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‘Political lynching’: Leading black Democrats scold party for stance on Rep. Melton

Author: Marianne Goodland - October 11, 2018 - Updated: October 12, 2018

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Members of Denver’s African-American community spoke out Thursday against the state party and the Colorado House Democratic leadership for a rush to judgment over Rep. Jovan Melton. Photo by Marianne Goodland.

As calls mount from both the left and the right for Democratic state Rep. Jovan Melton to step down from his House District 41 seat in Aurora, supporters, including former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, argued Thursday that a double standard is being applied to Melton by the leadership of the Democratic-controlled Colorado House and the Colorado Democratic Party chair, Morgan Carroll.

At a Thursday press conference in Denver’s Five Points, Webb and his wife, former Denver first lady and former state Rep. Wilma Webb, along with current members of the House and several representatives from the African-American faith community called out the leadership of the Democratic Party as well as the Democratic leadership in the state House for what the former mayor called a “Jim Crow system of justice” and a “political lynching” of Melton.

And while they didn’t go so far as to tell African American voters not to vote in three weeks, they said they are tired of being used by the Democratic Party, which they said has turned on an African-American leader over a domestic violence charge for which he was tried and served his sentence nearly 20 years ago.

In “their urgency to rush to judgment, they’ve created a double standard,” Mayor Webb said of Democratic leaders. “We are not here to retry the Melton case. It was adjudicated 20 years ago.”

> RELATED: Democratic leaders call on legislator Jovan Melton to resign; alleged victim speaks out

He called the Democratic House leadership hypocritical for calling on Melton to resign when they did not do the same in three other instances in the previous two years.

Webb cited the sexual harassment allegations made against Rep. Paul Rosenthal of Denver, complaints that House Speaker Crisanta Duran dismissed because those alleged incidents took place before Rosenthal was a lawmaker.

Webb also pointed to the DUI arrest of Democratic Rep. Dan Pabon of Denver last year, noting Pabon was not asked to resign. The third incident cited by Webb was Duran’s promotion of former Rep. Steve Lebsock of Thornton as chair of a House committee when she knew he had been accused of sexual misconduct. Lebsock was expelled by the House last March.

> RELATED: Amid report of domestic-violence arrests, Colo. lawmaker apologizes, but denies violence

Duran and other Democratic leaders, both from the House and from the state party, have called on Melton to resign in the wake of news that he had been involved in two domestic violence incidents.

In the first, he was convicted of a harassment charge when he was a 20-year-old student at the University of Colorado Boulder, in 1999. He was given a 12-month deferred sentence and placed under a permanent restraining order that is still in effect.

In the second incident, Melton and his then-girlfriend were involved in a car accident in 2008 and he was arrested for assault. However, the girlfriend — now Melton’s wife — told Colorado Politics Wednesday that the incident smacked of racial bias and that Melton never touched her. The charge was later dismissed.

“We emphasize and support women in domestic violence relationships,” Wellington Webb said. “We do not minimize that. But two wrongs do not make a right.”

> RELATED: The shoe-leather statesman: Wellington Webb assesses 5 decades in politics

Bishop Acen Phillips, also at Thursday’s press conference, said he found it appalling that “our own party” would turn on an African American leader. Melton accepted his punishment 20 years ago and started over, he said. “Nobody should be subject to double jeopardy. Is it because he is young, black and successful?” Phillips asked.

“This is a 21st-century lynching of a black man. It should never have happened and we are appalled by it,” he added, calling on the Democratic Party leadership to apologize to Melton and then to resign themselves.

It’s a very sad and sorry time, said Superintendent Patrick Demmer of the Church of God in Christ in Commerce City. Demmer said he had reached out to Carroll to urge her not to rush to judgment, but said his pleas “fell on deaf ears.”

At a time so critical, less than a month from the midterm elections, “why would the leadership of our Democratic Party want to so totally and blatantly disrespect the African American community? Why would you treat him this way?”

“I’m not urging African Americans to stay home,” Demmer said. “We must vote. But I don’t like it.”

The recent actions against Melton are unwarranted, said Wilma Webb, adding that he has already paid the penalties assigned by the courts. Melton has done nothing to justify his leaving the House or to seek re-election, and the House leadership should rescind any suggestion that Melton leave the legislature, she said.

Another speaker, Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton, said he had implored Duran not to rush to judgment. “The judicial system worked the way it was supposed to” in 1999, with a sentence agreed to by the prosecutor and the victim, he said.

He called the House Democratic leadership’s actions a “continuation of a system of racism” through continued stigmatizing Melton. “If you think you can supplant your version of justice with that of the courts, we have a larger problem.”

Salazar said Melton has stood with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and worked on legislation in those areas. “That’s the redemption I’m talking about,” Salazar said.

“Be careful of glass houses,” he warned the Democratic leaders. “Who knows what’s in their backgrounds?”

“The Democratic Party comes to our community and asks for our votes,” added community activist Alvertis Simmons. “Now they want to turn on [Melton]. We stand with Jovan because he stands with us.”

Demmer later told Colorado Politics he had a long conversation with Carroll, whom he considers a friend, shortly after she became chair. In that conversation, he said he told her the African-American vote had been taken for granted for years by the Democratic Party, including in the 2016 election. He said she pledged to make a greater effort to ensure the African-American community would not feel overlooked.

“That’s a mistake,” Demmer said. If the party keeps treating the African American voters like “we have nowhere else to go, we may not vote Republican, we may not vote at all, or we may vote independent because independents are being treated with a greater sense of respect. We’re not going to sit there and let our people get hurt.”

Rep. Leslie Herod, who spoke in Melton’s defense on a Facebook Live event Wednesday, was not present at the press conference but told Colorado Politics she fully supports Melton.

Thursday evening, a statement from Duran, House Majority Leader KC Becker of Boulder and Assistant House Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver said that the decision to ask Melton to step down was a difficult one. “While we understand that the criminal justice system has not worked for far too many people of color and survivors, race didn’t play a role in the decision making.” They did not address why they did not seek immediate resignations from the three other lawmakers.

The Colorado Democratic Party had no comment.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.