Denver’s first Black mayor reflects on America’s first Black president
By Wellington E. Webb
President Barack Obama and I have something in common. He is America’s first African American president and I was Denver’s first African American mayor.
That designation carries extra responsibility because we know our records will help or hinder others who seek high office. When the first African American runs for office, the first question many voters ask is can he or she govern well? As “firsts” we had the challenge to answer that question so it would never be asked again.
We also know that once we overcame the long odds to get elected unfortunately racism, however subtle, affected our terms. Even if racism is there, we have to overcome it in order to be successful. I faced it during my 12 years in office and I believe Obama has successfully dealt with it during his two terms.
I’m not saying that racism is why Congress has fought President Obama on nearly every proposal he has made to improve the lives of Americans. Leaders who support and fight for such things as the Affordable Care Act; economic recovery of Detroit; managing the recession and recovery; the numerous budget battles; same sex marriage and other LGBT issues will face opposition.
But, in my view, some members of Congress just want Obama to fail – even at the expense of Americans. Some have labeled him as arrogant because he is unwilling to compromise. Some, including Democrats, have criticized him for being calm and cool and not forcing change. But that demeanor also helped the country through some of the greatest acts of violence during his terms, including the recent church shootings in Charleston, the Aurora theater massacre and the bombings at the Boston Marathon.
But I’ll let the Republicans speak for themselves, and at the same time prove my point.
When Barack Obama took the oath of office his attitude going in as president was let’s get busy and do what’s right for the country in a bipartisan way. He wanted to debate the issues and arrive at consensus for what is in the best interest of the country. His actions were like a player on a team sport: pass, block, shoot and score for the country.
Yet, at the same time many Republicans were ready to miss an easy layup, throw the ball away and run out of bounds.
In October 2010, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” He also reportedly told other Republicans: “If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority. We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”
Vice President Joe Biden said he heard after the 2008 election McConnell told seven different Republican Senators he demanded unified resistance.”
“The way it was characterized to me was: `For the next two years, we can’t let you succeed in anything. That’s our ticket to coming back,’ ” Biden said.
It took a while for President Obama to finally determine Republicans were not going to work with him, even to the point of disrespecting the office. Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!” during President Obama’s joint session of Congress in 2009 about immigration reform. House Speaker Mike O’Neal forwarded an email to state house Republicans referring to the First Lady as “Mrs. YoMamma.” Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn said he didn’t even want to have to be associated with President Obama. “It’s like touching a bar baby…”
Protocol, dignity and respect for the office have gone straight out the window. The office of the president needs to be respected by everyone in the U.S., including those who disagree with the president’s policies.
The Republicans aren’t the only ones who have given President Obama a hard time. Members of the minority communities, including Blacks, have attacked him for not doing more about police brutality. But the president has been outspoken about the need for change – which has to start at the local level.
I, too, was sometimes criticized for not doing enough for the Black community during my 12 years in office, even though I was the first mayor to seriously include minority and women businesses in city projects. That move was criticized by larger, established businesses that now had to share a piece of the pie. And if anyone who I had known since I grew up in Denver got a city job, suddenly “cronyism” popped up in headlines.
My administration also had the most integrated staff in the history of Denver; so many that the press got bored reporting about the first Black judge in Colorado, the first Black fire chief, the first female director of public safety, the first openly gay administrator and many others.
I first met Obama when as an Illinois state senator he decided to run for an open U.S. senate seat in 2003. As mayor I hosted a fundraiser for him at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Denver.
Five years later, before he was elected president in 2008, my wife, Wilma and I saw him and Michelle at a fundraiser in Honolulu after the Democratic primary. Then he visited Denver for another event and he walked fast purposefully shaking enough hands to make the handshakes on the rope line meaningful. When the future president stopped to shake my hand, I held him and said, “I know you lost your father when you were young but you just remember every Black man of my generation will stand in for him and we have your back.”
Obama continued to walk further down the rope line about 10 people and perhaps reflecting on what I had said to him, he then turned and came back and he shook my hand again and put his hand on my shoulder with brief pause before heading back down the line. That is a special moment I don’t think either of us will forget.
I believe that when the political dust settles and we look back on Obama’s eight-year presidency historians will look at his accomplishments and place him among the top 10 American presidents.
Being “first” isn’t always easy but we are a country where trailblazers should be celebrated.
I’m proud that eight years after I left office the city elected another Black mayor. And when Michael Hancock ran for office the question I heard whispered never even came up. “Can an African American govern as mayor?” I had already answered those doubters. And I believe Obama has answered his doubters as well..
Editor’s note: Wellington Webb served as Denver’s first African American mayor from 1991-2003. He is the only mayor to be elected president to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Conference of Black Mayors and the National Conference of Democratic Mayors.