Race for the Cure

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The most recent demographic data for the neighborhoods that District 8 comprises comes from the 1990 U.S. census. Then, roughly 36,000 people lived in the district; almost half were black and about a quarter were Hispanic, the latter concentrated in Five Points, the symbolic center of black Denver. Although these figures are clearly outdated, people claim anecdotally that the neighborhood is becoming increasingly Hispanic. Last year, 50 percent of public-school students in Five Points were Latino; in the Cole neighborhood, the number was 69 percent.

Council candidate Sandra Douglas calls the diversity in the district "so blatant you don't have time to wonder about your neighbors."

Of the eleven candidates, nine are black, one is white and one is Hispanic. Many people speculate that this will be the last election in which a black candidate has the inside track on winning -- and the race could be up for grabs now. If the major black candidates split black voters, Jerry Duran might be the one who walks away the winner. As the only Hispanic candidate, Duran may become the fourth District 8 councilman in the last 44 years -- and the first who isn't black.

Community leader Jeff X says Duran is in an excellent position to benefit from the changes in the neighborhood. "We have to start looking at what's taking place around us. We won't be the largest minority in the country. It's important for us to form alliances. Duran has support among blacks as well [as Hispanics]."

Duran, 49, grew up in the district, graduated from Manual High School in 1969 and has been involved in nonprofit work since 1974. He joined Denver Area Youth Services about half a year after it began and spent eight years there. In the Eighties he worked at the Community College of Denver, then opened a liquor store with a niece. But he kept up the nonprofit end, raising funds for scholarships on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens and fundraising as a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

In 1990 he signed on with the Mayor's Office of Employment and Training as a summer work program coordinator. He also helped raise $6 million to turn an old elementary school into the Wyatt Edison charter school, and he has spearheaded other neighborhood improvement grants. He has received several mayoral appointments, including posts on the Stapleton Redevelopment Advisory Board and the Mayor's Commission on Youth. And he has overseen a $2.25 million Youth Opportunity Grant for employment and educational services, as well as a $1.5 million Youth Offenders Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

"They [other candidates] seem to have developed a case of selective blindness," says observer Clarke Watson, president of Watson Associates, a local public relations and government consulting company. "They'd rather cavalierly dismiss the fact that the Hispanic vote is a serious challenge. They're charging forward as if all they need to do is win the black vote. The demographics have changed such that the next councilperson from District 8 will be Hispanic."

But Duran knows the growing number of Hispanics who live in the district doesn't necessarily amount to political power, since many of them are Mexican nationals who live here illegally and are unable to vote. "We have to wait until they become citizens," he says, "or wait until the kids do."

Duran believes that only about 35 percent of the Hispanics in the neighborhood are registered voters. Meanwhile, whites are moving into the neighborhood in greater numbers, leading a campaign manager for one of the candidates to refer to the area as "Wash Park North." Already, 90 percent of the Whittier Neighborhood Association, which represents the area between Martin Luther King Boulevard and 23rd Avenue and Downing and York streets, is white, says candidate Elbra Wedgeworth, president of the association.

"To depend solely on the black community, that's political suicide," says Jeff X. "Black candidates are talking about reaching out to all groups, but will they be able to talk other folks into it?"

And will the candidates get their supporters out to vote? The district has 31,000 registered voters, but in the last election, only 4,099 votes were cast for District 8 candidates, a decline from the 7,295 cast in the 1995 election. As this is a special election, the vote tally could go down, especially if the weather is bad on December 7.

Hardcore political types will always vote, says former state legislator and neighborhood resident Regis Groff, but the race "will boil down to who gets the people out. People aren't inclined to get up and go to special elections."

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T.R. Witcher