Webb, Wellington 1941–
Wellington Webb 1941–
Mayor of Denver
Wellington Webb likes to joke that he is the first mayor of Denver with a mustache. The joke is apt, because race was not a factor when Webb became Denver’s mayor in 1991. In a city where blacks make up only 12 percent of the total population, Webb beat not only six white candidates for the mayor’s position, but another popular black contender as well. He is the first black man to run a city government that was once in the firm grip of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan.
Webb is one of the most noticeable of a handful of black leaders who have been elected to run predominantly white, large cities. Observers such as Dr. Linda Williams of Harvard University see this phenomenon as part of a trend toward a day when a non-prejudiced electorate will chose leaders on the basis of skills and platforms, not ethnicity or religious creed. “America is viewed worldwide as a better, fairer society because of the improvement in civil rights and the election of Blacks to important offices, especially big-city mayoralties,” Williams pointed out in Ebony. As a former state representative from Denver and the city’s current mayor, Webb is in a position to advance the theory that race should have no bearing on an individual’s political career.
Los Angeles Times correspondent Brad Smith observed: “At a time when racial tension appears to be rising in many U.S. cities, Denver appears to be an anomaly: a city in which racial issues have played little part in local politics.” This was not always the case in the “Mile-High City.” During the 1920s, Denver was a bastion of the Ku Klux Klan, and much of the city’s leadership was drawn from the ranks of that organization. In those days, however, the black population of Denver was very small; much of the Klan’s hatred was aimed at Catholics and Jews.
Economic opportunities during World War II brought more blacks and Hispanics to Denver, and by that time the Klan’s domination of city politics had eased. Those blacks who came to Denver during the war were able to find good jobs and hold them even when the war ended. In the early 1990s, according to Smith, “the city’s blacks… [were] primarily middle-income, prompting one national black leader in the ’80s to call Denver an ‘island of Black affluence.’”
Wellington Webb was born on February 17, 1941, in
At a Glance…
Born Wellington Edward Webb, February 17, 1941, in Chicago, IL; son of Wellington M. Webb and Mardina Webb Devereaux; married Wilma J. Gerdine (a state representative); children: (first marriage) Anthony, Allen; (second marriage; stepchildren) Keith, Stephanie. Education: Received B.A. from Colorado State College, 1964, and M.A. from University of Northern Colorado.
Educator and worker for social agencies in Denver, CO, prior to 1973; Colorado state legislature, representative from Denver, 1973-77; U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, regional director, 1977-81; Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, director, 1981-87; city auditor, City of Denver, 1987-91; mayor of Denver, 1991—.
Addresses: Office —Office of the Mayor, 1437 Bannock St., Denver, CO 80202.
Chicago, Illinois, on the city’s South Side. From his earliest years, Webb suffered from the breathing disorder asthma. The condition became so severe that his parents decided to send him to Denver to live with his grandmother, hoping that the mountain air would improve his condition. His health did benefit, and throughout middle school and high school, he excelled in athletics—especially basketball.
Webb recalled in the Rocky Mountain News that his grandmother was the biggest influence on his life: “She taught [me] that education wasn’t valuable just because it helps you get a job, but because it’s good for you as a person.” As a teenager Webb decided he wanted to become a schoolteacher. “My belief was that as a male role model, having grown up in the community, I could return and give something back to it,” he explained in the same article.
Webb chose another career path—in politics—however, when he was turned down for a job in the Denver public schools. He had earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Colorado State College on an athletic scholarship, and he wanted a position where he could teach and coach at the same time. He was told that it could take 20 years for a coaching spot to open, and he failed to land a teaching contract. “I had done everything by the books, but I didn’t know I was supposed to play these games,” he was quoted as saying in the Rocky Mountain News.
Webb’s grandmother, active in Democratic politics in Denver, urged Webb to see the mayor about the situation and paved the way with a few phone calls. Webb kept his appointment with Mayor Tom Currigan, and two days later he got his teaching contract, which he subsequently turned down. “I told them I would rather make less and work harder for 12 months where they felt they really wanted me.”
Entered the Political Ring
With that in mind, Webb spent the late 1960s working toward his master’s degree and holding a series of social service jobs, including teaching emotionally disturbed children and counseling welfare clients. Webb’s wife, State Representative Wilma Webb, told an Ebony correspondent: “I don’t believe I looked to politics as something of ‘I dream of a political career.’ I don’t believe Wellington did. But I think that the issues placed both of us in it, and it just developed. Wellington’s first involvement with politics was with the model cities program. My first involvement was with Denver public schools…. We were both activists in our own rights.”
In 1972 Webb ran for state representative from northeast Denver. “That first election was probably the proudest of my life,” he declared in the Rocky Mountain News. Webb served in the Colorado state legislature for four years, from 1973 to 1977, and became known for taking an independent stand when he differed with his fellow Democrats. He did not lose all favor with the party, though, and in 1976 was picked to head Colorado’s campaign to elect Jimmy Carter to the U.S. presidency. Carter rewarded Webb’s efforts by naming the Democrat from Denver the regional director of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In that position Webb presided over a $3 billion budget, affecting nearly 3,000 social service programs in six states.
When the Carter administration was voted out in 1980, Webb lost his job but was not idle for long. Colorado Governor Richard Lamm appointed him executive director of the State Department of Regulatory Agencies, making him the only black in the state cabinet. Webb oversaw 29 boards and commissions, including such important ones as the Public Utilities Commission, the Division of Banking, and the Civil Rights Commission. In the meantime Webb’s wife, Wilma, sought her own place in the state legislature.
In retrospect, Webb believes his work on his wife’s campaign seriously undermined his first bid for mayor of Denver in 1983. While she was elected—and has since served 12 years as a state representative—Webb finished fourth in a slate of seven for the mayor’s post. He remained with the Department of Regulatory Agencies until 1987, when he ran for and won the job of Denver city auditor.
A Noted Political Couple
As the 1980s progressed, Wellington and Wilma Webb became famous as “the political couple in [Colorado], married to a cause as well as to each other,” in the words of an Ebony correspondent. Wilma Webb helped to pass a resolution making civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a state holiday, one of her husband’s proposals during his years as a representative. Meanwhile, Wellington Webb watched over Denver’s public finances during a period of dwindling federal aid and middle-class flight to the suburbs.
In December of 1990 Webb once again announced his candidacy for mayor. This time he faced seven opponents, one of whom, the popular district attorney Norm Early, was also black. Early, a Democrat, was the favorite to win the election and had a large campaign war chest to finance television advertisements and other forms of publicity. At first, Webb observed in Ebony, “Norm was at 67 percent in the polls and I was at 7 percent. But I’ve been battletested. I’ve been through this before. I ran for city auditor in 1987 against five other opponents and won. Norm has run unopposed each time for district attorney.”
After the general election, only Webb and Early remained in the race, which would be decided by a runoff election. Webb had raised only $375,000 to finance his campaign, while Early could call upon $1.2 million worth of funds. Webb rose to the challenge and decided to campaign on foot in the manner of political aspirants of the past, knocking on doors and meeting people throughout the city. He knew that Denver had a tradition of voting for underdogs, so the polls that indicated he was trailing Early by a wide margin actually fueled his fire.
A Grass Roots Campaign
Webb logged 210 miles on foot over one three-week period. He spent more than 40 nights in the homes of campaign workers in various parts of the city. He pointed out that if he were elected, Denver would be the only major city with a black mayor and a black district attorney. With no money for television commercials, he spoke directly to people about his qualifications for the job. “I have a more varied political background [than Early’s],” Webb indicated in the Christian Science Monitorai at the time. “I can hit the ground running from day one because I’ve already been an integral part of city government.” The candidate also declared in Ebony that his victory would be a sign “that handshakes counted for more than ‘sound bites.’”
Webb won 58 percent of the vote in the runoff election to become the new mayor of Denver. He was sworn in during the summer of 1991 and immediately faced serious problems brought on by an economic recession. In an effort to curb the economic downturn, Denver’s former mayor had instituted several high-priced projects, including a new convention center, a new international airport and airplane maintenance facility, a renovation of the main library, and a major league baseball park. While the projects are safe from the budget axe, Denver still faces a $59 million deficit for fiscal year 1991 to 1992. That deficit—and Denver’s future financial plight—were inherited by Webb.
Webb told a Christian Science Monitor correspondent that he plans to “cut up the municipal credit card” and put a curb on profligate spending. He hopes to lure residents back into the city by improving the services already in place. “You’ve got to do the fundamentals before you do the fancy stuff,” he remarked in Ebony. “That’s not to say there won’t be major initiatives like downtown revitalization. But I think we have to focus on the people who are already here. Are we giving them adequate police protection, adequate trash pick up?”
Unlike many mayors who are coy about future plans, Webb has said that he hopes to serve two terms as mayor of Denver, and then retire. “Eight years is long enough for anybody,” he was quoted as saying in Ebony. Webb, who with his wife raised two children and two stepchildren, continued, “Somebody asked me was running for mayor the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I told them ‘no,’ raising four teenagers was the toughest.”
Having won the mayoralty, Webb will certainly be under extra pressure to perform in the nearly all-white city of Denver. The city government there is very prominent and influential, especially since Denver is also the state capitol. Webb will have the chance to use his expertise in regional as well as local issues, and his many years in the state cabinet and in federal government bureaucracy will prove particularly helpful. Washington Post correspondent Lynn Duke wrote: “With the city coming back from the oil bust and a recession, voters are in the mood for getting things done. While they have chosen Webb to do it, he expects that he will be watched more closely than if he were another kind of mayor.” In his own jovial way, Webb answered Duke: “I think the scrutiny for me will be much more than if I didn’t have this mustache.”
Christian Science Monitor, June 5, 1991; June 27, 1991.
Ebony, October 1984; August 1991; September 1991.
Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1991.
Rocky Mountain News, February 7, 1991.
Washington Post, July 1, 1991.
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