The Honorable Wellington E. Webb Before the nation had the Obamas, Colorado had the Webbs.
Editor’s note: Former Denver First Lady Wilma J. Webb’s latest project is commissioning a sculpture of her husband, Wellington E. Webb, Denver’s first African American mayor who served 12 years from 1991 to 2003. The sculpture, also supported by Mayor Michael Hancock, will be placed in the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building to educate visitors about the city’s 42nd mayor. Last month, we looked back on his work as part of President Jimmy Carter’s campaign and administration from 1976-1980 and his time in Gov. Richard Lamm’s administration from 1980-1987. This month we reflect on his time as Denver’s Auditor and Wilma’s service in the Colorado State Legislature.
We got married on Sept. 18, 1971 and are celebrating our 48th year of marriage. We were able to function as a political power couple and raise our four children because we believed in making our city, our state, and our nation a better place for everyone.
From 1980 to 2003, Wilma and I each made our marks on city, state and national politics. It’s impossible to summarize our accomplishments into one article, but here are some highlights of our work through the first mayoral race in 1991.
Wilma supported my political aspirations and in 1980 she was elected to House District 8, and I worked as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies until 1987.
Wilma was the first African American woman to serve on the powerful state Joint Budget Committee. Among her many accomplishments, she was the recipient of the National Education Association’s Carter G. Woodson Award, passed legislation for a statewide drug treatment program, and is the mother of the Colorado Dr. Martin Luther King holiday. In 1991, she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in recognition of her public service.
In 1983, we heard legislator Federico Pena was going to challenge longtime Denver Mayor Bill McNichols. I felt this was my chance to get into local politics.
Unlike my previous campaigns, where I sat down with family and friends and discussed whether I should run, I let my eagerness get in the way. I entered the race late before putting all of the organizational pieces into place. We couldn’t raise money and Wilma agreed for us to take out a second mortgage on our home. This was a hard lesson I never repeated.
I ended up in a respectable fourth place, and Pena became the city’s first Latino mayor. A woman stopped me after Pena’s inauguration and said, “Don’t feel bad. You didn’t win this time, but you’ll win next time.”
Gov. Lamm reinstated me after the race and nominated me as the top state government official in 1984. I continued in my state job until 1987 when a few people urged me to run for the Denver City Council. I didn’t want to be one of 13 members on the council and instead set my sights on the Denver Auditor job.
Denver is unique in that the auditor position is an elected job, and the main mission is to oversee accountability in all city departments. Unlike the 1983 mayoral race, I got my ducks in a row and announced early on Nov. 18, 1986. That gave us a good six months to campaign.
Bill Schroeder, a Republican and former Denver Public Schools Board of Education member, was my toughest opponent and got 48 percent of the vote in the May election and I garnered 49 percent, which meant we were headed to a run-off. I won the auditor’s job with 63 percent of the vote and Schroeder was a gentleman and came to our campaign headquarters to congratulate me.
As the city’s auditor I was the main “watchdog” and that meant I often clashed with Mayor Pena. I was getting ready in 1990 to run for a second term when news broke that Pena would not seek reelection. Wilma and I gathered about 30 family members and I told them how difficult a mayoral race would be. I also knew my strongest opponent would be Denver District Attorney Norm Early, an African American man who was part of my original political circle.
The first poll on the race showed only 7 percent of Denver voters would support me, and Early had 67 percent. We faced a huge battle, including fundraising. There were seven people in the race but my main opponents were Early and Republican Don Bain.
Just about everyone urged me to quit the race, including Black ministers who worried that two Black men - Early and I - would split the votes and neither of us would make the run off. But Wilma supported me, my campaign staff kept plugging away and I scored points at forums by showing voters I knew city issues. Wilma and I were at opposite ends on one issue. I unexpectedly came out in support of doing away with court mandated school busing, while Wilma in the JBC was asking for more money to fund the program. My argument was that busing actually hurt neighborhood schools.
While we were making some gains with voters, our campaign money was running out and we needed something to ignite publicity. My campaign manager Mike Dino suggested that I walk the city, something our son, Keith, also endorsed. Campaign worker Ken Smith urged us to expand the idea to me and Wilma staying in someone’s home each night in a different part of the city. Wilma had to pull off this feat while still doing her job in the legislature.
This was unique because for 21 days, I would not get in a vehicle or sleep in my own bed until the election was over. We held a press conference to kick off the walk in southwest Denver, the most Republican part of the city. I was walking as the underdog to the theme song of Rocky, the movie.
“Wellington showed up in his tennis shoes and a light-blue jacket,” recalled Dino. “That became a key element and his idea. He was not the politician in a suit and tie just glad-handing. He was in his street clothes, fighting the elements, and showing people his great smile.”
We got a huge boost when the Rocky Mountain News endorsed me. When the votes in the May election were announced and we knew that we reached the runoff, I cried. The tears were my sense of relief and joy for getting the opportunity to compete with Early one-on-one.
The runoff was on June 18, the same date that the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. “Webb Wins in a Walk,” read the large front-page headline of the Denver Post the next day. I got 66,511 votes compared to Early’s 48,702. My goal as mayor was to serve and improve the entire city, and with Wilma as the first woman to simultaneously be serving in the legislature and also be the first active First Lady, we accomplished that over the next 12 years..