Editor’s note: Former Denver Mayor Wellington E. Webb is a ‘sensei’ to mayors today. Not yet ready to retire, he runs a business and political consulting practice, Webb Group International. His 28th floor office at 1660 Lincoln in Denver’s financial district looks out over the capitol dome to the south to Pikes Peak. Everyday Webb sees the vibrant city he helped to develop. In this article, he weighs in on the political climate in Colorado.
The country is facing another milestone in 2014 as the first non-white President of the United States, Barack Obama, winds down his second term. In 2008, we were enthusiastic and elated to contribute to his win. In 2012, we turned out again for his re-election because we believed in his principles. In 2014, Obama is not running but this election should be no less significant than others. In the end, you vote for the candidate that holds values that are important to you.
Changing Colorado Politics
In Colorado, we have tight races for governor, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. With no candidates having 50 percent in pre-election polls, it will be a toss-up. The non-affiliated and independents will decide. “Colorado was primarily a Republican state when I started out in politics in the 70s, and I’ve lived to see it change from red to purple and then to blue,” said Wellington Webb, who served 12 years or three terms as the mayor of Denver. “And I think this upcoming election will determine whether Colorado is purple or blue.”
Webb is the sage of Colorado politics, having served in the state house and elected as Denver’s first Black mayor in 1991, serving three terms. He understands the ebb and flow of state’s politics that elected two Black lieutenant governors, George Brown (D) and the late Joe Rogers (R). We also have had a Black speaker of the House, Terrence Carroll and Black president of the State Senate, Peter Groff.
“Colorado, because of its western ethic has been open to a lot of history that has been accomplished here that is beyond what people in other parts of the country can ever imagine,” said Webb, the only mayor in the U.S. to be elected by his peers to be president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Conference of Black Mayors and the National Conference of Democratic Mayors. “If these candidates won, it was because they were good candidates who could be successful. But we also see that we’ve had a climate that has allowed those candidates to win,” said Webb. “But you could have every Black person vote for you – retired, living or dead – and you still would not have enough votes to win. Which means that obviously there were coalition politics involved; which means that Black, White, Brown, Red and Yellow were voting for the African American candidates for the offices they have been successful in achieving.”
The Obama Effect
Despite this progress, and now the “Historic 5” Black legislators serving in the State House of Representatives running for re-election, Webb has seen a backlash primarily against President Obama, but it has a ripple effect. Webb has empathy for the president, himself being a first. “Which is normal for anyone that’s first. All of us who have been first have experienced it,” said Webb, the first African American mayor of Denver. “As the first president of the United States who doesn’t happen to be white, I believe he has experienced more opposition; more lack of respect for the office he holds; more individuals demonstrating outrageous behavior against the protocol and decorum of the U.S. Senate and the House with people calling out, shouting and calling him a liar, which has never been done before.”
President Obama has led the country through the worst recession on the road to economic recovery, and foreign affairs and international issues have been challenging. “It kind of goes back to that old joke, which mostly only old people remember…when the government is messed up at its worst is normally when we get the call to go in and fix it,” said Webb. “And that doesn’t just hold true for government. And when you add the high expectations that members of your own community have for you…which you can never meet, he has had a more difficult road.”
Friend and foe scrutinize President Obama’s every action or decision, and GOP ads are rife with guilt by association. Yet, the president seems undaunted, and Webb sees him as a heroic figure. “The more they beat up on him the prouder I get, because I see him stand up and never flinch, never stoop to the level of the people who are attacking him, and he does it with intellect, and he does it with dignity and he does it with grace,” said the Kappa Alpha Psi and Delta Eta Boule fraternity member.
Voting: Know Where You Are
In the shadow of this backlash, what is the impact on Colorado elections and politics? Colorado’s voter demographics have changed. Besides turning to a blue state in the last election cycle, Independents are now the majority party according to Webb. There are more independent and un-affiliated voters than registered Democrats or Republicans. Presidential elections entail more money and resources, which leads to higher voter turnout. “We are going into 2014, the mid-term elections, and for whatever reason, a lot of the people who vote in the presidential election don’t vote in the mid-terms,” said the businessman and philanthropist. “This makes many of the individuals running who come from marginal districts much more vulnerable. And the individuals that tend not to vote in mid-term elections are typically young people, minorities, specifically minority men.” He noted that historically women have been the most consistent voters.
As minority populations broaden across the Denver metro area, it is increasingly important to know and vote for the candidate and to determine if they are in accord with your values. According to Webb the largest Black population is no longer in Denver, but in Arapahoe County, and the fastest growing Black population is in Douglas County. All government, no matter what level addresses economic development and children’s education as well as the requisite safety needs. But Webb points out that not all districts have the same focus or the same needs.
“Some districts are going to be poorer than others,” said Webb, who created the Denver Health Authority to save the city’s public hospital. “In those poorer districts you are going to be looking at how do we access more job development for the individuals in the district?’ If you happen to represent an area where there’s a significant disparity in income, you are going to find those individuals are multi-colored. But if it’s a true democracy, the people that are elected to the district will be talking about income equality, because the makeup of that district is Black, White and Brown.” It becomes as much about class as race.
On the other hand someone elected to a district that has a higher income, has a different horizon. “If you are living in a district where there is much higher income and many of those individuals own businesses themselves, they are looking for more business opportunities,” he said. So, in this case more emphasis might be placed on business development as opposed to individual income development.
There are numerous ways to vote your interests and Webb says we have to smartly read through the political ads and the “entertainers” on television. “All politics is local to the person that is trying to determine how it effects them,” said Webb, an advocate for arts and culture, sports and historic preservation. “I think the war with ISIL is not local, but if they develop and send bombs that kill Black, White and Brown citizens, then it becomes local, but it’s also international.” Local governments will have issues that are much closer to the people. Mayor Hancock will deal with issues of development, parks and bike trails and jobs. There will always be ancillary relationships with other levels of government to get things done in our communities.
“One of the goals has always been to make sure that we have enough emphasis on the politics of the day that we can get younger people engaged that can run for office and represent our interests, because we can’t have just one person doing that. We have to have a variety of individuals that can do that. And that is what is so good about many of the people running,” said Webb.
“For the Black community, political empowerment has to be about having people in place on the local government, state government, the federal government, in the judiciary where we are completely integrated into American society,” said Webb. “And then the second obligation – one that is assumed – is that issues that affect the Black community specifically, that these issues would always be raised, because there are still so many of those continued (income) discrepancies.”
Colorado is perhaps fortunate that we have Black leaders in government and the judiciary. It makes incidents in Sanford, Fla. and Ferguson, Mo. somewhat less fathomable here. Regarding whether Ferguson could happen here Webb responded, “I will never say never, but I think it will be difficult. Because it is too difficult here not to have a jury of your peers. With Ferguson it is much clearer. It is like the world passed Ferguson. It is exactly like a lot of the small towns in the south in the 1950s. The mayor said there are no racial issues in Ferguson. There is a majority Black population, but there are no Blacks on city council, no Blacks on the police force. They’re not integrated anywhere into the government of Ferguson.”
We might feel relieved because our government in Colorado is diverse up to the highest leadership levels. How to sustain this progress? By voting in every election. “Bad elected officials are normally elected by people who didn’t vote. “It’s always been my view if you didn’t vote, you brought this on yourself, so don’t complain to me. We live in a participatory process.”
Getting Your Vote: Nothing Beats a Good Ground Game
Election Day is November 4, but mail-in ballots will be going out to active voters in mid-October. Last legislative session Colorado made it easier to vote. You can now register and vote on the same day. No doubt, you have received mailers, door hangers, a knock on the door by a canvasser, or had a conversation with your neighbor urging your voter participation. Women are featured in many television ads along with their issues related to family and abortion. Political communicators are very good at their jobs, but if you don’t see yourself in those ads, there is a reason.
Webb said, “Before it even starts there is 40 percent for this guy and 40 percent for this guy. The fight is always for the 20 percent. An ad might be run that looks stupid. That ad is for the 20 percent. It’s not for the 40 percent. It’s specifically targeted to the same group we are trying persuade to vote our way. At the end of the day, the ads run by Republicans and the ads run by Democrats are both going to be very good and they are going to cancel each other out. The person who gets elected is who has the most passionate workers and supporters on the ground. It’s those individuals who go talk to their neighbors. I am a ground game guy. That’s what I believe wins politics and it was reinforced in 1991 and 1995.”
In essence, this really has not changed, but there are different mechanisms and technologies being used. There are numerous conversations happening besides face-to face, on Twitter, Facebook, text messaging and through targeted emails. President Obama engaged with young people in cities and on campuses who helped to elect him. The buzz was created through social media, which was an evolved ground game. Every Colorado candidate has a Twitter account where you can see activities and accomplishments. “You’ve got to have people on the ground telling your story, because no one person running for office can do that themselves,” he said.
A good ground game requires commitment from the players. Even though Colorado has more Independents than registered Democrats and Republicans, Webb does not see this as totally positive. He often refers to conversations he has with his grandsons and their peers in looking at the current mindset of young voters, some wanting to remain Independents. “That is an interesting position to be in, because you are getting the best of both worlds without being aligned with any party. And you end up voting for the individual or your choice depending upon who is put forth. But the problem with that is that you have no opportunity to help select the candidate that is then put forth,” said Webb. The caucus and primary process requires commitment from both Democrats and Republicans.
“I would rather see you as a Democrat or Republican. This person represents my views and this is who I want to see running and then let them go up against the other team,” said Webb, who marvels that his grandsons could get 800 people to a party through social media in the last election cycle.
“The buzz at the party was to vote for Obama. I don’t know why they were voting for Obama, but they were voting for Obama, because that was the cool thing to do. And many knew exactly why they were voting for Obama and trying to get their peers to vote as well,” said Webb. He added that the party was integrated and that his grandson’s generation is not so color conscious. “Now I am thinking how do I get them to get more political in addition to going to the party.”
Webb has been political since he was his grandsons’ age. In his office, the walls are lined with memories and awards. He shared a picture from his days at the University of Colorado, with four young Black men, which included former Denver district attorney, Norm Early. “We were beginning to make our mark,” he said. Webb has long been a fighter for Democratic principles, like Social Security and health insurance. “For me it is easy. The values I hold dear are the values that Democrats fight for. I support some of these younger candidates from the Historic 5, because I believe we’re better off with them fighting for us because they represent our values.”
Values and coalition politics still rule the day in Colorado. As the demographics change across the state, it becomes more difficult to get our voices heard. We must align ourselves with those candidates who share our views. Webb commented that the counties in Colorado where Cory Gardner is running the strongest are the 10 counties that wanted to secede from the state. Secession was a 19th century issue with southern states, and this is 2014. “If this was 1861 I couldn’t support someone that didn’t know whether they wanted to keep the state or country unified,” said Webb. “It goes against my values, one unified state, one unified country, and I am proud to be an American.”
What do Americans do? They vote. Please exercise your right.