Denver mayor Wellington Webb is taking advantage of the upcoming summit of industrial nations to push a personal agenda that ranges from special-interest politics to the interests of an old friend.
While he was in Washington last month trying to line up federal money to help pay for the Denver Summit of the Eight, Webb also spent some time with an organization called Constituency for Africa (CFA). That lobbying group, whose board of directors includes prominent African-American politicians such as former New York mayor David Dinkins and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, works to establish American business links with African nations.
The CFA's pet project these days is a trade bill sponsored by U.S. Representative Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Seattle. The McDermott bill would pour $200 million into promoting trade with Africa. Half of the money would go to American companies to subsidize investment in Africa; the other half would go to build improvements such as roads and bridges in Africa itself.
To promote the bill, the CFA is sponsoring a series of "town hall" meetings--essentially public-relations exercises--around the country. "Our goal is to start little fires around the country, and all together they'll turn into a bonfire," says CFA executive director Mel Foote, formerly with the aid and development organization Africare.
The CFA has already held small gatherings to laud the benefits of African trade in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Mount Vernon, New York. Denver wasn't included on the original itinerary. But the CFA's plans changed after Webb hit town.
According to Foote, Webb urged the group to have a town hall meeting in Denver so it could take advantage of the media spotlight focused on the Summit of the Eight. Foote says he thought it was a great idea. After all, he notes, Colorado has several big mining companies itching to do business in Africa. (Some of those mining firms held their own African Mining Investment Symposium in Denver last week, an event attended by ministers from 22 African countries and more than 400 corporate and government representatives.)
Then there are the climatic similarities between Colorado and its neighbor 8,000 miles to the southeast. "Dryland farming is big out in Colorado," says Foote. "And that's something parts of Africa could really use."
Webb press secretary Andrew Hudson says the mayor has a personal desire to see the McDermott trade bill pass. He adds that Webb believes pumping $200 million into African trade would ultimately be "good for Denver's economy."
McDermott spokeswoman Jennifer Crider says Webb's help in organizing the Denver town hall could be crucial to getting the McDermott bill passed. "Anytime you have an event that focuses the spotlight on the bill, it's very helpful," she says.
But is it appropriate for the mayor of Denver to conduct foreign policy from the City and County Building? Hudson says yes--and insists that Webb's foray into international politics won't affect his ability to focus on local issues. "Let's face it--the summit is Denver for the next couple weeks," Hudson says.
Because Webb knows that not all of his constituents may agree with that sentiment, he has been careful to separate the city from the event, claims Hudson. "No city money will be used," Hudson says, though Foote says he was told the city would be picking up the tab for the Eulipions Cultural Center for the half-day event.
When pressed, Hudson says the money to rent the hall owned by Eulipions, an African-American theater group whose productions have been a favorite of art lover and First Lady Wilma Webb, will come from private donations. However, that money has yet to be pledged. Asked what will happen if enough donations don't come in, Hudson says, "We're not afraid of that."
After all, if you can't trust your friends to get the job done, who can you trust? One of the people Webb tapped to be a "volunteer organizer" for the African mini-summit is Venita Vinson, a longtime friend of the mayor's and his first chief of staff. Webb fired her from the $75,000-per-year job in 1992 after the local media revealed she hadn't filed income-tax returns for nine years. Vinson did not return calls from Westword.
Vinson's work on the town hall isn't her--or the Webbs'--first foray into Denver-Africa politics. She sat with Wilma Webb on the board of the Colorado African/Caribbean Trade Office, the same organization that came under fire for taking a $10,000 "grant" from Denver International Airport officials to pay for a trade mission to the tiny African country of Gabon.
That trade mission allegedly was undertaken in part to explore the possibility of having Gabon's national airline begin direct flights to DIA, a scenario that was ridiculed by aviation experts. Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter cleared Webb administration officials of wrongdoing in pressuring airport officials to make the grant, but the trade mission has yet to yield any direct flights to Gabon's capital of Libreville.
While Gabonians won't be able to fly in nonstop, they're presumably invited to the town hall meeting in Denver. But they probably won't make it. In fact, it's not at all clear exactly who will be coming.
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Foote, who did graduate work at the University of Colorado at Denver, will be on hand. But his organization, which is funded by grants from American philanthropic foundations, isn't able to pick up the tab to fly many other people to the event. Jesse Jackson and Jack Kemp have been invited, but Foote says it's only about a fifty-fifty shot that either of them will show up. "We're hoping to get at least one heavy hitter so all the media will pay more attention," he adds.
Foote says having the town hall the week before the Summit of the Eight begins will allow his group to exert influence on the Summit players, who, among other things, are scheduled to discuss the feasibility of investing more heavily in Africa. "We're tired of having folks talking about Africa without anybody who represents Africa sitting at the table," Foote says.
So far, though, it's not certain that anybody who actually represents Africa will be there. Foote says he's invited the Washington-based ambassadors to seven African nations. But because he's asking them to pay for their own flights, he can't be sure they're going to make it. Foote says he has also invited a number of non-governmental organizations such as the African Development Foundation and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He says he has promised to put their brochures out for them in the lobby of the meeting room if they don't show up.
It's uncertain whether McDermott, whose bill is the reason for having the meeting in the first place, will show up, either. "He plans to," says his aide Crider. "Schedule permitting.