COVER STORY | The shoe-leather statesman: Wellington Webb assesses 5 decades in politics
Author: Ernest Luning - July 18, 2018 - Updated: July 26, 2018
Wellington Webb stands in the shade on the sidewalk at Commons Park along the South Platte River behind Denver Union Station, joggers loping by on the paths, cars nosing their way toward parking, as a young couple at the base of the distinctive Denver Millennium Bridge across the street calls out and waves.
“Mayor! Mayor!” they say, bursting with smiles.
Webb nods and waves back, returning the smiles, and then turns his gaze to the park — part of more than 2,000 acres of new parks and open space created in the city during his 12 years as mayor — and then hooks his thumb over his shoulder.
“This is a special place for me,” says Webb, Denver’s first African-American mayor, serving three terms beginning in 1991. “Union Station, that’s where I arrived on a train from Chicago, when I was a kid, an asthmatic, 97-pound weakling.” He laughs and shrugs, then spreads his arms wide toward the park. “And here I am, all these years later, all 270 pounds of me, and there’s this park — Denver’s past, Denver’s future.”
Commons Park, a several-block stretch of landscaped greenery, hugs the river not far from the city’s redeveloped transit hub on the site of the old railroad station, with a forest of gleaming new buildings sprung up between them. It’s the result of a land swap Webb recalled engineering over drinks.
Denver, it turned out, owned undeveloped land behind Union Station, and a developer owned some rough land along the river. Webb says he proposed that, since one was more suited to buildings and the other to a park, why not trade them so both projects could get started?
It was one of a series of reminiscences that came up in Colorado Politics’ conversation with Webb that involved getting interested parties to the table and coming to terms.
It’s also what he does these days running Webb Group International, the Denver-based public affairs consulting firm he launched soon after leaving office in 2003.
The recent afternoon we spent with Webb began over lunch at one of his favorite restaurants, the Welton Street Café, next to the RTD light rail stop in Five Points, and included a drive through his stomping grounds northeast of downtown near Manual High School.
Webb — at 77 one of the Colorado Democratic Party’s elder statesmen — assessed a career in politics that’s spanned five decades and taken him around the world. It’s involved meeting presidents, prime ministers and the pope — all while, he said, working to make life better for the little guy.
Through it all, Webb traces a thread: Politicians identify problems and then set about solving them, but they’ve always got to keep their constituents foremost in mind, because there’s always someone else circling, ready to try to meet their needs.
“When people don’t see you fighting for them, then someone fills that power vacuum, and they tend to be the extreme on the other side,” Webb said.
National Democrats, for instance, left the door open for a Trump administration but now have the chance to take back the reins in the next election — no easy task amid the vitriol and anger that threaten to swamp the political conversation.
“There’s always another generation coming,” he added. “No matter how good you are, there’s always someone coming to see how good you are, to try to knock you off the throne.”
It’s a maxim he demonstrated nearly three decades ago, when he turned a 28-percentage-point deficit in opinion polls into a 14-point win in the 1991 mayoral campaign that still stands as the Colorado example of an underdog prevailing based on confidence, determination and shoe leather. (The latter is no metaphor, as Webb secured his legendary win by wearing out pairs of size 13 New Balance sneakers, including a pair since enshrined at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.)
“I have not ventured more than 40 blocks from the same neighborhood,” Webb told Colorado Politics with a laugh, and then ticked off the addresses of the side-by-side bungalows his grandmother, Helen Gamble, owned on Williams Street, and Manual High School, where he was a basketball star, just four blocks away, and the house where his wife of 45 years, Wilma Webb, grew up, a few blocks from there.
The Webbs live at 23rd and Gaylord these days, he added, just a few blocks from the corner grocery store where he worked as a teenager, before he got his second job as a shelver at Denver Public Library.
“I always tell people, you should always treat the shelvers correctly, because you never know when one might grow up to be mayor.”
‘I try to be unpredictable’
His political ascent began not far from there, as the 1970s dawned, at King Trimble’s law offices on Broadway. Webb and a handful of ambitious black men in their late 20s and early 30s would meet there every Saturday morning, he said, to talk about how they wanted to make a difference.
“That’s why I laugh at some of these people calling themselves progressives these days, because they’re no more progressive than we were at the same age,” Webb said with a smile. “We wanted to take on the establishment, and then became part of the establishment.”
The group included Trimble, who wanted to run for Congress — he would later serve in the Legislature and on Denver’s city council — and Norm Early, who wanted to be district attorney — he reached that goal but then lost a race for mayor to Webb — and Raymond Jones, who wanted to be a justice on the Colorado Supreme Court but wound up on the Colorado Court of Appeals, and Dan Muse, who Webb said wanted to work in a support role and later sat on Colorado’s Public Utilities Commission and was appointed by Webb as Denver’s city attorney, the first African-American in either position.
Webb recalled he wanted to run for state representative, and that’s where the group decided to concentrate its initial efforts.
“I came out of a triangle of support. The five of us, we all got behind me for the first go-around. We also got a lot of young people involved,” including students who knew Webb from the University of Colorado Denver, where he’d been a counselor and taught black history.
“The third part of the triangle was my grandmother,” he said. “She learned her politics in Chicago, where you knew everybody in the precinct, you called everybody by their first name, you knew who their parents were. She got me elected committeeman and then she fired me, which was illegal — I didn’t know you couldn’t do that — because I didn’t know everybody in the precinct. She tested me, and I failed. She took that real serious.”
With that support, Webb cleared the field and won the first of three terms in the House in 1972.
“I was humbled by the fact that someone would support this kid who graduated from Manual and grew upon the neighborhood and was elected to office — I was awed by that,” he said.
“For me, I had exceeded expectations for everybody except my grandmother. There’s a couple of old sayings in the black community. For little kids who are really smart, they say, ‘He’s been here before.’ The other one is, ‘Once he levels out, he’s going to be fine. Hell of a time getting him to level out, but once he gets to that point. …”
Representing northeast Denver’s House District 8, Webb had leveled out.
Among a cadre of ambitious, progressive lawmakers — including a few Republicans — Webb set about sponsoring a flurry of groundbreaking pieces of legislation. “I was ahead of my time,” he said. “And I’m not trying to be boastful about it. But I think the record would reflect that, if you look at some of the bills as early as I introduced them.”
Among his bills: a resolution to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday, sparking a legislative battle eventually won a decade later by his wife, Wilma, after she’d taken over his House seat (following a few years when Trimble occupied it.)
Another bill prohibited discriminating on the basis of marital status when granting credit, and a bipartisan package prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. Another provided for compensating people for the time they were incarcerated if their convictions were thrown out, and another prohibited discrimination based on physical handicap.
The most controversial bill, Webb said, established a registry for adopted children and their parents who wanted to find each other. (“It was the first time I received hate mail and death threats — people were saying I was trying to take their kids away from them,” he recalled. “We had to move the hearing to the floor of the House, so many people showed up for that.” There was also a bill to require insurance companies to cover complications due to pregnancy, and a bill to mandate that insurance companies provide treatment for alcoholism.
“The reason I ran is I wanted to make a difference in the lives of everyday people, the underdog, the one that doesn’t have a chance. When I looked at some of the old issues I campaigned on, they’re still pretty relevant today: Affordable housing, employment opportunities, taking on the special interests,” he said.
It’s one reason Webb said he makes a point these days of mentoring young politicians, sometimes even identifying them and encouraging them before they’re politicians.
“I try to do my work supporting young people I know have good character and good values, going to fight for the little man and fight for the forgotten and fight for the disenfranchised, that will stand up and be counted fighting for clean air, fighting for clean water, a lot of that stuff sometimes we take for granted,” he said.
That’s how he became state Rep. Brittany Pettersen’s earliest supporter, when a conversation with the Lakewood Democrat a decade ago when she was waiting tables at a restaurant led to his recommending her for a job with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s campaign, which launched her political career.
“She’s like a lot of other young people,” Webb said. “They just need a damn break. Some people need a little help from someone that’s unexpected, that can give you a helping hand along the way.”
This election cycle, Webb noted, 17 of the 18 candidates he endorsed won their primaries (the exception being Mike Johnston for governor), including two candidates for open state Senate seats, Julie Gonzales and Robert Rodriguez, and one for an open state House seat, Emily Sirota — even though his support for Sirota caught some observers by surprise.
“I try to be unpredictable, in terms of not setting a pattern. Most of them were considered establishment, but I went with Emily Sirota, and some people said to me afterwards, ‘They were Sanders people!’ I endorse Sanders people, Clinton people. I endorse people who I think will stand up and fight for the common person. That is what has always driven me.”
A close shave in 1995
Early in his third term in the House, Webb won an appointment in the Carter administration as regional director for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and later took over as director of Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies under Gov. Dick Lamm.
After Lamm’s third term ended — before the advent of term limits — Webb was elected to a term as Denver’s auditor, a tenure that included padlocking the Denver Broncos’ practice facility to encourage the team to pay some taxes that had long gone uncollected by the city.
When then-Mayor Federico Peña announced unexpectedly that he wouldn’t seek another term, Webb weighed jumping in against his old friend Norm Early, by then the district attorney and the prohibitive frontrunner, and GOP attorney Don Bain, the runner-up in the previous election.
According to their pollster, Early had support across the board, but Webb’s was “more narrow — but way deep and stronger.” That was enough for Wilma. “She was like, ‘It’s an uphill battle, what have we got to lose?’ So we said, OK, let’s run, let’s take a shot at it.”
Early had The Denver Post, members of Peña’s cabinet and the 17th Street power brokers behind him. But Webb had his family, including his wife’s legislative base, a brother on the police force and a son who could introduce him to the gay community.
Webb said the night of the primary, when he hit 30 percent — ahead of Bain’s 27 percent — and secured a spot in the runoff against Early was the only time he’s cried in an election. “It’s like sports,” he said. “You know you can beat them one-on-one. I knew I could beat Norm Early, I knew I could beat Don Bain. But I wasn’t sure I’d have the chance.”
He started out with a steep deficit, but mile by mile, things began to change.
“People got so tired of hearing that ‘Rocky’ theme song, because we played it everywhere we went on boomboxes,” Webb said with a laugh. “We loved for it to rain, because if it rained, we’d call the TV stations, and they’d come out and see us walking in the rain.”
It wasn’t just walking, though.
“People came out of the first debate and said, ‘I thought Norm was going to kill you, because he’s a litigator,’” Webb said. “And I said, ‘I grew up on 32nd and Williams, I’ve been litigating all my life! That’s what we do to stay alive. That’s how we make it to the next level. We didn’t go to law school to learn litigation.”
But he did go to Sunday school, or its equivalent, every chance he got.
“I found out Catholic churches had services on Saturday, which was a blessing. So I’d hit all the Catholic services on Saturday. I didn’t know until the election was over that if you weren’t Catholic, you weren’t supposed to take communion. I took communion everywhere I went. I was the most holy, blessed man in the country,” he said with a smile. “I’d take communion at the Catholic church on Saturday, then be blessed at the Baptist church on Sunday, then I’d wear the yarmulke at the Jewish ceremony, then I’d go to the Greeks and we’d dance around with the handkerchief.”
In the end, it wasn’t even close. Webb hailed his 57-43 point win as “a victory of shoe leather over airwaves.”
Webb’s early years as mayor were marked with difficulties and controversy — key among the opening of Denver International Airport, begun under Peña, which was delayed more than a year by problems with its baggage system as costs ballooned more than $2 billion over budget. But he also oversaw development of the Central Platte Valley and the transformation of Lower Downtown anchored by Coors Field, as well as other civic improvements.
In Webb’s first bid for re-election as mayor in 1995, he was forced into a runoff when he finished 97 votes behind Councilwoman Mary DeGroot in the four-candidate general election, with no one getting 50 percent or more of the vote. DeGroot — whom the Post and former Rocky Mountain News endorsed — had accused him of favoring relatives and backers in hiring and contracts. But Webb campaigned furiously across the city, and defeated DeGroot in the runoff election by eight percentage points.
In his 2007 autobiography, “Wellington Webb: The Man, the Mayor and the Making of Modern Denver,” co-written by former Denver Post reporter Cindy Brovsky, Webb denounced his critics.
“After living in Denver for my entire adult life, I hired competent people whom I trusted and admired; the media called that cronyism,” he wrote. “When Mayor (John) Hickenlooper appointed some longtime friends to cabinet positions, they were referred to as his ‘brain trust.’ This is just one example of what minority politicians face.”
In 1999, with the economy surging, Webb cruised to victory for a third term, capturing 81 percent of the vote against three opponents.
Veteran Democratic pollster and consultant Floyd Ciruli told Colorado Politics that the disputes surrounding Webb’s administration have faded over the years.
“The reason Denver isn’t a Cleveland or St. Louis or Detroit — a city that absolutely struggles — is we had a series of mayors who exceeded expectations and moved the city along,” Ciruli said. “Webb definitely pushed this city along to where it is today — one of the fastest-growing, strongest economies in the country. I put him in that pantheon of really great mayors this city has had.”
Webb took a long view.
“For me, being elected mayor is so far out of the expectation of taking a kid that was born in Chicago, asthmatic and skinny to the degree he could’ve made a magazine commercial, the 98-pound weakling, that was sent to Denver to try to save his life from the pollen and ragweed and all that, that had difficulty in school not because the work was difficult but because he just didn’t go to class, his interest was somewhere else,” Webb said of himself.
“Then to see that person come full circle, that might not have said a hundred words in high school, to then win debate on statewide television for the highest office in the city, is really a Horatio Alger story. We were driven by the fact that I said we can’t fail, but we’re going to do it our way.”
‘I did everything I could’
Webb said he’s still a believer in a walking campaign — and the power of face-to-face campaigning — but only in races he called “scalable.”
“If you’re running against Jared Polis, who’s putting 11, 12 million dollars into a primary, you can’t do that,” he said.
Polis defeated Johnston, the one candidate Webb endorsed who lost in a primary this cycle. Still, Webb said he’s confident that Polis, a five-term congressman from Boulder and the Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee, will beat Republican Walker Stapleton.
“I think Polis is not as liberal as some people perceive him to be; he’s a little more libertarian than many people think, and he’ll be moderated by the time the election comes around. I don’t know how Stapleton moves to the middle, given how far right he’s gone,” Webb said, adding that he’s also rooting for Polis because of the powerful symbolism of becoming the state’s first openly gay and Jewish governor, particularly in these divisive political times.
“I do believe we’re in pretty much a second Reconstruction era in American history,” Webb said, comparing the Republicans in power nationally to politicians who sought to reverse the aftermath of the Civil War.
“(President Donald) Trump has got everybody locked into this identity politics on the visible side,” Webb said, shaking his head. “On the non-visible side, he’s loosening regulation, he’s appointing judges at every level, and he’s making changes to the way the government operates from a right-wing, conservative point of view. The Democrats in D.C., I don’t even know what the program is, what the message is.”
He said he was encouraged by the apparent enthusiasm Trump’s administration had excited among Democrats and others unhappy with the regime.
“I applaud all of the groups protesting,” Webb said. “But one protest would take away the need for all those protests — if all the people protesting that didn’t vote showed up and voted on Election Day, and voted for people of good will, they wouldn’t have to have these protests.”
Then he stopped to consider how the political climate in 2018 stacks up against years he can remember, when the country seemed as divided.
“If there’s any one thing I underestimated, it’s the antagonism toward Obama being elected president and how it frightened some people about their condition in America, about where they are on the scale, whether at least they’re better than somebody here — their status,” he said. Describing last year’s riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, Webb narrowed his eyes and looked down.
“To me, that wasn’t America, that was something you’d see in a movie about Nazi Germany in 1938, 1939. If we don’t get a sense of trying to restore the goodness of the country and the civility of the country, where people can be civil, even if you disagree on issues,” he said, leaving the thought unfinished.
But then the smile returned to Webb’s face. He nodded.
“It’s about, when you transition to the hereafter, you can look back and say, with the time that God gave me, I did everything I could to make this place a better world.”