't defeat white candidates." Williams agrees that "when you represent 4 percent of the population, any movement represents a diminishment of political power," but he says that black dispersion is less pronounced here than on the East Coast or in parts of California. Besides, he adds, "the black population does not necessarily vote in a block. The growth in the number of black Republicans attests to that."
These days, when he's talking about the white emigration back to the inner city, even Jones sounds like a Republican. Let the white yuppies drive up property values, he says--that benefits everyone. "They're courageous," he adds. "Like blacks integrating white neighborhoods. It's a good thing they are often politically active. We need political activism to be strong in the city."
And even though whites are moving in, Jones wants to ensure that the longstanding seat of power remains exactly where it is: with black people. "We're gonna determine who goes to the Statehouse, the city council. In short, there is a vacuum. We'll take [whites] on as partners and make sure everyone understands who the general partner is.
"With the right candidate, people could be impervious to race," says Jones, speaking historically about Webb's victories and of the future. Jones's optimistic assessment may reflect a generation growing tired of identity politics.
Or it may just be naive. Dale Sadler, a black lawyer who is running for Happy Haynes's council seat, remembers when "blacks were struggling equally." He characterizes Webb and his allies as a "group of ebony elite calling the shots" and points to what may be the turks' other legacy: "Black politicians are no different from white politicians.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Dear Stoner: Is It Legal to Sell Clones on Craigslist?
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:00am
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:30pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 7:30pm
Sun., Sep. 6, 2:00pm
- An Open Letter to Colorado Natives From a Transplant
- How to Avoid Being a Parking Douchebag