THE city's population is 80 percent white, but on June 18 Denver will choose its first black mayor in an election unmarred by racial prejudice. Both candidates in the runoff, District Attorney Norm Early and City Auditor Wellington Webb, are black liberal Democrats.
The election is expected to be close. Mr. Early won 41 percent of the May 21 vote; Mr. Webb took 29 percent of the vote, beating Republican Don Bain, who is white.
Since Early did not capture over 50 percent of the vote, a runoff is required.
Mayor Federico Pena has decided not to run for a third term.
Early is a capable speaker, a charmer who has a reputation not only for fighting crime but also for building consensus.
According to political media consultant Eric Sondermann, the district attorney appears to have a lock on those voters who benefitted the most from Mayor Pena's administration - not only the Hispanic community (representing approximately 12 percent of the vote), but the downtown business sector as well.
Mr. Webb lept out of relative obscurity to take the edge over Mr. Bain in the May vote. With a small campaign budget and very little TV coverage, Webb hit the neighborhoods by foot, criss-crossing the city three times in 21 days.
Webb has secured Bain's endorsement. While, Denver voters are seldom swayed by endorsements, they also have a history of backing the underdog. Pena snapped up the last two elections after trailing strong front runners.
Political pollster Floyd Ciruli points out that Denver boasts a strong mayoral government. What happens in Denver affects most of the rest of the state; the mayor often acts as the spokesman on most regional issues.
What remains to be seen is how the two candidates will distinguish themselves and their views from each other.
``The first challenge will be to try to generate some additional interest in the race,'' says Mr. Ciruli. ``It's difficult to perceive what issue might drive this race as far as city policy, though there are issues of personality.
``Webb will be saying `I'm the candidate of the little people,' '' Ciruli says. ``The fact that he has very little money he has turned to an advantage. He moved up dramatically - 10 percent in my late polls.''
Early's expensive TV adds, on the other hand, yielded him very little - an additional 1 percent to 2 percent of the vote. Webb also carried the most liberal white area in town.
With Bain's endorsement and his own fiscal-responsibility stance, Webb may have made inroads with the crucial white conservative votes that went initially to the Republican.
Webb points to his record of fighting for the arts, for a professional baseball team, and for the new airport - a huge project involving hundreds of millions of dollars.
``The big difference between us,'' says Webb, ``is in managerial experience. I have been the regional director of Health, Education, and Welfare, with 2,000 employees, administering a budget of $4 million. I am auditor of the City and County of Denver. I was executive director of Gov.[Richard] Lamm's health-care programs, and state representative for three terms.
``I have a more varied political background. I can hit the ground running from day one because I've already been an integral part of city government,'' he says.
Denver has undertaken several big-ticket operations under Mayor Pena to cure its economic doldrums, including a new convention center, massive reconstruction of the central library, and the largest civic enterprise in the country, a new international airport.
Webb has made a concerted effort to take a go-slow attitude toward these and future financial obligations.
Denver faces a $59 million budget deficit for the new fiscal year.
``This is a huge debt,'' Webb says, ``and a huge challenge. I believe it is important to manage the amount of debt we are in and to cut up the municipal credit card.''
Both Webb and Early stress the importance of education - although the mayor's office has no direct jurisdiction over the public schools. Both believe court-ordered bussing is not working.
Webb proposes to file a friend-of-the-court brief explaining why busing is not working. Early says he will talk with the judge personally. Whether either action would have an influence on the busing decison, is unclear. But the two approaches seem to characterize the candidates' different styles.
Early emphasizes the value of relationships. ``I think I've managed an office that touches people's hearts and minds. I'm participatory and believe in the value of every individual. Managing the city means more than paying bills, it means motivating people, stimulating them, giving them a sense of a larger purpose. Everyone wants to feel their contribution is important and that's the kind of feeling I can bring.''
Early speaks eagerly of his ideas to stimulate jobs and recalls his efforts in developing a Denver Film Board to attract more filmmaking and resident film companies.
The district attorney's agenda includes enlisting a vast cadre of volunteers to assist in resolving reading and early childhood development problems among lower income families and to expand the big-brother/big-sister programs already in place.
He has already initiated a new ``I Have a Dream'' program based on the national organization's structure to help motivate high school kids to stay in school.
Early is, by his own estimation, a consensus builder, and several political observers say he will be able to maintain the coalition government Pena successfully established.
Some dirt has begun to fly. Webb's support of an auditor accused of tax fraud and other misconduct last year hit the local papers this week. Early's unfamiliarity with certain parts of the city has become an issue.
Whichever man is chosen, what seems to be clear in the minds of many local observers is that Denver has reached a ``high level of civility,'' in Ciruli's terms, in regard to race.
There were no hidden indicators of race prejudice among the voters, Ciruli says. For example, white democrats sometimes move into the undecided camp rather than tell a pollster they will vote for a white republican. That did not happen here.
Neither did any of the white candidates try to speak in racial code terms - such as coming out against a review of police brutality or opposing scattered sight housing of the poor, which has been a real issue here.
The high tone of this mayoral battle suggests that the candidates may have been too civil to engage in such tactics, but it also indicates that such a strategy would have been highly detrimental to anyone's campaign.