The Denver, Colorado Blizard of 1982. Congratulations, Chris Agee, to the promotion to head of CU Denver History Department!

20190313_141533Here is a paper I wrote for Chris Agee’s History Class in 2010.  It is timely, as we are in another mayoral run off election.   I recieved an Email from CU that Professor Agee was apointed head of the CU History Department.  In my opinion, a well deserved appointment.


Joe Sokolowski, Research Paper, Hist 4839, Spring 2010, Agee.

Mayor McNichols and the Blizzard of ‘82

Weather forecasting can be a tricky occupation.  Newspaper readers and television viewers joke weather forecasting is a profession in which you can be incorrect and still hold your job.  In Denver, Colorado on Christmas Eve 1982, results of poor weather forecasting caused a shake up in city government.  Predicting a few inches of snow that would blanket Denver for a white Christmas, a storm arrived with a ferociousness that Denver had not seen for generations.  City Hall’s inadequate response to the storm fueled a highly charged spring mayoral race that put Denver’s mayor out of office.  Six opposing candidates felt that change was necessary.  Mayor William McNichols was not allowed much error by newspapers in his handling of the city emergency known as the Blizzard of ’82.  Citizens felt he never took a position of leadership during the storm.  McNichol’s response to the storm raised questions whether he was really was in control of the city government, in the ’82 snow emergency, or other affairs of the city.  Unlike a weather forecaster, missing the mark for which you were hired was not excusable, especially in an emergency created by a natural disaster.

In this article a direct relationship will be drawn between the Christmas Blizzard of 1982 and the end of Mayor William H. McNichols’ fourteen year reign as Denver’s the second longest running mayor.  Not only is the mayor’s handling of city affairs is questioned but the responsibility to Denver voters and the Denver population in general is questioned.  The government of the people has the responsibility in an emergency, to perform for the people.  The political machine of Mayor McNichols failed to provide, failed to lead, and failed to inspire Denver’s citizens through the worse city crisis since the 1965 Platte River Flood.  Failure to lead, led to political defeat.  When a person is voted into a high ranking political office they take the responsibility of management and are to lead in an emergency, natural or man made.

The sources used for this article were the primarily the afternoon Denver newspaper, the Denver Post (Post) and the morning newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News (RMN).  William Henry McNichols Jr. was also known as Mayor Bill.  The William McNichols papers are housed at the Denver Public Library and were used for research on this project along with the Western History Collection General Index.  The author was living in Denver at the time but found published sources were more reliable then personal recollections of times and dates.  The emotions of the isolation, lack of transportation, and ‘cabin fever’ are easily remembered by all those who experienced the blizzard first hand.

Bill McNichols did not enter Denver politics because of political ambition.  William H. McNichols Jr. was the younger brother of Stephen McNichols, governor of Colorado from 1957-1963.  He was asked by his brother to be his assistant at the governor’s office.  His brother Stephen then lost his re-election bid as Colorado governor in 1963 to John Love.  Using as a threat that he would run for Denver Mayor, Stephen McNichols pressured Thomas Currigan, then mayor of Denver, to have his brother, Bill, appointed to manager of public works.  Currigan accepted the deal, but only as a preventive measure to keep Stephen McNichols out of Denver politics. [i]  McNichols entered Denver’s government as a political appointee of Tom Currigan.  Since the next in line for the mayor’s job, by city charter, was the manager of public works, in essence, Currigan assigned his own successor if he left the mayor job for any reason.

McNichols, under Currigan, settled into his job as public works manager.  Political appointments may not always be an exact fit, but Currigan’s appointment of McNichols to city works manager made sense.  William McNichols had not been in a public works official before, but he had been in World War II and saw action in Europe.  He knew organization skills and comradery.  Job details would be learned as time passed, he also had department heads to guide him.  His duties as public works manager and deputy mayor included street maintenance.  Falling under street maintenance duties was snow removal.  McNichols was a Colorado native, familiar with Denver winters and the sudden weather changes storms could bring.  McNichol’s experience in highway maintenance went back even further.  He worked for the Colorado Highway Department during his school years.[ii]  McNichols may not have been a civil engineer trained in road construction, but he had enough back ground experience from his school days, military service, and time at the public works department, to know his way around a snow emergency.

Currigan was a fairly successful mayor but was uneasy about the job’s low pay and high exposure.  He felt that mayor of a large western city should be paid more than the fourteen thousand dollars, an amount fixed by the city charter. [iii]  From contacts he made in the office of mayor, Currigan planned to abandon the position of mayor and take a job with Continental Airlines in California.  Since the next in line for mayor, according to the city charter, was the manager of public works also known as the deputy mayor, Currigan attempted to manipulate Dale Tooley, a Denver lawyer, into the position of manager of public works so he could resign and leave Tooley in charge.  The roadblock in the plan was Bill McNichols.  Currigan asked McNichols to resign.  He did not resign as Currigan or Tooley thought he would.  Tooley, who already resigned from the law firm where he was working, was left in a lurch.  Currigan boxed himself into a political corner, if he fired McNichols to put Tooley in his place as manager of public works there would be an outrage.  Currigan had to tell Tooley his plan was not going to work and Tooley would not be mayor.  It was obvious there was a flaw in the city charter, a mayor, if he left office, was able to hand pick their own successor, without the voters blessing.  On 31 December, 1968 MicNichols becomes mayor after five and a half years as deputy mayor and manager of public works.  Tooley is out, for now, but keeps his ambitions for the job of mayor.  Currigan takes the job in California with Continental Airlines.[iv]

After taking office as mayor, McNicols was exposed to snow removal emergencies.  On 21 January 1974 the Department of Public Works under Mayor McNichols instituted a snow emergency plan after a bad December 1973 storm.  The plan includes the definition of an emergency, personal assignments, relationship between city agencies, and concerns for the duration of the emergency.  The plan also addressed arterial streets, collector streets, local streets, and special locations.  Special locations included hills, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, fire stations, police stations, and other public locations. [v]  The snow plan continued with planned purchases of snow clearing equipment.  The equipment on order included four plow trucks, seven sand spreaders, and three motor graders.  Also included was replacement equipment of two more plow trucks, seven sand spreaders, and one motor grader.  In addition, the plan calls for trash collection to be uninterrupted.  Although the Blizzard of 1982 was nearly nine years away, McNichols knew the importance of snow readiness.

In a letter from a Mr. H Murphy dated 13 February 1974 there was suggestions for the city to improve snow removal after the December 1973 storm.  Mayor McNichols sent Mr. Murphy a letter thanking him for his suggestions.  In an almost tongue and check response McNichols responds to Mr. Murphy that he will pass his suggestions on to M. Richard Thomas, who was in charge of program development. [vi]  The Denver City Snow Plan was dated twenty-three days before the letter from Mr. Murphy.  The thank you letter is signed by Mayor McNichols and forwarded to Mr. Thomas.  Perhaps the mayor was congratulating himself for a timely solution to Mr. Murphy’s letter.  Both the response to Mr. Murphy’s letter and the city snow plan insures the mayor and the city had a plan of action for snow removal.

When McNichols took over at the Public Works Department the emphasis was on cost reductions.  Late in 1963 a letter from the Director of Admin, Public Works, Sid Keller to J.C. Theno, Public Works Maintenance Office Manager, claimed major reductions in expenditure accomplished by personal reductions and using less materials.   Also in the letter is the statement that a second major area for cost reduction relates to overtime, “a subject that has been brought up by the accounting office repeatedly.”[vii]  The letter specifically address overtime by emergency crews working the weekends and holidays. The references to emergency crews meant trash collection demands on Saturday, increasing overtime pay.  The letter reiterates the request from the budge office concerning salting and sanding claiming that “overtime figures… be held close to this minimum…because weather conditions are not predictable.”  McNichols took over the public works department that was emphasizing keeping close tabs on expenditures and especially overtime pay.  A snow storm meant overtime pay for city employees, and more costly materials to combat the snow such as road salt and extra fuel.  The lessons of cost management, learned early in his public works, would have shaped his plan of action in an emergency.  Especially if that snow emergency would have happened on a weekend or holiday.  Someone had to make a decision how much snow constituted an emergency and if overtime was absolutely necessary to combat a snow storm.  Guidelines were in the city snow plan.

Budget concerns of overtime and snow removal materials were not the only lessons Bill McNichols learned early on the job as public works manager.  In a Denver Post poll dated 2 April 1965 city residents were asked to prioritize their concerns.  Number one concern was that Denver was growing too fast.  Number five concern in the survey was the condition of the streets.  The survey was divided by party lines.  The group that rated the condition of the streets the highest was the Republicans, 27% considering the streets good as compared to 11% of Democrats, and 10% of Independents.  The majority saw the condition of the streets as ‘fair’ and ‘poor’.  Republicans rated the streets fair 39% of the time and poor 34% of the time.  Democrats raised that percentage to 40% for fair, and 49% for poor.  Independents reported fair 61%, with poor 29%.  The recommendation as to the most effective way to make a difference in Denver was, “first by far-fix the streets.”  And another comment was, “stop ignoring our miserable streets.”[viii]  Although the blizzard was nearly twenty years away, McNichols, under Currigan, was exposed concern the issue of streets.  The 1967 campaign brochure for Currigan emphasized his handling of the street conditions.  His campaign literature boasts he “resurfaced nearly 300 miles of city streets, more than 3,000 blocks.”[ix]  Whether the streets were dry or ice packed there was mentioned of their condition during McNichols tenure as Manager of Public Works and Mayor, it was an issue he knew, and had to readdress many times.  When the Blizzard of 1982 struck McNichols perhaps was more concerned about the city budget and overtime, materials, and holiday pay.  He forgot his constituents’ plea to stop ignoring the miserable streets.

The Debutante Ball at the Brown Palace Hotel was starting to wind-down when the snow started at 11:00 P.M. on the night of Thursday 23 December 1982.[x]  McNichols attended a reception that evening at 6:30 P.M. in room 825 and then the Ball downstairs.[xi]  A day before, Wednesday, the high temperature was 58 degrees.  Although there was a strong storm that knocked out power in California, Arizona, and Nevada the forecast for the Denver area was peppered with cautionary terms like “there is a chance” and “developing system.”  In the Rocky Mountain News of Wednesday 22 December 1982 the Metro Forecast predicted “increasing clouds and a bit cooler tomorrow.”  Thursdays forecast from the morning paper expected winds, cooler temperatures, and 2 to 4 inches of snow” for Friday.[xii]  Joslins Department Store ads announced in the Rocky Mountain News: “two more shopping days till Christmas.”[xiii]  Friday morning’s forecast finally gave an indication of the severity of the weather, predicting four to eight inches or more of snow.  Too late to make a difference, the Denver Post of Friday 24 December 1982 predicted a “possible storm peril” but by the time the paper was to be delivered, the city was already in grid lock. [xiv]

The fury of the storm was unexpected.  Driving in Denver Thursday morning was possible, but with snow piling up one to three inches an hour, cars were being abandoned in the deepening snow.  They blocked the little movement that was possible in the heavy snow.  Getting out of town by car was impossible after 8:00 A.M. because I-70 was closed in and out of town.  A short time later I-25 closed to north and south bound traffic.  Stapleton only stayed open till 9:30 A.M., closing because of weather, the first time in thirty-two years.  Roads continue to close, stores shut early, and public transportation is suspended.  The city was at a stand-still.  Procrastinating Christmas shoppers had an excuse to put off shopping for a few more days.  Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebration plans were disrupted.  Official actions were limited.  Police discouraged driving, but with roads nearly impassable, it didn’t take much to convince the public to stay at home.  At 6:00 P.M. acting Governor, Nancy Dick, mobilized the Colorado National Guard.  Most official attention was centered on Stapleton Airport.

Denver was smaller in 1982.  A car ride from Stapleton Airport to downtown Denver was only twenty minutes on a good day.  Other than Montbello, Stapleton was as far east that Denver proper stretched.  The suburbs were smaller then, the C-470 highway that circles the metro area did not exist.  Yet, nothing could keep up clearing the snow.  The blizzard closed all four runways at Stapleton.  In addition to runways, roads to the airport, parking lots, baggage areas, and boarding gates had to be cleared.  The airport was closed from 9:05 A.M. Friday to 6:40 P.M. Saturday.  That left two-thousand airline passengers, numerous airport workers, and airline personal stranded.  The eleven pieces of runway snow clearing equipment was stored far from the runways, inside.  Access had to be cleared from the storage sheds to the runways, a monumental task by itself.  By Saturday evening one runway was open.  Able to take advantage of the open runway and shuttle service to the airport via news helicopters the Denver Broncos football team was able to get to their Sunday game in Los Angeles. [xv]  The special treatment did not go unnoticed by those waiting thirty-three hours for the airport to open.

Montbello, the Denver housing subdivision east of Stapleton off I-70, had an even harder time digging out.  Helicopters assisted Montbello residents because emergency vehicles could not get the sick to hospitals.  The National Guard and their four-wheeled-drive ambulances were a necessity in Montbello, even more than in Denver city proper.  Councilman Bill Roberts who represented Montbello’s 16,000 residents criticized snow removal efforts.  Montbello was developed starting in the 1960s.  The snow plan for Denver was developed in 1974 and did not specifically address the growing city.  But, the plan was not followed, and its effectiveness was questionable because it wasn’t followed.  One of the main features was the opening of an emergency operations center.[xvi]  The center was opened, but, thirty four hours after the snow stopped, fifty-six hours after the city snow plan called for its opening.  Centralized government action was lacking.  Information was not coordinated, nor formalized.  State and City workers were told not to report to work on Monday, this information was passed through the radio and television news.  Information through newspapers was slow, the Christmas Day newspapers were suspended, the one and only time in Denver history neither paper had a daily issue.  Montbello, Stapleton, and other fractured areas of the city were initially left to solve problems by themselves.  The best the city and state could do at the moment was to shut down business on Monday 27 December 1982 to alleviate traffic on the unplowed streets.

The number of plows used in the blizzard was reported as if it were a sports score.  Residents saw more equipment as the only way be freed from the choking streets.  There were eleven pieces of equipment put into operation on Thursday night when the blizzard started. [xvii]  As the blizzard worsened the problem was that drivers were not able to get equipment.  Some were across town and not able to report to work because they could not drive on the streets to get to work.  Some city employees were on vacation.  Stapleton airport had only eleven piece of equipment.[xviii]  On 26 December it was reported that Denver had fifty-seven pieces of equipment, supplemented with at least that number of privately owned units.[xix]  By Wednesday, 29 December 65 pieces city equipment and another 120 from private contractors was working on city streets.[xx]  By the following Tuesday, 4 January, the numbers increased again to 215 city pieces cleaning snow.[xxi]  The snow plow number was growing but so was citizen’s discontent.  Streets were still impassable, snow turned to ice, and the ice ruts were making cars into streetcars, only able to follow the frozen tracks.  As some snow melted and some roadways were passable more cars ventured out, meaning there were more cars than cleared roads, making traffic jams monumental.  During the blizzard driving the 2 miles from I-70 and Quebec to Stapleton terminal, took 2 hours.[xxii]  Twelve days later, on 5 January a 3 mile trip from Capital Hill to the west took 75 minutes.[xxiii]  The first trip was halted because of snow, the second one by traffic.  The delay in starting to plow caused the roads to be overburdened by the number of cars it could handle.  Numerous other factors compounded the situation.  The winter equinox just passed, days were short, nights were long, temperatures stayed low and kept refreezing what snow did melt.  Denver’s normal snow removal machine, the sun, could not get its job done of melting snow with short daylight hours.  Mail carriers and trash truck drivers had a hard time staying on schedule.  Parking was non–existent for many, at work or home.  Once a car was freed from a snow bank the cleared area for parking became a coveted and protected patch of pavement.  People became territorial to a patch of ground that may have taken a day to clear of snow.  Tempers began to flair and anger was directed at city services.

Clearing snow from parking lots became a problem for City Hall.  The Bronco’s miraculous flight out of town, when so many people were stranded at the airport, started to turn public opinion against the city’s priorities.  McNichols Arena, where the Denver Nuggets played professional basketball, had the parking lot cleared by the city because of a scheduled game Sunday, 26 December.  That game was eventually cancelled but played the next day, Monday.  It was ironic that a parking lot was being prepared for spectators when they could not leave their neighborhoods to reach the arena.  The large parking lot at the Sterns-Rodgers building in Glendale was cleaned by Denver plows.[xxiv]  Flimsy excuses were conjured up to explain the strategic necessity of cleaning that parking lot before numerous other city streets.  Water department personal with front end loaders were taking cash to clear parking lots downtown.  When they told one business owner they could not accept checks for plowing, the business owner became suspicious.  A water department employee was suspended and investigated.  More transparent excuses were given for his obvious misuse of public property.  The mayor’s office began to feel the dissatisfaction of citizens in their handling of the clean up.

The public may have been saved from more tragedy.  Given it was winter break for schools, the timing of the storm may have saved a lot of more bedlam.  A few days earlier, and children would have been trapped in schools.  Had there been an emergency such as a large fire or roof collapse emergency crews would have had a hard time in snarled city traffic.  As the lack of assistance from government agencies became apparent, citizens and the newspaper began to question the emergency plans the city had in place.  Decisions started to appear emotional rather than strategic.  There was a snow emergency plan, a traveler’s aid society, a weather emergency, a city safety manager and yet no apparent leadership to overcome the obstacles the storm presented.  Leadership, citizens felt, was lacking, the mayor and his administration needed to lead the clean-up efforts not stand back and see what happened.

This was the first Christmas Bill McNichols would be spending without his wife.  After thirty-five years together, Laverne McNichols passed away 11 September 1982.  Traveling earlier in the week, McNichols returned from Chicago, Tuesday 21 December 1982 from work on city bonds.  That week in his day timer, two Christmas parties, the Debutante Ball, two lunches, and one breakfast were scheduled for the balance of Christmas week.  In McNichol’s day timer, Friday was marked off, except for a note about a 9:00 A.M. bi-weekly press conference that did not occur.  Saturday’s page was blank, Sunday had only one word, Cowperthwate, and the usual notation of when the Broncos and the Nuggets played.  From indications in McNichol’s day timer he expected a quiet Christmas weekend, perhaps watching sports.  Defending the delayed opening of the emergency preparedness center, spokesman Errol Stevens explained that “they [city crews] are people too, they had family plans for that day just like you and me.”[xxv]  Further complicating the snow removal was personal on vacation.[xxvi]  City snowplow coordinator, Robert Proffitt noted that many of his employees could not be called in because they were on vacation.  He did not explain if it was annual vacation, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or weekend vacation.  Whether it was the mayor’s office, public works department, or the emergency preparedness center staffing was at a minimum.  It was the holiday season and civic responsibilities took a back seat to personal commitments.

Civic leadership is important when trying to cope with municipal disasters.  Three cities that experienced disasters and can be used to investigate civic responsibility are Chicago and the Great Fire, New Orleans and the yellow fever outbreak in 1853, and Los Angeles and its numerous natural disasters.  In all three cities the common denominator was the lack of preparation for the unexpected, and when the unexpected happened, the government, local or otherwise, must take a part in the recovery to normalcy.  Karen Sawislak explores the role of the municipal government after the Great Fire in the book Smoldering City.  In Chicago the fire caused complete destruction of three and one-half square miles.[xxvii]  The destruction included personal property, homes, businesses, and municipal utilities.  As the fire spread it engulfed the city gas works and a massive holding tank exploded.[xxviii]  Then when the fire crossed the main branch of the Chicago River it burned the machinery of the municipal water works, rendering water pumping for fire fighting inoperable and fire fighting impossible. [xxix]  In the aftermath of the conflagration donations and charity came and was represented by the Chicago Relief and Aid Society.  The “world’s charity” became the “people’s money” and someone would need to decide who received which portion of the relief funds.[xxx]  In the mists of a disaster, a democratic government had to make socialistic decisions.  Rules to distribute the funds had to determine by an undetermined officiating authority.  Questions arose concerning what was the standard that qualified for assistance.  Disaster relief was an incredible task for Chicago after the fire.

In New Orleans in 1853 a yellow fever epidemic hit the city ship docks.  New Orleans was an important nationwide port and revealing an outbreak of yellow fever would cause serious economic stress on the city.  Doctors remained quiet about the outbreak, as did the journalists.  Ari Kelman in A River and Its City explains this was because “Censorship emerging from greed mingled with fear of damaging New Orleans reputation nationwide and, in turn, the city dominance of the Valley’s trade” was more important than a few cases of fever. [xxxi]  The responsibility of the mayor and city council turned from the citizen’s health to the economic interest of New Orleans.  Not knowing mosquitoes caused the spread of yellow fever the usual defense was to leave the city until cooler weather when the rate infection slowed.  Those able to leave the city till fever slowed were those better off financially.  Some City Council members left the city to protect themselves against infection, leaving the city without a quorum to vote in council matters.  The mayor and the city council acted irresponsibly, not alerting the entire population of the spread of yellow fever, instead invoking “an official silence.”[xxxii]  A responsible city government cannot divert a calamity hoping it melts away.

Los Angeles has had its share of disasters.  Nature can only take blame for some of them.  Man is responsible for many of Southern California’s problems.  Earthquakes, floods, and fires have continually plagued Southern California since before settlers arrived.  Since the population has increased, growth has intensified nature’s wrath.  Usually building irresponsibly, giving nature something to knock down, flood, or burn was rarely accompanied with planning and preparation to cope with the inevitable disaster.  Preparation for a disaster is usually poorly or never conceived.  In Mike Davis’s work Ecology of Fear the continual disasters of Los Angeles, manmade or natural, show little preparation was taken by local governments to react to disasters.  Both fast moving unexpected disasters such as earthquakes and forest fires or slow moving environmental blunders are examined.  Davis’s heroes were usually fire departments, police departments, or zoning departments with its earthquake proof building codes coming to aid of citizens, once repeated disasters take their toll.  Emergency preparedness is an inherit part of city government.  But the term disaster preparedness is an oxymoron.  Few city governments are prepared for disaster.

Winter or early spring can give an underdog mayoral candidate an advantage.  A blizzard can tip the balance of a mayoral race very quickly.  Mayor McNichols was not the first mayor to battle snow and re-election in the same year.  Rocky Mountain News editorial of Tuesday 28 December 1982, just four days after the blizzard, questions if the failure to open the Travelers Aid station at Stapleton will be enough to toss out the mayor in the upcoming May election.[xxxiii]  Just short of three years earlier mayor Michael Bilandic of Chicago was bounced out of office for inaction during a snow storm that closed O’Hare airport for forty-six hours.  McNichols timing was perhaps good when discussing re-election plans.  Asked six month earlier, in May of 1982, if he was going to run for re-election, he said he had not made up his mind if he was going to run for mayor the following spring.[xxxiv]  When asked 19 December 1982 if he was going to run, again, he didn’t give an answer, he only smiled.[xxxv]  Had he threw his hat in the ring, before the blizzard, criticism of the handling the blizzard snow removal may have ended any attempt at re-election.  Another theory about spring elections comes from the Denver Post.  Suggesting that it is hard to beat McNichols in the spring, because voter turn-out is poorer in the non-traditional voting month of May the Post thought McNichols had a good chance at re-election.[xxxvi]  Running against six candidates slowed McNichol’s decision to run a fourth time. It was also the third time to run against his nemesis, Dale Tooley.  Finally on 1 March 1983 his decision was to run a fourth time.  McNichols was thinking the most pressing issues for his campaign were airport expansion, developing the Central Platte Valley, and continuing downtown growth.[xxxvii]  The toughest obstacles proved to be his age, the press, and his political machine.

McNichols was handed the job of mayor in 1968.  He was re-elected in 1971, 1975 and 1979.  Three times, in 1968, 1971, and 1975 Dale Tooley was nearly the mayor, but McNichols was able to hold on to the job.  In 1968 he circumvented Currigans wishes for the golden boy Tooley to take the job of manager of city works and then mayor.  In 1971 as in 1975 Tooley gained more votes than McNichols in the initial election, but lost to him in the run off election.  Election observers expected another McNichols, Tooley run off in June of 1983.  Late entering the race, McNichols, at 73 years old, had six contenders for his job.  The six were: Dale Tooley, 49, city attorney; Federico Pena, 36, former state representative; Wellington Webb, 42, former state representative; Monte Pascoe, 48,  former Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources; Steve Schweitzberger, 33, who never held political office; and Harold Sudmeyer, 42, who also never held political office.  All candidates were younger than McNichols and if the candidates did not mention it in interviews, the press made sure McNichols age was noted in many articles.  Experience was also a campaign issue.  Ironically, the contenders to McNichol’s job would make sure they mentioned their previous experience as a qualification to the job of major.  Mayor McNichols found this funny, if the people were voting for experience, then he had the most experience of all of them, especially as mayor.[xxxviii]

Two reporters, Gary Delsohn of the Denver Post and Dave Krieger of the Rocky Mountain News appeared to be McNichol’s seventh and eight contenders to oust the mayor.  Both writers were not shy about mentioning the mayor’s age when covering the election.  And age was not downplayed when writing about Mayor McNichols administration.  Max Zall, Denver’s district attorney, was mentioned numerous times, always making sure his age, 82, was mentioned.  Zall, a constant example in McNichols administration that people were ready to retire, submitted his resignation effective July 1 just three days before the election.[xxxix]  Pressure from the media was certainly part of the reason he resigned.  The Denver Post editorial staff endorsed Dale Tooley.  Two days before the election they wrote: “the administration of Mayor Bill McNichols has run out of steam,” adding, “voters sense the need for fresh energy, better city planning and a general tightening up of a city management which has grown complacent in office.”[xl]  The Rocky Mountain News wrote on the same day: “For too long, the McNichols administration has allowed events to wash over it before reacting,” citing this as one of the reasons they were supporting Federico Pena.[xli]  McNichols was battling against six candidates and two newspapers.  In the press, McNichols and his administration were bundled together when an article or editorial called for change.  The Rocky Mountain news points out: “The mayor is a fine and amiable fellow, but loyalty to his lieutenants has compromised the city’s interests…”[xlii]  The voters may have been voting for Tooley or Pena, but if they voted for McNichols they were voting for Bill and his boys.  And Bill and the boys were not watching the city as they should.  The opposing candidates would constantly remind the voters they were becoming lax in their civic duties.  Of course the newspapers were quick to print what the challengers were saying about McNichols and his administration.

Dale Tooley was the only candidate that brought up the December snow storm in has bid against McNichols for mayor.  Tooley did not attempt to Monday-morning quarterback McNichol’s handling of the storm.  He instead questioned why McNichols did not apply for federal aid for the cost of the clean up of the blizzard of 1982.  Tooley felt $1.25 million could have been reimbursed by the federal government for the $6 million spend on the clean-up effort.[xliii]  In defense of McNichols, there was doubt from Jerry Oakley, deputy regional director for the federal emergency-management agency; Nancy Dick, Lieutenant Governor acting as governor; and Pat Byrne, state director of disaster-emergency services if Denver would have qualified for assistance.  Tooley, always looking to start something with McNichols, pushed the memory of the December storm in front of the voters with out having to make accusations of incompetence.  He, like other candidates, questioned the administration’s competence.  McNichols felt that the storm was an unusual and unexpected natural disaster, and was dealt with as best as possible with the resources at hand.

The major candidates were able to avoid hard issues such as crime, housing, and poverty.  Denver was enjoying a boom.  The issues McNichols was dealing with were the Lowry landfill, light rail, airport expansion, and police moral.  But the campaign for the five leading candidates focused on what Tooley’s campaign ads defined as “just good government.”[xliv]  Days before the election, McNichols concentrated on what to do with appointments to city government that started to draw fire.  Along with Max Zall, there was Elvin Caldwell, city safety manager that was associated with skimming bingo game profits.  The bingo game investigation also involved Art Dill, police chief and Chief Doral Smith, a division chief.  The opposition was concentrating on what changes they would make to the city in budgets, assignments, and investments.  What were missing were issues normally splitting candidates such as race, ethnicity, homosexuality, busing, abortion, and gun control.[xlv]  The administration of the city and responsibility to the citizens takes center stage as the issue of the election.  McNichol’s city administration had to defend themselves against financial misdeeds that started in the early 1980s.  The issues were financial losses on airport concessionaires, airport parking revenues, and an embezzling chief tax collector.[xlvi]  Also in the press is the investigation of the contracted tow truck company used by police to clear accidents.  The mayor, who was loyal to those under him in his administration, became involved in administrative problems.  It appears McNichols was in office to run his administrative machine, and make repairs only as needed.  He is not looking out for voter’s interest in city concerns.  New blood in office may look at problems in new ways.

The decision for mayor went to the voters on Tuesday, 17 May, 1983.  The day before, the polls put Tooley first, then Pena, and McNichols third.[xlvii]  The weather was cold and wet and the predictions said this type of weather would favor McNichols and Tooley.[xlviii]  The experienced conservative vote would make the effort to come out to vote, those unfamiliar with the process would stay home.  Pena and Webb needed that high percentage of previously disinterested and inexperienced voters to get votes.  Most election watchers expected a June run-off election between Tooley and a second place runner.  The results were surprising: Pena had 48,102 votes, Tooley had 40,733, and McNichols gathered a mere 25,217.[xlix]  McNichols was out, he wasn’t even in the run-off election.  The political machine of McNichols was brought to a halt, change would come to Denver’s city administration.

McNichols was credited with guiding Denver through the growth of the 1970s.  But that guidance was not a strong enough accomplishment to convince voters his experience was valuable enough for a fourth term as mayor.  A disaster, natural or man-made, identifies an administration of a politician.  Surely lack of planning and preparation is common theme in many a municipal reaction to a disaster, but when there was a snow action plan in place and it wasn’t followed, the leader of the government has to take the responsibility.  The mayor has to show leadership even if he is delegating to other city departments to accomplish the goal of snow removal.  Two items in McNichol’s day timer could have been crossed off as accomplished that weekend, the Broncos made it to California to play, and the parking lot at McNichols Arena was cleared ready for the crowd that could not get there.

[i] Denver Post, February 6, 1983, p. 11A.

[ii] William McNichols Papers, Denver Public Library Western History Collection, Introduction online.

[iii] Denver Post, December 31, 1968, p.1.

[iv] Denver Post, February 6, 1983, p. 11A.

[v] William McNichols Papers, Denver Public Library Western History Collection, Box 64. FF8.

[vi] William McNichols Papers, Denver Public Library Western History Collection, Box 64. FF8.

[vii] Thomas Currigan Papers, Denver Public Library Western History Collection, Box 21, FF25.

[viii] Thomas Currigan Papers, Denver Public Library Western History Collection, Box 10, FF22.

[ix] Thomas Currigan Papers, Denver Public Library Western History Collection, Box 10, FF28.

[x] Staff of the Rocky Mountain News, Christmas Blizzard ’82 A Survivor’s Souvenir and Scrapbook, Indianapolis:

News and Features Press, 2983, p. 35.

[xi] William McNichols Papers, Denver Public Library Western History Collection, Box 39, FF5.

[xii] Rocky Mountain News, December 23, 1982, p. 122.

[xiii] Rocky Mountain News, December 23, 1982, p. 5.

[xiv] Denver Post, December 24, 1982, p. 1A.

[xv] Rocky Mountain News, December 26, 1982, p. 152.

[xvi] Denver Post, January 2, 1983, p. 20C.

[xvii] Rocky Mountain News, December 30, 1982, p.69.

[xviii] Rocky Mountain News, December 30, 1982, p.69.

[xix] Denver Post, December 28, 1982, p. 1.

[xx] Denver Post, December 29, 1982, p. 12A

[xxi] Denver Post, January 4, 1983, p. 21, p. 8A.

[xxii] Rocky Mountain News, December 27, 1982, p. 4A.

[xxiii] Denver Post, January 5, 1983, p. 1B.

[xxiv] RMN Staff, Christmas Blizzard ’82, p. 99.

[xxv] RMN Staff, Christmas Blizzard ’82, p. 103.

[xxvi] Denver Post, December 236, 1982, p. 19A.

[xxvii] Karen Sawislak, Smoldering City, Chicagoans and the The Great Fire, 1871-1874, (Chicago: University of Chicago

Press, 1995.), p. 29.

[xxviii] Sawislak, Smoldering City, p. 26.

[xxix] Sawislak, Smoldering City, p. 27.

[xxx] Sawislak, Smoldering City, p. 269.

[xxxi] Ari Kelman, A River and its City, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) p. 94.

[xxxii] Ari Kelman, A River and its City, p.94.

[xxxiii] Rocky Mountain News, December 28, 1982, p. 38.

[xxxiv] Denver Post, June 27, 1982, p. 3C.

[xxxv] Rocky Mountain News, December 19, 1982, p. 7.

[xxxvi] Denver Post, February 6, 1982, p. 11A.

[xxxvii] Denver Post, March 1, 1983, p. 4A.

[xxxviii] Denver Post, May 6, 1983, p. 12A.

[xxxix] Denver Post, May 4, 1983, p. 1B.

[xl] Denver Post, May 15, 1983, p. 2D.

[xli] Rocky Mountain News, May 4, 1983, p.78.

[xlii] Rocky Mountain News, May 4, 1983, p.78.

[xliii] Denver Post, May 5, 1983, p. 1.

[xliv] Denver Post Senior Edition, Political Ad, May 8, 1983.

[xlv] Rocky Mountain News, May 16, 1983, p. 2E.

[xlvi] Denver Post, May 18, 1983, p. 1B.

[xlvii] Rocky Mountain News, May 16, 1983, p. 6.

[xlviii] Denver Post, May 17, 1983, p. 1.

[xlix] Denver Post, May 18, 1983, p.1.

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This entry was posted on May 20, 2019 by in Larimer Street.
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