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Silverado 4a: Larry Mizel, Silverado-Linked Developer Turned Philanthropist and `The CELL’

December 15, 2009

1. Mizel `With 1700 of his closest friends’

At the end of a speech by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at the University of Denver about a month ago, the university chancellor, Robert Coombe, took a moment to thank Denver developer Larry Mizel for having facilitated the event (whatever that means). It was a presentation sponsored by the chancellor himself as well as Colorado’s Democratic Governor Bill Ritter. It gave a sense of political influence that Mizel has garnered here in Colorado over the years that Mizel pulled it all off. Sitting in the audience, he took a brief bow to a largely applauding and enthusiastic auditorium of spectators.

Just a few years prior, on May 31, 2007, the Mizel Museum, which Mizel and his wife Carol founded, celebrated its 25th anniversary at the `Wings Over The Rockies’ Air and Space Museum with `1700 of his closest friends’1 including Denver’ Mayor John Hickenlooper, the publishers of the (then) state’s two largest newspapers, the business and political elite both of the city and the state. And there, Mizel, basking in glory and surrounded by friends, supporters, wannabe’s and other power grovelers, he `graciously’ accepted a standing ovation and then presented Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper with museum’s `cultural enrichment’ award, an award given a year later to Denver political broker Norm Brownstein, who once upon a time some 20 years prior, represented Mizel’s MDC during the Silverado Bank scandal.

Larry Mizel has come along way since he somehow avoided indictment in the Silverado Bank scandal of the 1980s. He is possibly the second wealthiest person in Colorado after Philip Anschutz, and perhaps the wealthiest  and today most powerful Coloradoan whose personal history – although it seems long forgotten – will be forever tied to Silverado. But that was `yesterday’, and yesterday’s gone, rarely mentioned if at all.

Mizel has covered his earlier tracks well and has taken the well worn path pioneered by the Rockerfellers and those of a similar ilk of making a fortune, one way or another, by turning to philanthropy. It’s all rather touching: first do what  you have to do to get where you want to get – taking no prisoners along the way – and then soften the hard edges of past by doing good deeds. An old tale.

He and his wife founded the Mizel Museum, which even I have to admit is one of the country’s finest Jewish museums. His reputation as a political fundraiser and `humanitarian’ is legendary. One of the founders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, in 2003 he was elected chairman of the board of directors. Norm Brownstein is also on the board. 2 In 2006, Mizel’s company, MDC reported $4.8 billion in total revenue.3 Although MDC Holdings reported a net loss for the third quarter of 2007 of $155.4 million, compared to a profit of $48.7 million for that quarter in 2006, still it ranked among the Fortune 500 for the first time in 2005 at No. 466 and has since clung to a spot on the list, at No. 461 for 2007.4

Mizel has had a special knack – no genius – for combining his business success with political influence and has long cultivated political contacts both on the state and national level. A stanch Republican, he and wife Carol have been major and generous contributors to Republican candidates. In the recent 2008 presidential contest they `maxed out’ in the contributions to Republican presidential hopeful, John McCain. But McCain is only the last in a long line of politically high level close contacts with both parties.

When necessity demands it (as mentioned below), unpleasant has it might be for such a staunch Republican, Mizel will support Democrats too. And the state’s Democrats have proven that they don’t want to wander too far away from his main political themes or interests. They are not adverse to do his bidding or groveling at his trough.

Mizel’s politics are decidedly to the right and has been since the Reagan days, a strong supporter of the two fundamental pillars of Republican (and neo-con) ideology: deregulation of the economy domestically and support for a strong US military posture abroad. His is a rightwing agenda in the deepest sense of the term and he has been in a position to bend the state’s politicians to his will – be they Republicans or Democrats – for some time now. Lopsided support for Israel, support for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, and an almost religious adherence to the US `war on terrorism’ are all a part of equation. Few initiatives give a sense of just how far to the right Mizel’s politics go as `The CELL’ – `The Center for Empowered Living and Learning’ – as it is called, an outgrowth of the Mizel Museum, located in downtown Denver

2. The CELL – `The Center for Empowered Living and Learning’

It wasn’t even worth my $4.50 senior discounted ticket, but I wanted to see `the Cell’ and so I held my nose, paid the money and went through what is referred to as `an exhibit’. `The CELL’ stands for the `Center for Empowered Living and Learning’ in Denver, a title which, appropriately enough, tells visitors little of its content.

Sounds like some kind of new age charter school. Rather it is a series of exhibits on terrorism, – a monument to perpetual US war-making – located as a part of the Denver Cultural Complex right next to the new art museum and library in downtown Denver as if it were just another cultural landmark in the city. `The CELL’ is a permanent exhibit connected to Denver’s Mizel Museum and is the acknowledged brainchild of that museum’s founder and most significant donors, Larry and Carol Mizel.

Opened to the public at the beginning of September this year, it aims to `educate people about the roots of terrorism’ which can strike `anyone, anytime, anywhere’. To heighten the drama – although it has no practical meaning whatsoever, all photography is forbidden.

It is set up in such a way that visitors go through one `cell’ or room at a time – where they are bombarded by a series of multimedia presentations culminating in a simulated `terrorist bomb explosion’ which is meant to scare the shit out of 12 year old (and 65 year old) kids.

But before this grand climax, there are a series of earlier `cells’ or `room’. Visitors are stuck in each room until a door to the next one mysteriously opens. Worse, visitors can only go from one exhibit `cell’ to another after what look like steel doors open permitting people to go from overdone one multi-media assault after another. Every room has not one but 15 or 20 computer screens, mostly with images of Palestinian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) fighters and quotes from Obama Bin Laden and Hasan Nasrallah.

It all starts in a room with 22 screens (maybe more – it was pretty confusing counting them) all showing pictures of political neanderthals considered `counter-terrorism’ experts like Brian Jenkins. Jenkins has nothing short of impeccable credentials for a thug, so his introduction to the terrorism museum is important. He served with the 7th Special Forces Group when the United States invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965 and then went on to serve with the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam. Later Jenkins was Deputy Director of the private security firm `Kroll Associates’ and is now a special advisor to the president of the Rand Corporation.

But Jenkins’ introduction on all 22 screens is just the beginning of  onesided `journey’

Each chamber or room in `the CELL’ has a series of `incidents’, starting off, not surprisingly with the hijacking (and blowing up) of an El Al plane in 1968, followed by sequence `reminding’ visitors that in that same wondrous decade, some anti-Vietnam War activists too, turned to terrorism and bombing, Oklahoma City, the Environmental Liberation Front torching of Vail ski resorts, the Sept 11 bombing of the NYC twin towers. So in one fell swoop – from the outset – a vague but powerful connection is made between anti-Vietnam war activism, environmentalism and September 11.  as if somehow all of these incidents were `related’…and intimately connected. And one must presume in the mind of Larry Mizel, who funded most of this, they are…

Needless to say, the definition of terrorism presented here is problematic, selective, narrowly defined and biased to the nth degree. No mention is made of state sponsored violence which could easily qualify as terrorism such as

  • 3 million Vietnamese who died during the Vietnam War at the hands of the US military,
  • nor of Israel’s military incursion into Gaza last year about this time with its civilian casualties that the United Nations is investigating,
  • nor of the US support of the Indonesian military coup that led to the execution of perhaps a million people in the 1960,
  • nor the extensive French use of torture on a truly massive scale in Algeria,
  • nor of the US role in the overthrow of Salvadore Allende
  • or its support for the torturers in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Guatamala or El Salvador.
  • Abu Ghraib, Guantanemo, the invasion and permanent occupation of Iraq,
  • little places in Lebanon with names like Sabra and Chatilla are overlooked.

But other than these minor historical details, the museum is quite objective.

The highlight of the CELL `colletion’ though, – my favorite room by far – is a room where on three – or was it four – sides a series of large screens show a serene Denver Labor Day scene, the  `Taste of Colorado’ where Denverites can stuff their faces with food from all over the world without spending even a milli-second thinking about the working people of this state whose day this used to be. Still the music is good and the atmosphere, if politically benign, is relaxed. Just as a visitor is getting into the spirit of this simulated holiday, wondering if they should try the Ethiopian bread or a really hot tamale – Kaboom…a simulated bomb goes off which one hears with enhanced quadraphonic sound so that you can hear it from four – or was it six – sides. This is followed by gruesome, if accurate scenes of the victims of terrorist bombings that goes on for several minutes.

But here again, the pictures are selective –

  • Russians attacked by Chechens,
  • Israeli’s attacked by suicide bombers,
  • Peruvians attacked by the Tupac Amaros.
  • No pictures of kids in Gaza getting picked off by US made bombs dropped from F-16s,
  • no shots of US soldiers picking off civilians in Iraq or torturing them at Abu Ghraib
  • or of US drones doing what they do best – destroying wedding parties in Afghanistan,
  • or of German soldiers – who haven’t had a chance for neigh 64 years – of doing the same thing.

Again, other than these minor historical details, the museum is quite objective.

3. Larry and Norm, and Michael (Bennet) and Ed (Perlmutter) and Bill (Ritter)

From my humble perspective, this `museum’ is  a disgrace to the city of Denver, little more than a highly politicized example of political propaganda at its worst and most biased. It should be closed down. Trinidad Colorado can be prouder of being the `sex-change capital’ of Colorado than Denver for hosting `The CELL”

Instead, to date anyway,  it is celebrated.

While Mizel appears to be the main contribitor, he did get a little help from his friends. Indeed, how the CELL came into being is a nice case study of Mizel’s political influence. And, as he has for decades, Norm Brownstein is there for Larry Mizel once again….

  • A year ago, the CELL paid the law firm of Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber Schreck LLP $90,000 to lobby on its behalf on the Defense and Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bills, according to Congressional filings. So far, this year, CELL has spent another $40,000 on lobbying.
  • The CELL was the recipient of a $300,000 earmarked grant in the US Senate appropriations bill.
  • The appropriation was pushed through the US Senate by US Democratic Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado who persuaded appropriators to include the earmark in the Senate version of the fiscal 2010 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education spending bill. He had originally asked for $350,000.
  • Although Mizel is a stanch Republican, he was flexible enough to donate $4800 to Bennet’s campaign fund this year.
  • In the House US Representative Ed Perlmutter, also from Colorado, lobbied for $443,000 for the museum, but appropriators turned him down. (5)
  • When `The CELL’ opened, it got the blessing of Colorado Democratic Governor Bill Ritter, who with his wife, Jeannie, a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Tunisia, watched a simulated explosion of Denver’s 16th Street Mall at the museum, in the company of Larry Mizel. Ritter rationalize his presence at the CELL, and its `importance’ by commenting that anarchists had threatened to disrupt the Denver Democratic Convention…. pathetic excuse. (6)
  • The Department of Homeland Security in Washington has given `The CELL’ a $30,400 grant to produce a program `Recognizing 8 Signs of Terrorism’. Governor Ritter has formally endorse the proejct. (7)

Claiming that terrorism is not just a threat `on the coasts’ but in the heartland, CELL executive director, Melanie Pearlman hopes to turn the museum into `an action center’ to fight terrorism. Pearlman added that this includes efforts such as `researching’ pension funds and other investment vehicles to help ensure the funds aren’t being used unwittingly to prop up terrorist groups.

While all this sounds a bit abstract, it already is quite concrete.

In the last session of the state legislature, there was a bipartison effort to get the state’s pension fund, called PERA, with its $40 billion in assets to divest from companies doing business with Iran’s energy sector. This was a part of a national divestment effort in other state legislatures which was largely sucecssful (including in Colorado). (6)

Besides, Pearlman does not come to The CELL as a political novice. Prior to joining the CELL, Ms. Pearlman spent five years with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), most recently as Deputy Regional Director for the Midwest Region managing daily operations of AIPAC as a member of the national senior managment team. She oversaw strategic planning for ten geographical divisions encompassing community outreach, lobbying, fundraising, coalition building and speech writing. Prior to that, she served as the Area Director of Colorado and Nebraska where she established AIPAC organizational chapters.

So we can expect CELL to participate in such efforts, themselves an attempt to take the initiative away from calls becoming louder and more effective internationally to get companies and government pension funds world wide to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza…

1. http://www.blacktie-colorado.com/premiere_events/details.cfm?id=1693

2. http://www.wiesenthal.com/site/pp.asp?c=lsKWLbPJLnF&b=4441993

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Mizel

4 http://www.cobizmag.com/images/uploads/lists/25PowerList.pdf

5. http://coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=LatestNews.NewsStories&ContentRecord_id=0a0cda09-802a-23ad-4e70-9c0c974c1617.

6.http://blogs.westword.com/demver/2008/08/exploring_terrorism_at_the_cel.php

7. http://thecell.org/wp/press/press-releases/Press Release, Sen Tom Coburn, MD, (R-Oklahoma)

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