A minyan in the mountains

Denver Jews playing outsize role in bringing Democratic convention to historic frontier town.

obama convention 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
obama convention 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
This historic frontier town built on mines and ranches, surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Colorado Rockies, hasn't been famous for its Jewish presence. But as it prepares to host the pre-eminent political event of the US presidential race to date, the Democratic National Convention which begins Monday, Jews are playing an outsize role - both in bringing the four-day mega-event to town and in choosing between Barack Obama, who will receive the nomination here on Thursday night, and Republican rival John McCain, whose GOP convention will be held next week in Minneapolis. Colorado is emerging as one of 2008's crucial "swing states," where residents' support is fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, making them focal points of battle between those campaigns. DNC planners were well aware of that fact, as was Steve Farber, the co-chair of the local outreach team in charge of convincing the parties' powers-to-be that Denver should be their choice. "The Democratic Party really had to come out West. Had Al Gore won a western state [in 2000], he would have been the president," said Farber, who has deep roots in Denver and its Jewish community. He also emphasized "the infrastructure, the climate - and the phenomenal view" to help seal the deal. Now the convention co-chair, he helped raise the $50 million for small businesses and large corporations in the state and around the country that funds the whole operation. He says even local companies headed by Republicans pitched in because of the boon they thought it would be for the state. One person involved in the convention, in trying to describe Farber's role, said simply that it wouldn't have happened here without him. Farber traces his involvement in politics to his concern for Israel and its relationship with the US, a commitment he has shared with his law firm partner Norm Brownstein, both active in Jewish issues and causes. Farber, 65, used to serve as the chair of the UJA in Colorado. Farber said that Denver is also a great place for the convention because of the "pioneer ideal" that the place symbolizes, an ideal close to the hearts of American Jews. "It's not a matter of who your grandparents are or where they [came from]. It's about who you are and what you stand for," he summed up. "That's what the Democratic Party stands for... The Jewish community has historically been Democratic because Democrats have seemed to give more opportunities to the underdog." And the convention gives the chance for that community to heighten its political involvement. "This enhances the community. The Super Bowl's once a year, the all-star game is one day. This is more than a week. It's a process. Hopefully the process will elect the next president of the United States. The Jewish community has always been involved as political activists," he said. "This allows the Jewish community to rally around a candidate." He was speaking while attending one such event highlighting the attention of Jews on the presidential campaign and visa-versa, a meeting of the Obama campaign's Colorado Jewish Leadership Council organized by his Farber's son Brad. With the convention about to start, Obama's Jewish vote coordinator Eric Lynn and Florida US Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz could address the 200-strong audience. The involvement of those votes and other Colorado Jews could be key come November, according to National Jewish Democratic Council executive director Ira Forman. "It's one of the biggest Jewish communities west of the Mississippi, and the Jewish vote is significant enough that in a close election, the Jewish vote could make a difference." There are 85,000 Jews in the greater Denver area, where the vast majority of the state's Jews live, according to a recent survey. Forman points out that while Colorado was once solidly Republican, with the state a reliable one for the GOP presidential candidate, a Democratic shift has put members of that party in the governor's office, the state assembly majority and one of the state's two US Senate seats. And Jews are part of the trend that's making things close. Denver has been growing like other western cities that pose attractive alternatives to over-crowded coastal cities. Along with that has come booms in the white collar service industry and hi-tech businesses, leading to a more highly educated - and a more Jewish - population. Both those indicators favor the Democrats. But while the Jews have moved in, they have also been shaped by the strong pioneering tradition, one tending toward local rule and self-sufficiency that has long tied voters to the Republican party. "The Jews are more liberal than the state as a whole," assesses Brian Friedman, [head] of Denver's Jewish Community Relations Council, who describes a politically active constituency that is especially energized because of the key role Colorado is set to play in the general election. "[But] on average Jews here would be more conservative than Jews elsewhere." That makes them like their fellow Coloradans - a group that will be fought over come Election Day. "You still have this Western individualism and I think Jews are part of that. That puts Colorado right smack in the center and that's why we're a battleground state."