Editor’s note: Former Denver First Lady Wilma J. Webb’s latest project is commissioning a sculpture of her husband, Wellington E. Webb, Denver’s first African American mayor who served 12 years from 1991 to 2003. The sculpture, also supported by Mayor Michael Hancock, will be placed in the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building to educate visitors about the city’s 42nd mayor. This month, we highlight their three terms as mayor and First Lady. Below is an edited excerpt from his autobiography, “The Man, the Mayor and the Making of Denver.”
My first term was consumed with finishing 85 percent of Denver International Airport and getting it opened before May 1995. The four delayed openings, the botched baggage system, and the bogus investigations clouded everything we did those first four years.
But we had many other accomplishments in that first term. Among the highlights was revitalizing downtown Denver with a Denver Economic Summit to promote new residential options, then the retail came. We created the Denver Healthy Authority, which helped save Denver Health Medical Center (formerly Denver General) from financial ruin. We successfully hosted Pope John Paul II and more than 200,000 visitors for “World Youth Day.”
Wilma was the most active First Lady in the city’s history. Her work as chairperson of the Mayor’s Commission on Art, Culture, and Film included delivering major art pieces for the city, including Ed Dwight’s “I Have A Dream” sculpture for Denver City Park, Botero’s “Man and Woman” and Jonathan Borofsky’s “The Dancers,” both at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and murals at DIA.
We also had to address many challenges, including gang violence during the so-called “summer of violence” in 1993; the Ku Klux Klan disturbances on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Holiday; and a conflict between Italians and Native Americans over Columbus Day.
Liberals and conservatives alike were telling me to stop the gang violence.
“He was very upset when we saw the blood in the street,” said Charlotte Stephens, who ran a new city program called Safe City. “Wellington was angry. He said he was going to chase these fools out of Denver.”
We began programs to offer youth summer jobs and the Mile High Scholars that lauded Denver Public Schools students. We blocked the KKK from getting a permit to protest during the MLK parade because community activists LeRoy Lemos, John McBride, Alvertis Simmons, Julia Gayles, and Carlos Guerra stood in line for 30 days to get the permit.
I was fortunate to have Wilma by my side and many, many dedicated employees to finally get the new airport open. I felt like General Patton watching city workers move 100 aircraft, 13,000 vehicles, and 6,000 rental cars from Stapleton International Airport to DIA overnight without any interruption in airline service. The airport opened on Feb. 28, 1995, but I still faced a tough election for my second term.
During the 1995 reelection campaign, political consultant Jim Monaghan addressed our weaknesses with the press. My best decision was hiring Denver native Andrew Hudson, a Manual High School graduate who had worked as a deputy press secretary for U.S. Senator Tim Wirth and spokesman for the Regional Transportation District.
City Councilwoman Mary DeGroot ran against me in the 1995 race, along with City Auditor Bob Crider and attorney John Frew. DeGroot unfairly threw out words like cronyism and corruption.
I ended up with 42.7 percent of the votes and she got 42.8 in the May election, which meant we had a runoff campaign. I had to shake off all of my concerns of being a 6-foot-4 Black man going head-to-head with a white female candidate. The gloves came off.
Our supporters were not complacent in the runoff. I got 66,884 votes to DeGroot’s 56,725 votes.
Among my main projects during my second term was replacing abandoned, trash filled areas along the South Platte River with a series of parks, including Commons Park and Confluence Park; hosting world leaders for the Summit of the Eight; and the redevelopment of the former Lowry Air Force Base and Stapleton Airport into neighborhoods, including the development of 50 parks on 1,100 acres at Stapleton before homes were built. At the same time, I successfully battled prostate cancer.
I also started a new program called “First Tuesday” where ordinary residents could visit with me from 5 to 7 p.m. Rich people always have access to government through lobbyists but poor people often are shut out. These meetings alerted me to such issues as the need to remove radium from a defunct chemical company and a homeless family in need of help. We got one young man scholarship money to Howard University.
I declared 1998 the “Year of the Neighborhood” and we passed a $98 million bond. The projects included improvements at parks, recreation centers and police stations citywide. I also leased a vacant city building adjacent to the Denver City and County Building for $1 a year for 30 years to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless where they provided 100 apartments to their clients.
During my last eight years, the Denver Central Library addition was completed; improvements were done to the Denver Zoo, Red Rocks and Denver Auditorium; and a new wing was built on the Denver Art Museum.
Wilma also raised $1 million for a new Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sculpture at City Park. Shortly before we left office, the $16 million Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in the historic Five Point neighborhood, which Wilma and I founded and designed, opened.
I won a third term easily in 1999 with 81 percent of the votes, but that was a rough year for our city and our state. On April 20, 1999, I was hosting the National Conference of Black Mayors Convention in Denver when we learned two Columbine High School students killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher before killing themselves. Twenty-four students were injured, some paralyzed.
The National Rifle Association was scheduled to come to Denver in a few weeks after the shooting and I urged them not to come. When the NRA showed up, we had hundreds of protesters in downtown Denver, including some of the parents who lost children at Columbine.
During my last term my administration also turned to the private sector of a joint partnership to build the 1,100 Hyatt Regency near the Colorado Convention Center; and made a lease agreement with Intrawest to keep ownership of Winter Park.
We also built a new city building, a project City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt oversaw. She told the contractor, Hensel Phelps, that the building would be called the Civic Center Office Building, which they had sewn on their jackets. However, City Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, other council members and members of my staff wanted to name the building in my honor.
Our lobbyist, Phil Workman, informed us that in order to do that we had to change a city ordinance that allowed city property to be named for someone only after their death. We also needed to get an ordinance supporting naming it in my honor. I liked the name of the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building because most agencies would be dealing with municipal needs.
Elbra led the fight, the two ordinances passed by a 10-3 vote, and the rest is history.
But one thing we neglected to do was to install information in the building to explain: “Who is Wellington Webb?” That’s when Wilma decided to spearhead the project to get a statue along with a plague explaining our accomplishments.
What that statue represents is all of the work we did together with the help of our family, our friends, our supporters, and the people of Denver. I hope it also shows younger generations that if you have a dream, believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you, anything is possible.
Editor’s note: For more information or how you can be involved, call Webb Group International at 303-893-9322 or email Admin@webbgroupintl.com.