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Denver 08….Stay Tuned: 1: Reflections on Denver’s Social History

August 4, 2007

 The Colorado Democratic Party had trouble raising what was supposed be its share of the seed money for the convention suggesting on some level, weakness. It needed national help. Of course given that Denver had been chosen for the convention site, it did get the necessary financing to get the ball rolling. But what is the Colorado Democratic Party? And how did it come to have the kind of national clout necessary to win the national party’s support to hold the convention here?

Although not all of the story centers around Denver’s Democrats, there are Dems all over the state with their own interests and agendas, one cannot understand Colorado Dems without some idea of Denver’s role in the party’s history and development.

Three Mayors: Left Campaigners, More Conservative Once in Office

Consider the following: Although all of them would rather soon in their tenure be heavily influenced by developers and their schyster lawyers, since 1984 the last three Denver’s mayors, a Chicano, Black and White, all come from out of what might be considered the center-left.
• Federico Pena started the ball rolling in 1984. He was at the time clearly someone who came out of the left and who won at least in part because he was able to gain the support of the Crusade for Justice, by then a dying organization but with still enough organizational skill and mass contacts to provide a campaign structure to deliver the votes.
• In 1992 Pena was replaced by Wellington Webb who was in his youth, along with his wife, a student activist in the Black student movement who established a base for himself with Denver’s Black Community – highly organized mostly through Black churches.
• Webb stayed in power for 12 years to be replaced by John Hickenlooper, a white restaurant-bar owner, but one who once again, had a history somewhat left of center. His wife is a Quaker and a part of the cities politically active Quaker movement and Hickenlooper himself was on the board of The Chinook Fund – an unquestionably left of center foundation

All three needed their left-liberal constituencies to get elected and got their support. All three, on one level or another, were pressured to tone down their politics and answer to local political dons (and behind them more conservative interests) once in office.

Denver – A Liberal Town…

The pattern tells us something about Denver (and Colorado) politics: although it certainly has a spectrum of political views, that the constituency is in the main liberal or left. The liberal left element has the ability to actually put people in office and can mobilize for elections but not enough power to sustain their influence after the candidates of their choice get elected. The same pattern tends to hold for the city’s choice to the House of Representatives, although even though they too tend, once in office, to bend a bit to the right, it is not so far or as consistent a the mayors. For the past 30 years there have only been two – Pat Schroeder and Diana De Gette – both clearly liberal, both easily on the side of peace (with certain limitations – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being the big one to no surprise) and both

Key Constituencies

The key constituencies in the city are ethnically and class based. Denver’s Black Community is small compared to that of let’s say Chicago, Detroit or New York. Still it is, as mentioned above, highly organized and tends to vote heavily as a block. The voting pattern is pretty much established through the ministers of the Black churches, who can consistently turn out the vote, and who tend to work rather closely together. They have something of a mafia-old style way about them, although on most issues, because of the realities of their constituencies, support moderate or liberal candidates. The Chicano Community is organized too – and got a great boost through the organizing efforts, talents and militancy of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s, the center of which was The Crusade for Justice, whose charismatic and politically sophisticated leader for a more than a quarter of a century, Rudolpho Corky Gonzalez, passed away from a stroke only a few years ago.

Then there is the labor movement.

Never that big or influential in this `right to work’ state still, it has the ability to get out the vote and in elections has been highly disciplined and active. Although it has shrunk over the past 40 years that I have been in Denver, to underestimate or ignore it will almost certainly lead to defeat at the polls. The recent changes in the Colorado legislature and the election of a Dem to become Colorado’s governor, Bill Ritter, would not have happened without labor’s active support. Of course one of Ritter’s first acts as governor – to veto a revision of the Colorado Labor Peace Act, which would have made union organizing much easier – again suggests the limits to labor’s power.

One cannot leave Denver’s Jewish Community out of the picture. They have produced no mayors nor members of the House of Representatives, suggesting, again certain limits to their power and influence, yet behind the scenes they, through a number of key figures, very influential on both the city and state level. I’ll explore their social history in some detail in a moment below as they are key players in bringing the Convention to Denver and in the overall political direction and what one might call `texture’ of the state party.

There are other social forces that cannot be ignored in this city, or not very much ignored. There is a peace movement in the Denver metro area that flexed muscle and brought down a plant 20 miles or so outside the city that used to produce triggers for nuclear warheads, the Rocky Flats Nuclear Facility. The Women’s Movement in this city has been vibrant and for sometime produced one of the more interesting women’s magazine’s in the country (which I often still refer to in doing research): Big Mamma Rag. And there is a gay rights movement that has been politically active for decades and has the political clout to bring down homophobic politicans.

All that means that progressive themes – social and economic – run deep through the bowels of this city and much as local politicians would like to do so, ignoring the predominantly progressive nature of this city’s constituency for too long is a prescription for eventual discrediting and defeat. The other side of it is, politicians shape their candidacies with some kind of populist tinge and then to one degree or another move to the right soon their after. That seems to be the pattern. And people, many of them whose roots cannot avoid radical connections would like to and do forget from whence they have come. But that’s America isn’t it? The country of dynamic change and historical amnesia….

Hidden Heritage

It might appear inconsequential to talk about the Marxist left in this city, as today that movement is fractured, marginalized, sectarian in many ways and with little obvious influence. But that wasn’t always true, not at all and understanding the history of the left in this city – of its rise and decline – helps explain both the depth of the progressive stream here on the one hand, and its fragmented, if not factional nature today. But then left movements have an organic quality to them. The social chemistry which causes them to explode is poorly known or understood even often by its participants. A connection between grievances, a program and constituency explodes, matures…sometimes achieves some of its goals …and then quickly whithers on the vine and dies, again for a plethora of reasons. They often leave few traces. Yet as lost and unknown as it is, the history of the left in Denver s an extraordinarily rich heritage on which I will only lightly, but hopefully accurately. Today what seems to be missing is a kind of social glue to keep the different constituencies – sketched above – from deteriorating into factional fighting and positioning, which permeates the state’s Democratic Party today on every level.

Yet repeatedly, Colorado and Denver Democrats have shown they are capable of balancing their conflicting interests to stay together and at times, like recently, to regain political power and influence, but at a price. The whole party has, like the nation, moved to the right. Although there are some very decent and liberal Dems in Colorado’s legislature, they are mostly `new Democrats’ influenced more by free trade and high finance than by labor unions and protecting living wages and immigrant rights. Indeed within the party some of the biggest under the surface clashes are of a class nature, with the more conservative elements both needing and being suspicious of the influence of labor…and labor needing and being suspicious of the party’s larger donors.

And yet it wasn’t always thus. There was a social glue and from what I can tell it might surprise people what it was: the Communist Party, most especially that party as it existed in the city and the state from the 1930s to the 1950s. Very little has been written about this as yet, although some of the history, especially of the McCarthy Era in Colorado is starting to appear in bits and pieces. Rare is it that social movements of any kind have much to say about how history remembers them if it does at all. And without overstating it, communists were, during that period, a force with which to be reckoned, in the labor movement and certainly in the Black and Hispanic (overwhelmingly Chicano) community. There were other groups, communists never did it by themselves and were never strong enough to dominate the left or the different social movements, but they had genuine muscle, and that engine of that muscle was the Communist Party USA, or CPUSA as it was then and is still known. Today it is little more than a cult, albeit it seems a rather wealthy one, with more money than members. There will be no ressurrection.

Long – really for the past 40 years – only a hollow shadow of what it was up until the mid 1950s – the CPUSA in Colorado had genuine influence before that. Strong in the labor movement here especially among the meat packers, the mine, mill and smelter workers and several other unions, the CPUSA was also an integral player in the city’s civil rights movement (what used to be called the Civil Rights Congress and in Latino politics as well). Today, up and coming young Jewish, Chicano or Black aspirants to politics often agonize about whether or not they should jump ship from the Democratic to the Republican Party (and have angst over whether or not to tell their parents). A half century ago, youth from the same constituencies agonized over whether they should join the Socialists or Communists (and had angst over whether or not to tell their parents).

In those decades both immediately preceding and following World War II, the CPUSA, despite all its faults and weaknesses that would eventually lead to its demise, provided the social glue that would evaporate with its collapse. Still to this day, I keep hearing of the grand parents and great grand parents of this or that local politician who came out of the left. There really is a whole slew of them and I could tick off a bunch of names of people now in office whose relatives were either in the CPUSA (or in the case of a few local leaders whose grandparents were fbi snitches to that movement), other Marxist parties or the radical Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Causes of the Left Collapse

In the 1950s, Denver’s Communist movement collapsed for all practical purposes, never to regain its former power or influence. There were many reasons for this, among them:

• the 1956 revelations of the 20th Party Congress in the USSR exposing some of the crimes of Stalinism. The inhumanity of Soviet Communism so long denied by communists world wide could no longer be hidden. The myth of a progressive, humane, democratic face to Communism was shattered forever – and this almost a half century before the system collapsed. Many people, including many people in Denver, left the party at that time
• its own factional, sectarian and undemocratic nature. It was a top down operation. This tended to spawn a broader factional and sectarian culture which has infected the Marxist left ever since. Communists were pretty good at alienating potential allies over small, in some cases, minuscule and irrelevant points of dogma or policy. And they played hardball and left on some level a bitter legacy. The marxist left reorganizing in the city in the 1970s inherited this factional sectarianism and was unable to overcome it, remained small and largely divided against itself (Trotyskists, CPUSA, a number of Maoist groups, social Dems). As someone who was a part of the marxist left in those days, I have always deeply regretted the divisions and have wondered about its causes – some internal, some external – every since.
• there were tactical considerations now long lost in history – tactical mistakes – which despite all the short comings mentioned above – could have been avoided. The analysis of the CPUSA on the McCarthy Period was off base. The CP saw in McCarthyism the advent of fascism in America and did not understand its temporary (although it did last more than a decade) nature. Although it remained, throughout that period, a legal political party, the campaign against it was such that the party took the decision to go underground. Once it did, with its leadership scattering to the winds, its base left to fend for itself without organizational support, the organization essentially and quickly collapsed. This was precisely the case here in Colorado. In California, where this decision was not respected and the CPUSA retained a public face inspite of the repression, it remained more of a force, especially in the Bay Area and to a lesser but still substantial extent in Los Angeles.
• Other things were going on in the left movement in the 1950s that would explode into the ethnic social movements of the 1960s: the racism within the communist movement itself. Again, a careful view of history would reveal that leftists in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were in the forefront of the struggles against racism. Indeed on a national level, no objective analysis of the civil rights movement in this country can avoid giving the marxist left some credit, and the CPUSA in particular some credit, for their role in the struggle to end formal racial discrimination in the United States. And this was hard, dangerous work. I think it was the movements finest moment and this explains why Black activists, Paul Robeson, WEB Dubois and later Angela Davis found a home in the CPUSA or if not in the party, not far from it (as it seems was the case with Robeson). But for all that, including in Colorado, there were strains, serious strains with Black and Hispanic members chafing at the bit of what was, despite its accomplishments, a predominanetly white dominated organization in close coodination with Moscow.
• But when all is said and done, I am convinced that the main reason for the collapse of communist and other marxist movements in the 1950s, lies elsewhere. It is an oft ignored fact that the United States during that period was, easily, the richest country in the history of the world at the peak of both its economic and political power. If American capitalism did not `deliver’ for everyone equally in this country – and it decidedly hasn’t – it delivered for enough Americans everywhere in enough ways to neutralize any serious radical or left threat to the system as a whole. Nothing like the movements of the pre-WWII period emerged in large measure because there were genuine improvements in social and economic conditions although contradictions and conflicts remained. . Even the most radical of the ethnic movements were essentially about getting their fair share of the pie, more than changing the system. For three decades wages, working and living conditions improved for the vast majority of the American population and a social contract existed between labor and capital that held strong for 30 years until Ronald Reagan came to the Presidency in 1980. It is this, as much as anything that took the wind out of the sails of the radical movement in the United States. And while all this is coming apart at the seems during the last decades, the prosperity was strong enough to cause a left, based on countering social and economic inequality, to shrink to insignificance. And the left has yet to recover even if the objective conditions have deteriorated.

New Ethnic Social Movements

This above social history is not irrelevant to Denver’s subsequent social history or to the present. Many political themes, movements of today have their roots in the past. When the new, militant civil rights organizations exploded into activity in the 1960s, they virtually all felt a need to shed their white leadership and did without looking back. They looked to their own and out of it came movements like the Black Panthers, the Crusade for Justice, the American Indian Movement, in the east the Puerto Rican Socialist Party and the Young Lords, ie, ethnically based radical social movements that had shed their white leadership. These movements might have respected Fidel Castro, but were generally unimpressed and uninfluenced by Soviet or Chinese Communism, the first of which was already largely discredited, the second going through such consistent and radical gyrations that it was hard to follow or look up to as any model. In many ways their programs were anti-corporate – and they certainly understood political repression better than anyone – but theirs was rarely a socialist vision.

In one way, these movements were more effective and able to mobilize more of their own but in another way, a splintering along ethnic lines resulted and sooner or later, the realities of American politics would come into play: that while these groups could articulate and fight for a program that reflected the interests and needs of their people, that they did not have the political clout to win their demands on their own. They needed support, coalitions without which they were too small or isolated to win much of anything. And so they came together, not in some kind of left coalition of different forces – although the Poor People’s March on Washington DC was an attempt to foster such a movement – but within the Democratic Party itself. And there they have remained ever since, certainly here in Colorado, and generally speaking nationwide. And all of them or almost all of them, shed their left origins and became Democrats…although the values, the vision in most cases, for many peple involved, remained unchanged.

The Perpetual Dilemma: Waiting for Godot

One result is that the left here in Denver, with only occasional exceptions, has been unable to rally these social forces among which they worked so effectively in the early and mid 20th Century. And herein lies one of the great dilemmas that has plagued left and social movements ever since which I can best describe as follows: the independent left – left of the Democrats – has good politics but has lost its social base. The Democrats have the social base but not the politics. As a result, the choices open to radicals on the left of the political spectrum actually are not especially attractive – and indeed are rather polarized. They can be summed up as follows

• one can remain outside the Democratic Party, join a left formation, regardless of which one. To do so, one is engaging in the politics true to one’s heart – that is not a small thing by the way – but one in which at least for the past 40 years has had a rather narrow social basis. The social forces that used to be the base of the left are simply not there, or not there for the most part. If one takes this path, the main goal is to extend the left’s social base. This has not happened, or hardly. And many have tried it.
• one can become a Democrat on the logic that the social forces that can change America – as one understands that in Marxist terms – are in the Democratic Party for the most part, most especially labor, Chicanos, Blacks, Women, Gays. The idea here is to win the Democrats during a period of a nationally declining labor movement to more left, progressive positions and to move the party to the left from below, and if possible, split its progressive base off from its conservative pro-corporate party leadership. This hasn’t happened and although there is a certain amount of polarization in the Democratic Party, I don’t see it splitting soon. Indeed, the Marxist vision, political wet dream if you like, is to split the party with its naturally more progressive and socially conscious elements moving into some kind of mass left party. Some of us (I include myself here) have been working for and waiting for something like this to happen for forty years. Hasn’t happened and I believe it aint-a-gonna- happen soon either. It’s like waiting for Godot. Despite all the tensions between the base and the leadership – essentially a class tension – the party is holding. It is a perfectly logical for leftists looking at this situation to join the Democratic Party and to work within it. The politics might be weak, but the base – the future of any social change – is there
• then there are fools like me who think that there is a role both inside and outside the Democratic Party for the left, with some people working within the party to change it, make it more progressive and responsive to a people’s agenda (as I will vaguely call it) but who are not willing to give up a commitment to an independent left. I try to work with both movements, to further an agenda. As a result we tend to be trusted by neither. The Dems worry about us trying to radicalize the party. They are right. That is exactly what I hope happens. The independent left, small and narrow as it is, are suspicious because people like me on some level, really rather modestly actually, work with Democrats which they consider some form of original sin. Some of these politically independent left voices have become especially shrill these days about working with Democrats. And then some of the most shrill among them are not so independent, but are actually registered Republicans. Caught in the middle so to speak, we, independent leftists get hammered by both sides. That’s ok. It builds character as they say.

This social history – not much different in Denver and Colorado than elsewhere in the nation – gives perspective to today’s Democratic Party which I would hope is both fair and accurate.
Denver’s Jews

So…as to Denver’s yids, its Jews.

Denver’s Jewish Community has an interesting, vibrant history, like many groups, it has a mixed history, but on the whole, there is much to be proud of. It is, despite its almost blind embrace of Zionism (more on that later) a progressive history in the main. It is a tight knit community with families that have been here since the 1880s and 1890s. It is a community that has known some discrimination, anti-semitism – both the Catholic kind (Jews as Christ-killers) and the more WASPy socio-economic kind that kept Jews out of the professions and certain areas of higher education. It’s still there in certain well connected law and development companies (and other Corporate entities). Like a number of other ethnic communities – Chicanos, Blacks, Italians come to mind – Denver’s Jews have had to organize to fight for their rights and to do so in coalition with other social forces because they couldn’t make gains on their own.

The record is mixed.

Although Denver historian Phil Goodstein knows more about this than do I, from what I have read – which is a fair amount – Denver Jews were not especially in the forefront of fighting the state’s powerful KKK in the 1920s. In part this is because the KKK in Colorado mostly targeted Catholics – Italians, Irish and Chicanos in particular with a special vengeance. Some Jews were part of the movement against the Klan, but many preferred to, when then could, retain a low profile. But in the 1930s, 40 s and 1950s, Jews were key players in social movements here as they worked, with others, to try to knock down the barriers to discrimination. Many of the alliances that formed in those years – with the Black Community, with labor, have held until today although much of the former militancy and solidarity – that sense of social justice – has, if not disappeared, waned.

The point here is that for its own survival and prosperity, necessity required that Denver Jews ban together and fight for their rights – which they did, that they learn to make alliances and to be effective political infighters. They did this quite well and have every reason to be proud. It is also the case because of the profoundly progressive origins of the community that save our favorite issue – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that these progressive traditions remain alive in Denver’s Jewish Community which has strong social programs, believes in racial tolerance, opposes bigotry in the main, and the separation of church from state. None of these values have died here.

As the Jewish Community prospered, it diversified along class lines. The sources of Jewish wealth here – sporting goods (Gart Brothers), printing (Hirshfield Printing), luggage (Samonsite), some Oklahoma oil tycoons (Marvin Davis), and developers (Larry Mizel, Perlmutter’s family among others). As they did elsewhere, Denver Jews made significant contributions to law, medicine and academia as well. For all that it is a community that has a tradition of fighting for its gains and having to counter the anti-semitism that has always existed among the largely WASP upper classes here and still exists albeit it more subtly than in the past.

The political vehicle for fighting for Jewish interests in Denver has long been the Democratic Party, the party of social progressives, labor and immigrants. As with other groups vying for power among the Dems, Jewish influence in Denver’s Democratic Party took a very long time to come by and from what I can tell, does not emerge with full force until the late 1960s and early 1970s by which time the Community was flourishing economically. Many of the alliances made in the civil rights movement here just carried over into deal cutting and political maneuvring within the Democratic Party itself.

Brownstein and Farber

It would be a stretch to say that Denver’s Jews run the city’s Democratic Party because there are too many diverse factors that come together to make up the party’s constituency…but they have a lot of clout, a lot of real power. And while in the same way, there are different elements vying with each other within the Jewish Community that have a say, sooner or later, much of the power broking both in the community itself and in the city’s Democratic Party is laid at the doorstep of a local law firm with a long reach: Brownstein, Farber and Hyatt. Anyone in the know in Colorado politics knows these players and knows that without their blessing, it is very unlikely for a candidate to win. The key players in the firm are Norm Brownstein and Steve Farber. They in turn belong to a reform synagogue – one of Denver’s biggest and most socially active – Temple Emmanuel, whose chief rabbi, Stephen Foster, is one of the more politically active Jewish figures (as is his wife) in city politics.

Although not all of Denver’s more prosperous Jews belong to Temple Emmanuel (there are several other very powerful and rich synagogues) many of them do, especially a number of quite prosperous developers. Together, the developers, rabbis and lawyers have become a strong power block. They have considerable influence within Denver’s Democratic Party and because the influence of Denver Democrats goes beyond the city’s borders, Brownstein and Farber have a great deal of influence on the state (and it turns out national) level as well. Actually through their personal connections at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the 1960s Brownstein and Farber also have influence and connections within the state’s Republican Party through their lifelong friendship and collaboration with Hank Brown, who earlier in his career worked for Monfort (the meatpacking firm), then went on to become a US Senator and is now the President of the University of Colorado (and one of the key players calling for the firing of Ward Churchill, on whom I will reflect in some detail in a later blog).

It is not the place here to go into details about Farber and Brownstein (although I will in the future), beyond saying that they are powerful behind the scenes players, local power brokers in the Democratic Party – far more important and significant politically from what I can tell, than the city’s more visible and politically active rabbis who have more a public posture (but far less actual power). These two are the great deal makers and have been working with the Chicano, Black and labor constituencies to influence local politics for decades. They are effective and tough players and virtually impossible to get around. They recently suffered what I believe was a minor set back when Chris Gates, state party chair who was close to them, lost his position to a more liberal opponent, Pat Wauk.

Gates might be gone – he ran the state party with a pretty heavy hand and in close tandem with Brownstein and Farber – but there is still not much that can happen in Colorado’s Democratic Party, certainly here in Denver, without their participation and approval. And the influence of Farber and Brownstein extends beyond Colorado to the national Democratic Party policies. They are particularly close or have been to the Clintons. Once, during his presidency, Bill Clinton referred to Norm Brownstein as `the 51st member of the Senate’. This pyrrhic title was mostly a result of Brownstein’s extraordinary fund-raising abilities for Clinton’s two presidential campaigns in which Brownstein effectively mobilized a national network of friends and acquaintances to raise big bucks for Clinton. The Clintons, Brownsteins and Farbers have close personal ties as well. Farber and Brownstein were key players in winning Democratic Party approval for Denver as the 2008 convention site and in overcoming labor opposition, both locally and nationally, for chosing non-union facilities (local hotels) for events and lodging. Although I would not say that all this makes Hillary a shoe-in – the national trends will be determined beyond Colorado – it certainly doesn’t hurt her chances that the convention will be here in Denver.

…………more soon.

4881 words.

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