A Mile High Race for Mayor

Denver election offers early test of sentiment on affirmative-action laws

MAYOR Wellington Webb's trademark is his running shoes - something he wears even with pinstripe suits. He needs them more than ever as he gears up for a formidable challenge in today's runoff mayoral election.

His opponent, fellow Democrat Mary DeGroot, is a moderate liberal and a maverick reformer. Though the more liberal Mr. Webb holds a slight edge in polls, the race is expected to be close. If Ms. DeGroot were to prevail, she would become the first woman mayor of Denver, replacing Webb, the first black mayor. More than race or gender, though, analysts say the race will pivot on who voters believe is more likely to fix the city's woes.

"Big cities around the country have been entering their post-minority dominated eras," says Floyd Ciruli, who runs a Denver polling firm. "In most cases they [minority mayors] are being replaced by individuals who have much tougher management philosophies, are more fiscally conservative, and more skeptical of special interest groups."

The race will provide an early test of how the public views the volatile issue of affirmative action - expected to be a dominant topic in the 1996 elections.

DeGroot believes the idea of hiring practices based on race or gender is a dinosaur. She would rather support small-business develop-ment. Webb generally favors affirmative action.

The other issue is Webb himself, whom DeGroot charged with cronyism early on in the campaign for his appointment of friends and relatives. She distributed a booklet that detailed 64 examples of alleged corruption, such as questionable contracts during the construction of Denver International Airport.

"It's been a long time since we've had such blatant charges of cronyism in Denver - not since the Speer administration 60 years ago," says pollster Paul Talmey. "Not that there hasn't been some cronyism at times, but the charges are a little stronger and more prevalent of late."

In a prickly defense, Webb says DeGroot trashed his character to avoid discussing issues. He says he is the proven leader who got the airport and a number of other major civic projects completed. He says if reelected he will dismiss his staff and require everyone to reapply.

DeGroot's offensive worked in the May 2 nonpartisan general primary. She came out on top in a field of four, edging second-place Webb by 61 votes and forcing a runoff. But experts say her approach may not be strong enough to prevail today, when voters will rally for the one whose shoulders are large enough to carry the city into the next century.

DeGroot has been on the city council for eight years, but is untested in an executive position. Her support is strong in yuppie neighborhoods and with white males who like her anti-affirmative action stance. She wants to put many city services out for competitive bidding.

"She's got city employees absolutely apoplectic," says Mr. Ciruli.

Webb has the backing of most of the other council members and some of Denver's business elite.

Even if votes were to come in along racial lines, Denver does not have enough blacks to guarantee Webb another four years.

His great hope is the Hispanic community, which was noticeably absent in the general election, but may have more presence today because a Hispanic male is running against a white female for auditor in another citywide runoff.

Ciruli said it will be the undecided voters who will give the victory to DeGroot. "As a rule of thumb, they almost always vote against the incumbent," he says.

Buie Seawell, professor of government at the University of Colorado, says the negative tone and emphasis on personalities rather than issues have turned off a lot of the voters who may be key for Webb to win. "There has been no issue in this race except whether you like or dislike the candidates," Mr. Seawell says. "A vote for DeGroot in most cases is simply a vote against Webb."

"It's so frustrating because the issues in our cities are so substantial, and we need to be electing strong mayors," Seawell says.

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