Denver Direct: Totalitarian Democracy in Denver

Monday, March 29, 2010

Totalitarian Democracy in Denver

by Phil Goodstein

In recent decades, as the Democrats have established an unbreakable stranglehold over Denver, the city has had a kind of totalitarian democracy. “Totalitarian democracy” was a snide term coined during the Cold War to depict dictatorial societies where the ruling party expected everyone to enthusiastically agree with its decisions. While dissent was sometimes permissible at lower levels, once the authorities had decided, the populace was virtually required to go along with their leaders.

Traits of totalitarian democracy were most obvious during the debate over Denver International Airport in the late 1980s. Led by Roy Romer, supporters not only insisted that the project was a panacea for the region, but they threatened opponents with physical violence. The League of Women Voters has been a foremost group in slanting public debate 10 assure that only advocacy of the status quo is permissible at candidate forums televised on the city’s cable channel. The events are anything but spontaneous interchanges between candidates and the audience. Members of the public are allowed to ask only carefully screened questions. This assures that contenders for office will mostly spout cliches and banalities as they swear their allegiance to the establishment. (Around the lime of the DIA controversy, the League of Women Voters blasted the “squabbling” of elected officials who interfered with the development agenda, i.e., questioning the program of the elite is not permissible within the boundaries of totalitarian democracy.)

A lack of opposition to incumbents has been another hallmark of Denver’s totalitarian democracy. After Wellington Webb had to pull out all stops to defeat the insurgent (and rather conservative) Mary DeGroot campaign in 1995, he so dominated the city by 1991 that no Democratic Party faction, much less any of the feeble remnants of the Denver Republican Party, dared challenge him. The same was true in 2007 when John Hickenlooper breezed to re-election. Four years earlier, he had emerged as mayor in a crowded field once it was clear that he was the business candidate who had the implicit blessing of the Webb machine. Now that he was in office, Democratic and 17th Street unity insisted that the election be nothing more than an acclamation of the mayor.

In office, Hickenlooper has embraced the corporate line, assuring mass public giveaways to private contractors. He recently emphasized his business orientation as the essence of his run for governor. In particular, he has denounced the pro-corporate Bill Ritter as being too severe on the oil and gas industry. While Hickenlooper has readily pushed hikes of the reactionary sales tax as mayor to benefit special interests while he has seen drastic escalations on fees charged to small businesses, he has promised 17th Street that he will not seek to impose new taxes on big business if he becomes the state’s chief executive.

Right after the Denver Post heralded Hickenlooper’s blast of Ritter, a caller on a talk radio show demanded the mayor account for the massive gap between his rhetoric and city reality. Such critical questioning is not to be expected from the Denver Post or television news. Everyday citizens are often far better informed about public policy than are reporters and editors. This is a primary reason the League of Women Voters has to so severely restrict audience participation at candidate forums.

Hickenlooper mumbled in response to the caller’s question. Apparently unaware of the chasm between his promises and what city hall has actually been doing, the mayor conceded that the citizen had a good point. This is not unusual. The mayor endlessly projects himself as the benevolent leader who is above battle. At the worst, an underling here and there might have gone a bit too far. Or so his campaign and his acolytes imply. The Democratic machine, controlled by self-proclaimed liberals, has done its all to assure that there are no liberal challengers to Hickenlooper.

While the governor’s race boils down to who will best serve the business-financial elite, at least the Republicans have the gumption to run a contender and dream of regaining the statehouse and legislature. As they have for many years, they endlessly endeavor to come up with such creepy candidates, both locally and nationally, that people like Ritter, Al Gore, and Joseph Lieberman seem desirable in contrast to the Republicans. Empty rhetoric, not a serious evaluation of issues, is the heart of virtually all modern American politics.

Even worse are city council contests. Not since 1987 has a sitting incumbent lost a bid for re-election. In many cases, office holders have not even had token opponents, a sign of a paralyzed city where the machine dominates everything. Vacancy elections have been the most lively and spirited part of municipal politics. Even so, they have usually led to the ratification of the choice of the machine/city hall.

Candidates in vacancy elections have to gain merely a plurality of the votes as opposed to the majority required in regular council contests. This allows the machine’s puppets to gain their posts with sometimes far less than 50 percent of the ballots. Such was the case with the emergence of such past council hacks as Happy Haynes, Elbra Wedgeworth, and Ed Thomas. (After Charlie Brown narrowly upset Peggy Lehman for council in a vacancy election for district six in the early 21st century, the city responded by gerrymandering council boundaries to allow Lehman’s election from district four.)

The pattern of a candidate, selected by the machine, gaining a place on council is likely to repeat itself in a vacancy election in district one in northwest Denver. The seat became open when veteran officeholder, Rick Garcia – part of the city’s professional Latino clique who has had close ties with Federico Pena and Ken Salazar-resigned to take a post with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The special election has given locals the opportunity for a break from the usual pattern of one-candidate contests.

In some aspects, northwest Denver has been the most stagnant and sterile political section of the city during the past generation. The senior politico there, Dennis Gallagher, first emerged as a young insurgent when he gained a place in the state House of Representatives in 1970. He replaced Ben Klein, a man in and out of office since 1955 who is still on the scene. Gallagher, who has since been in the state Senate. on city council. and is currently auditor, was as responsible as anyone for destroying the Denver election commission. Now, in association with the machine, he is attempting to make another vestige of the 1970s the neighborhood’s new council member, Paula Sandoval.

It is hard to say who Paula Sandoval is. She has always been more her husband’s wife than an independent actress in local and state politics. Paul Sandoval, a former member of the school board and legislature, was part of the first generation of Chicanos who played on their ethnicity in gaining office in the 1970s. Typical of how badly the aura of Chicanisimo has faded is the way Paula Sandoval was mostly silent when the legislature in 2006, under the leadership of Andrew Romanoff. adopted sweepingly reactionary anti-Hispanic immigration restriction measures. Still, she is Gallagher’s woman for city council. (In 1987, Sandoval’s previous wife lost her bid for council in district nine. Her opponent. Debbie Ortega, baited her as not having a sufficient amount of Chicano “blood.” Ortega has gone on to be a leading functionary of Hickenlooper.)

While pundits immediately tabbed Sandoval as the heir apparent of Garcia, numerous North Denver residents have refused to bow to the dictates of the machine. Among the contenders, especially community activist Larry Ambrose and Chicano civil rights attorney Kenneth Padilla, are people who have shown themselves to be fighters in the past, individuals willing to take on the establishment. The lack of virtually any such character on council is both a reflection of the power of Denver leadership’s embrace of totalitarian democracy and a cause of why the city is so directionless as it stumbles from financial crisis to sellout to disaster.

The political establishment has had remarkable success in swallowing virtually everybody who seeks to work in the system – the whole political setup is thoroughly slanted to enhance and support the status quo. Even so, the vacancy election provides a slight opportunity for those who think it is worth voting to say no to totalitarian democracy by casting their ballots against the product of the machine.

Phil Goodstein is a noted author and historian who publishes The Naysayer in a print-only version which we publish here with permission. The Naysayers next meet on Saturday, April 3, Enzo’s Pizza, 3424 Colfax (between Cook and Madison) 5:30 PM