At first glance, it looks like an inconsequential little controversy involving nothing more significant than some burned-out light bulbs, missing trash cans and wads of discarded chewing gum.

But in recent weeks, a seemingly mundane dispute over street maintenance along Denver's Santa Fe Drive has turned into a heated political battle. Mayor Wellington Webb and two of his top aides have intervened in the matter. City council president Deborah Ortega has weighed in on the other side. Now city auditor Robert Crider, one of Webb's chief political rivals, has wandered into the fray.

To understand why, one might do well to glance at the city's political calendar. Mayoral and council elections are scheduled for May 16, less than nine months away. Thanks to the jinxed baggage system at Denver International Airport, Webb is looking more vulnerable all the time--and in desperate need of allies for the coming campaign. Meanwhile, potential mayoral opponents, including Crider, Denver attorney John Frew and city councilwoman Mary DeGroot, are busy lining up their own supporters and taking potshots at Webb from the sidelines.

What seems to have upped the political ante in the Santa Fe Drive controversy is that it involves NEWSED Community Development Corporation, one of Denver's most important Hispanic organizations. NEWSED's two principal officers, Veronica Barela and Virginia Martinez, rank among Webb's staunchest supporters from the Latino community. Barela, furthermore, has declared war on Ortega and is considering a run at the councilwoman's District 9 seat next year.

Recently, Martinez and Barela have found themselves under fire from business and property owners on Santa Fe. The owners have been griping about what they call shoddy work by a NEWSED affiliate being paid to maintain the lampposts, trees and other improvements along the street. They've circulated a petition and complained to city hall, asking that someone else be brought in to do the work. NEWSED, meanwhile, says the owners are being ungrateful and unfair.

The controversy comes at a critical time for Webb, whose relations with Hispanics are already strained from earlier flaps this year. In March the mayor clashed with Ortega and Councilwoman Ramona Martinez in a dispute over the sale of the old district attorney's building. And he was hit with charges of racism while haggling with a prominent Hispanic contractor over payments for the company's work at DIA. Political observers say the mayor, who has pegged Denver political veteran Ruben Valdez as his campaign treasurer, needs to mend fences fast in order to stand a chance in the coming election.

The city's Hispanic voters "are pretty much unmoored," says Denver political consultant Floyd Ciruli. "They have no definite place to go. You can be sure the Frews and the Criders of the world are talking to them."

In the NEWSED imbroglio, say Ciruli and others, it's possible to discern the first signals of how the city's Hispanic leadership will align itself in the campaign. And the way it all shakes down may determine who sits in the mayor's office next year.

In 1978, when Veronica Barela first signed on as executive director of NEWSED, Santa Fe Drive was at the nadir of a crippling, decades-long economic decline. Hundreds of nearby homes had been demolished to make way for the Auraria campus, depriving the once-thriving commercial strip between Sixth and Colfax avenues of much of its natural customer base. Abandoned storefronts lined the street. Later, gangs infiltrated the neighborhood, driving customers away from those establishments that remained.

Today, Santa Fe Drive is in the middle of a slow, steady renaissance. And much of the rebirth, say those familiar with the area, is due to NEWSED's efforts.

Formerly known as the New Westside Economic Development Corporation, the nonprofit group was founded twenty years ago to foster business growth, promote Latino culture and create jobs for impoverished Hispanics living in the area. Under Barela's leadership, NEWSED has aggressively sought out grants and government loans to finance a series of successful development projects. In the process, the organization has become the neighborhood's largest property owner. Between 1980 and 1984 NEWSED built the Zocalo and Plaza de Santa Fe shopping centers--the first new retail developments in the neighborhood in twenty years. The group turned another blighted property at Santa Fe and Eighth Avenue into a Grease Monkey auto service center. Recently, NEWSED bought the old Amick Moving & Storage building at 1029 Santa Fe, where it has established a record-storage business.

"They've made a huge difference," Denver Hispanic activist Pierre Jimenez says of NEWSED. "In large measure, they're responsible for the economic turnaround on Santa Fe. You have to give them credit."

NEWSED's activities helped spark further development on Santa Fe. Two theaters--the RiverTree and the Denver Civic--opened there. A radio station moved in. And Museo de las Americas, a Latino cultural museum, made its debut last year.

Even gang activity has decreased sharply, says Charles Gurule, owner of the Big Chili southwestern-foods store. "Five years ago people wouldn't come here after dark" because of the gangs, Gurule says. But "you don't see it around here [now], even though the high school is only a couple of blocks away. It's always calm."

NEWSED's latest success is a $160,000 grant from the Maryland-based Annie E. Casey Foundation to study ways to continue improving the socioeconomic base of the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood. An additional $3 million from the foundation is expected to follow over the next six years--money that NEWSED may use to fund social services, political organizing and other "community-building activities," according to a foundation spokeswoman.

Barela, who grew up in the Lincoln Park housing projects on West Colfax, isn't shy about taking credit for Santa Fe's progress--or about rebuking her critics. "We've done a lot of good in this neighborhood," she says. "And I don't appreciate our reputation being attacked."

NEWSED's attempts to beautify the Santa Fe streetscape date back to 1986, when it helped convince the city to spend thousands of dollars on new trees, fancy benches, antique-style lights and trash cans and other improvements along two blocks. Further improvements, designed to attract customers and new business to the area, followed on three other blocks in 1992, and more are scheduled for this fall. Because it costs the city extra to maintain the improvements, business and property owners have agreed to pay an additional tax to finance upkeep. The tax pulls in about $20,000 per year.

But the city doesn't perform the street maintenance itself. Instead, it contracts out the work to an organization called the Santa Fe Drive Redevelopment Corporation. Though technically independent, the nonprofit has close ties to NEWSED. It operates "under the direction of NEWSED," according to organization brochures. It is housed in the same building as NEWSED and has the same phone number. And it is headed by NEWSED deputy director Virginia Martinez.

Many merchants and landowners on Santa Fe say the SFDRC does a poor job. When light bulbs burn out in the street lamps, they complain, replacements often don't arrive for months. If a drunk driver careens into a trash can or a lamppost, a year or more might go by before the SFDRC replaces it. Gum and other garbage left on the sidewalks isn't picked up satisfactorily.

"In general, they do a lousy job of keeping it clean," says Clayton Craig, owner of an appliance store on the street. "When things get broken here, it's the typical nonsense. It takes forever to get it done." Adds another property owner, who asks not to be identified, "We are paying money to the city to have our street cleaned and maintained. It's not being done, and we're not getting what we're paying for."

In May, after months of complaining, close to fifty disgruntled merchants and landowners signed a petition asking the city to take the Santa Fe maintenance work away from the SFDRC and give it to a "more effective" contractor. Initially, the city complied. On May 26 Department of Public Works senior architect Mark Leese, the staff person in charge of the contract, wrote to Virginia Martinez and informed her that the city was terminating its agreement with the SFDRC. "I have found it necessary to contract with someone else," Leese wrote. Leese directed Martinez to stop spending money on Santa Fe maintenance and to return $6,000 the city had advanced to the SFDRC in 1993.

Barela says she and Martinez were "absolutely, totally blindsided" by Leese's decision. The SFDRC has always done its best to maintain the street, she says, but the tax on property owners just doesn't bring in enough money to pay for all the work. Replacing a single damaged lamppost, she says, costs close to $5,000--a quarter of the annual maintenance budget. Often the SFDRC is forced to delay work for long periods of time--or to pay for repairs out of its own pocket. "This is not something that brings us any extra money," Barela says. "We don't make a red dime for doing it."

After receiving Leese's letter, Barela and Martinez met with the mayor and City Attorney Dan Muse and asked them to give SFDRC another chance. Going to the top worked: On June 27 Manager of Public Works Mike Musgrave wrote to Martinez and told her that he had reversed Leese's decision. "We have decided we want to work with you to see if we can get the maintenance issues on Santa Fe Drive resolved," Musgrave wrote. And Leese, according to a source at city hall, received a verbal reprimand.

But things didn't end there. The disgruntled merchants next took their case to Deborah Ortega, councilwoman for the district and one of Barela's political enemies. In a June 28 letter to Ortega, the merchants complained that their street had become "dirty and rundown," and that their tax dollars had been "wasted." They made more serious charges as well, alleging that Martinez might have hired "a family member or close friend" to perform work on the street. The owners requested a "thorough audit" of SFDRC.

"We've had our fill, and we're not going to take it anymore," says Dave Murray, who owns a machine shop on Santa Fe. "They've been using all the money that's available to their advantage, not to the advantage of the businessmen on the strip."

(The claims of nepotism and financial mismanagement echo accusations made in a lawsuit by a faction of NEWSED boardmembers in 1988. The directors, including John Garcia, then president of Hispanics of Colorado, charged in the suit that Barela and Martinez had "siphoned off or otherwise wasted corporate assets" by employing relatives at the nonprofit in violation of NEWSED's by-laws. The plaintiffs asked the court to appoint a receiver to seize control of NEWSED and to expel Barela and Martinez from the organization. The suit was eventually dismissed.)

A week or so after receiving the letter of complaint from the Santa Fe merchants, Ortega sent a copy to Crider. "Please comply with their request [for an audit]," Ortega wrote.

Last month a member of Crider's staff wrote to Martinez, informing her that the auditor would be checking "compliance with the terms of the contracts between the Santa Fe Drive Redevelopment Corporation and the City of Denver." That investigation is now under way.

Martinez and Barela say news of the audit doesn't bother them. "Our books are open," Barela says. "They can come and look at them anytime they want." But they say political considerations, not financial ones, are behind the investigation. Crider has leapt at the chance to audit a perceived ally of the mayor, they say. And they charge that Ortega has sided with the merchants only because Barela is considering a campaign for the city council next year. "She's totally threatened by the fact that Veronica has talked about running against her," Martinez says.

Crider denies ulterior motives, pointing out that the city charter requires him to look into any allegation of waste or impropriety when tax dollars are involved. "There's nothing political in it," Crider says of the SFDRC investigation. "When someone says there's tax dollars being misused, I have an obligation to do [an audit]. I don't have any choice in the matter."

Ortega says she's merely trying to address the merchants' complaints because she is their elected representative. "They're especially upset because it's their money and they're not seeing their dollars' worth," Ortega says.

As for NEWSED, Ortega says that "for the most part, they have done a good job" promoting development on Santa Fe. But she is critical of the "confrontational" tactics she says Barela and Martinez frequently employ. As an example, the councilwoman points to a recent meeting notice sent to members of the SFDRC board of directors. The notice, written by Martinez, accuses Ortega of "unethical and vindictive behavior" and claims the Santa Fe merchants are engaged in a "scheme to destroy" NEWSED and the SFDRC.

"They think that by bullying people they're going to get what they want," Ortega says of Martinez and Barela. "And in some cases, they do. But at the same time, they burn bridges."

Ortega isn't the first to accuse Veronica Barela of playing political hardball. "She's been called `the queen of Santa Fe Drive,'" says Pierre Jimenez. "It's like if you come into west Denver, you have to get her permission." One of the plaintiffs in the 1988 suit against NEWSED says both Barela and Martinez are "very tough. If you don't go with them, they'll turn on you.

"These people have bludgeoned anyone who has gotten in the way," continues the source, who asks not to be identified. "People would rather step away from them than fight them."

Others voice strong support for the two NEWSED leaders. Mary Chandler, co-owner of the RiverTree Theatre, says NEWSED provided crucial assistance when she and her husband were trying to open on Santa Fe Drive. Barela and Martinez helped the theater owners negotiate the city's bewildering permit process, Chandler says, and introduced them to the right people at the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, which eventually provided Chandler with a low-interest construction loan. "I have only good things to say about them," Chandler says. "They were a tremendous source of help and support."

And as Mayor Webb's relations with other prominent Denver Hispanics have been frayed by controversies in the past year, Barela and Martinez have emerged as an especially important source of support for the administration.

Last fall the Webb administration enraged Alvarado Construction Company in a dispute over payments for work at DIA. Alvarado, the region's largest Hispanic contractor, had received more than $17 million for construction of the new airport's administration building, but it asked the city for another $6.5 million to pay for changes and additional work on the project.

When the city balked, company vice president Bob Alvarado launched a bitter public protest. He accused the Webb administration of "institutional racism," claiming the city was scrutinizing Hispanic contractors more closely than majority-owned firms. Eventually, the two sides settled on a figure of $3.65 million, but not before the damage had been done. Even Barela acknowledges that the Alvarado controversy "probably hurt the mayor in our community more than anything."

The rift may have widened further in March, when Webb announced he'd decided to sell the old Denver district attorney's building to a developer who planned to convert the property into upscale residential lofts. The building, in NEWSED territory at the corner of West Colfax and Speer Boulevard, has been vacant for a decade.

Webb's decision angered Councilwoman Ramona Martinez, who was trying to help a group of Latino investors turn the building into a Hispanic cultural center. Webb countered that Martinez had been given a year to put together a deal but had failed to come up with a way to finance the purchase. The private developer, meanwhile, had submitted a firm bid that promised to return the property to the city's tax rolls.

Martinez has never been considered a Webb supporter. But the city council's two other Hispanic members, Ortega and Tim Sandos, backed her in the controversy. Eventually the full council voted to give a Hispanic nonprofit group called National Image a year to raise the $410,000 required to buy the building from the city.

Barela supported Webb in the cultural-center controversy. In a May letter to the Denver Post, she lashed out at Martinez and Ortega, accusing them of using "untruths, inaccuracies and unethical behavior" to unfairly tar Webb's image in the Hispanic community. The two councilwomen, Barela said, were deliberately fanning racial tensions between Hispanics and African-Americans, a core support group for the mayor. Barela said plans for the cultural center revealed that it actually would be nothing more than an "office building" that threatened to divert scarce funding from "real cultural organizations" serving Hispanics in the city.

Another dynamic may have been at work in the fight over the DA's building: Barela's aspirations for a city council seat. Barela moved to Denver from Westminster in 1993, specifically because she intended to run against Ortega. Then, earlier this year, Barela announced she had dropped the idea, citing her need to continue working on NEWSED's Annie Casey grant project.

But it now appears that Barela may change her mind again. Asked recently about her political ambitions, Barela said a bid for Ortega's seat remains "a possibility."

"That's all I want to say," she says. "In a few months I may decide that's what I want to do. I'm keeping my options open."

Webb, presumably, would much prefer his friend Barela to Ortega in District 9, a sprawling piece of political turf that wraps around downtown Denver, covers much of the city's north side and encompasses the booming Central Platte Valley. Ortega appears to have distanced herself from the mayor in recent months. In addition to opposing him on the DA's building and helping bring Crider into the Santa Fe Drive dispute, she deposed Webb ally Dave Doering as president of the city council in June. Pierre Jimenez calls Ortega's election an "anti-Webb vote."

Political observers say Webb can't afford to underestimate the importance of the Hispanic vote in the coming campaign. Even if the airport opens before the election, they say, many of the city's conservative whites will remain alienated by the DIA fiasco. Though black voters should continue to support the mayor en masse, he will have to vigorously court the city's uncommitted Latinos to pull off an election victory.

"Webb's got to put together the Hispanic-black coalition," says Boulder pollster Paul Talmey. "If he's sitting out there [on election day] with a high percentage of dissatisfied Anglos, a split Hispanic [vote] and all the blacks...he's out of office."

Councilman Sandos says it's a mistake to assume Denver's Hispanics will automatically vote in a block. "The Hispanic community shouldn't be looked at as one unanimous voice," he says. But Sandos also says if Latino voters abandon Webb, the mayor might be in trouble. "If that support wanes," Sandos says, "it's going to have an impact on him."

Denver political consultant Steve Wel-chert agrees that Hispanics will be crucial to Webb in May, "particularly if a Hispanic candidate doesn't emerge. If he even cuts the Hispanic vote in half," Welchert says, "he's lost it."

Welchert says Webb probably realizes he'll be vulnerable on "macro" issues like DIA. He expects the mayor to focus increasingly on smaller neighborhood issues--like the dispute over NEWSED on Santa Fe Drive--as a way to reap the support of uncommitted Hispanics and other groups.

"No one's better at understanding the Chicago element of politics than Wellington," Welchert says. "He can't hit a home run on the airport. So he's got to hit a whole bunch of singles--and hope the singles add up."

Webb can count on NEWSED's backing in the race. But that won't necessarily translate into a landslide of Latino votes, says Jimenez. "Veronica Barela and Virginia Martinez are very staunch supporters of the mayor," he says. "Their political alignment would go with Webb. But there's another segment of the Hispanic community that feels he doesn't warrant their support. They're going to look for alternative candidates."

What does the mayor's campaign staff think about all this? Campaign treasurer Ruben Valdez says most rank-and-file Latino voters haven't begun worrying about next year's mayoral race. "There's not much conversation about it in the community at this point," Valdez says. "Everybody is kind of ho-hum about it."

Denver's Hispanic leaders, however, appear to be forging their political allegiances well ahead of the electorate, Valdez says. He expects skirmishes like the NEWSED controversy to increase in number and intensity as the campaign progresses.

"What you'll see is even more of this stuff as the election draws near," he says. "It's going to get even more interesting before it's over.


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