Mike Littwin: Stapleton must wish his KKK-stained great-grandfather was his biggest problem
August 4, 2018
It had to happen. Denver's KKK-stained history has gone national. A New York Times story July 24, written by the excellent Julie Turkewitz, questions whether Walker Stapleton's election run for governor will be affected by the state's "grappling with his family's past."
I had a different question. What grappling?
As you may know, Stapleton's great-grandfather, Ben Stapleton, was a five-term mayor of Denver. And when he was mayor, he also was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, which, shockingly, ruled the state. Many people are probably unfamiliar with this shameful period in the 1920s or the hooded Klansmen who paraded down Denver's streets.
But does anyone really believe that it will matter in Stapleton's race against Jared Polis? Do you think Polis will make it an issue – or even mention it?
In the Times story, Turkewitz notes that Colorado may not be so great at dealing with the shameful parts of its past. Is that changing? It is true that as Southern states argue over what to do with Confederate monuments, the Stapleton neighborhood did vote on whether to change the neighborhood organization's name, given its namesake's KKK membership.
That vote, by the way, failed — falling short of the two-thirds requirement.
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I've lived in states — Virginia and Texas to name two — that are obsessed with their past. Colorado is obsessed with its 21st-Century problems, and I don't mean the tractor slow-chase in downtown Denver. We are a state overflowing with newcomers who are probably more concerned with fast-rising housing costs and an overwhelmed infrastructure than with Colorado's past.
For a brief history lesson, Colorado's Klan — the violently anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic hate group — is said to have been the second largest group in the country in the 1920s. Ben Stapleton embraced the Klan, filled his office with Klan members and somehow survived the period with his reputation largely intact, which says little for our state. This particular Klan era, which lasted about a decade, is inarguably one of the more shameful periods in the state's history.
But it has nothing to do with Walker Stapleton. You know, sins of the fathers and the great-grandfathers and all.
What do you know about the politics of your great-grandfathers? Two of mine came here from Russia, one from Hungary, one from Poland. The 1920s rise of the Klan — less well known than the post-Civil War terrorist-group Klan or the 1960s Civil Rights-era terrorist-group Klan — was in large part a reaction to that wave of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was a force in states across the nation.
But if Stapleton's family isn't the issue, that is not to say that Stapleton is off the hook. In the governor's race, the past is far less important than the present. And in the present, the specter of immigration remains a major issue. Just ask Donald Trump about the wall he wants to build to keep out the so-called rapists and murderers. Or ask him about the agents he had sent to literally grab children from their parents' arms at the border.
In the present, one of Stapleton's principal issues is the defunding of so-called sanctuary cities, which is little more than a dog whistle to those who believe that undocumented immigrants represent a danger to our state. It's an issue that would have played well in the '20s.
In the present, Stapleton — who is a Bush family member and who has seen both Bush presidents come out strongly against Trump — has embraced the president, sort of. He certainly embraced him during the primary season and now has no idea how to deal with Trump's unpopularity among independents and Democrats. He is stuck with the same Trump whom I like to describe — at the risk of repeating myself — as a demagogue, a xenophobe, a misogynist, a bigot, a sexist, an authoritarian, a boor, etc., etc. Some in Colorado seem to agree with that assessment. In the last poll I saw on Trump's favorability in the state, he was underwater, 55-to-42.
In the present, Stapleton has welcomed the endorsement of Tom Tancredo, who nominated him at the state assembly. Stapleton, you'll remember, had planned to petition his way onto the ballot but had rather badly botched the signature-gathering process. And so, in a last-minute change, he had to try to win at least 30 percent of the vote at the state assembly. Enter Tancredo, who was brought in to help Stapleton appeal to the assembly's right-wing fringe. It worked then. But how about in November?
I don't have to tell you about Tancredo. Whether it's suggesting the bombing of Mecca or defending white-nationalist groups, Tancredo has been at the ugly center of the immigration issues for decades. Trump is somehow president, and Tancredo is the Trump precursor who ran for president once himself and who now writes columns for Breitbart.
As you know, Tancredo ran for governor three times. He failed in the first two runs and dropped out in the last campaign. Not only has he never been elected governor, he has never won the Republican nomination for governor. The only time he made it onto the ballot was as the Constitution Party candidate in the year of the Dan Maes fiasco.
In the present, Tancredo was called out just this week by 9News' Kyle Clark, who noticed a Tancredo retweet of what seemed to be an anti-democracy rally by Muslims. Superimposed on the photo were the words: "It Won't Happen Here, You Say? Hello, This is Dearbornistan, Michigan."
Of course, it wasn't Dearborn, Michigan, where many Muslims do live and where, to be fair to Tancredo, he has never advocated bombing. The photo was from Afghanistan, which, as Clark noted, you could learn in 10 seconds on the Google. In other words, Tancredo, to no one's surprise, had retweeted a vile, fake-news Internet meme. And yet he told Clark he didn't know who would care other than the "snowflakes."
Which struck me as pretty funny. The year Tancredo did make it onto the ballot, I attempted to cover his election-night party. He had heard I was coming, though, and, apparently unwilling to face me himself, had two extremely large bouncers there to kick me out. Do you have to wonder who the snowflake really is?
And do you have to wonder whether Stapleton has far more problematic relationships in 2018 than with a hood-wearing mayor who died, as Stapleton points out, 30 years before he was born?
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for Colorado Independent.com.
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