Voters in the western U.S. city of Denver, Colorado are casting their ballots Tuesday to replace the mayor they've had for twelve years. Wellington Webb is stepping down because of a law limiting the Denver mayor to three terms.
He is credited with transforming what many considered a dried-up oil town at the edge of the Rocky Mountains into a sparkling modern metropolis. The city's first African-American mayor capitalized on the booming economy of the 1990s and his own down-home charms to build a remarkable political legacy.
Like the granite peaks that frame Denver's skyline, Wellington Webb is a mountain of a man, well over two meters tall and solid as a rock. But despite his imposing stature, he's a disarmingly gentle giant. Children always seem to want to hug him, elderly ladies write letters saying they're praying for him, and his popularity with Denver residents has remained as high as the mountain city's two-kilometer elevation, despite the recent downturn in the economy.
"Well, I'm glad people still like me after 12 years. I think that's very important," he said. "And I know that we've not done everything perfect. We're human and we make mistakes. We're Western. So we get knocked down, we dust ourselves off, we get up and move on."
Mayor Webb hasn't taken too many "falls from his horse," so to speak. While he was in the saddle, Denver enjoyed a major construction boom that included an architecturally stunning international airport, a new football stadium and a sports arena. In the process, he angered many preservationists for bulldozing some historic buildings and parks. But he's also received praise for an ambitious project that will expand the city's art museum. But his real legacy is that he inspired a new generation to help govern Denver.
"My gift to the city [has been] a lot of the young kids that I've brought into government," he said. "That will be around a long time, after I've gone on and [ridden] into the sunset."
Mayor Webb has faced some crises during his three terms in office. Gang violence erupted frequently during the summer of 1993, prompting Mr. Webb to create programs to help the at-risk youth in the city.
He understands their struggles. When he was just 12 years old, living in Chicago and suffering from asthma, his parents shipped him off to live with his grandmother in Denver, hopeful the city's mountain air would be good for him. But his grandmother happened to live in one of Denver's toughest neighborhoods, and the experience of growing up there gave him a keen understanding of the street, and how to survive it. In the late 1960s, he aligned himself with a group of up-and-coming black professionals. One of them was lawyer Daniel Muse, who would later serve as Denver's city attorney. Mr. Muse remembers one particular quality about the young Wellington Webb.
"Understated and that is one thing that characterized him all the years," he said. "He's been understated and quite frequently underestimated. Even then he was underestimated. No one would've guessed that he would arise out of that experience to become the Mayor of the city of Denver."
Mr. Webb wasn't the most articulate or even the brightest of Denver's young black leaders. But he's quick to explain that he received a rigorous home-schooling in politics from his tiny but tough grandmother.
"If she were still alive today, we'd still be scared of her," he said.
Mr. Webb's grandmother was widely known for her white gloves and sharp wit. Mayor Webb says she ran one of Denver's Democratic Party precincts, helping to organize support for the party's political agenda.
"In her precinct, she knew everyone by name and their entire family. And that's where we learned and developed our grass roots approach," he recalls.
Mr. Webb put those skills to good use in his successful bid to become mayor in 1991. Soon after taking office, he hosted what he called a "downtown summit," pulling together business and government leaders to craft a plan to revitalize Denver's decaying downtown. Annie Warhover, the president of the Downtown Denver Partnership, credits Mayor Webb's vision for turning the city around.
"Eleven, twelve years ago, you didn't even stay downtown after work to have a beer," she said. "You went somewhere else. Not only do people stay downtown after work, they come downtown to eat, to be entertained. [For] all different ages, it's a huge destination for entertainment." And for outdoor recreation, too. Today, kayakers and canoers love to run the rapids of the South Platte River, which flows through the shadows of Denver's skyscrapers.
When Mr. Webb entered office, the river was choked with sewage and tires. On a beautiful Sunday morning, Jean Thompson and her black lab are splashing along the South Platte's sandy banks.
During the past 12 years, Denver has nearly doubled its parklands and open space. City resident Jean Thompson believes the quality of life in Denver surpasses that in most other cities.
"It's actually really awesome, because my partner and I work downtown, so we can't get to the mountains all the time," she said. "It's just a place where we can come to get away and feel like we are in the mountains for a while."
But many Denverites voice deep concerns about the city's well being. Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Denver, says the continuing influx of affluent families into the city has actually hurt Denver's poor communities.
"We still have a real lack of affordable housing in Denver," he said. "Some of the minority communities, especially his own African-American constituency, think that they were left behind."
Mayor Webb, who knows the problems of the city's poor neighborhoods from personal experience, says criticisms like that are unfair.
"I said that I would be the mayor for the entire city," he added. "I would not be the mayor for only northeast Denver. I would not be the mayor for only African Americans. And you can look at my skin and the texture of my hair to know that I'm black. But when you judge my record, I think you will be challenged to find anyone to match our record."
Mayor Webb's critics have frequently risen to that challenge, accusing him of cronyism and nicknaming him "Boss Webb" for his powerful connections and big ego. But even his critics agree that he has brought significant diversity to Denver City government. Mr. Webb did host a visit from the Pope and provided a venue for a G-8 summit. He endured the tragic shootings at suburban Columbine high school, emerging as a gun control spokesperson. And he courted international business, opening trade offices in London and China. But Professor Daniel Smith says most Denverites will remember something far simpler about the outgoing mayor.
"First thing that comes to people's mind are Wellington Webb's sneakers," said Mr. Smith.
And why not? Mayor Webb has literally walked the city during his election campaigns. During his first, in 1990, he logged 540 kilometers going door to door. In the process he wore out his sneakers, and even underwent surgery to drain fluid from his knees. But Daniel Smith says he won the public's support.
"He was the consummate campaigner," he explained. "He loved getting out, meeting his constituents, pushing his agenda, listening to what people had to say."
Wellington Webb won't reveal much about his post-mayoral agenda, except that he'll remain a resident of northeast Denver, where he's lived for decades, and that he plans to take a little vacation as soon as he leaves office.
"Next for me is a rest, a break, a beach, warm water, rum, sand," he said.
Most Denver residents would probably agree that after 12 years as their mayor, Wellington Webb deserves a little rest and relaxation.