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What cost a mayor his job

In Greeley, Colo., his mistake was to criticize an immigration raid.

November 27, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

GREELEY, COLO. — Tom Selders is still baffled at how quickly the city he served for years turned on him.

The two-term mayor of this conservative farm town had been a political fixture for nearly two decades. A businessman who prided himself on bringing efficiency to city government, Selders infuriated his constituents after jumping into the national debate over illegal immigration. In May he spoke at an open forum in Washington about the effects of last year's immigration raid on a meatpacking plant here, which led to the detention of 262 undocumented workers.

"Many families and children were devastated by parents being arrested and detained," Selders said. "Children -- citizens of the United States -- were left without parents."

The reaction in Greeley, whose Latino population has nearly tripled since 1980, was swift and furious. Selders, who was seeking a third term as mayor, was overwhelmed with angry calls. He became a regular target on local talk radio. A mailer linking him to illegal immigrant gang members flooded mailboxes.

Earlier this month Selders was ousted from the nonpartisan post, losing to a retired police officer by a 3-2 margin.

"I really feel betrayed by my community," said Selders, 61. "There's a big contingent of people in this community who are just full of anger and hate about illegal immigration, and that anger and hate has been transferred to me."

What happened to Selders, a lifelong Republican, is a cautionary tale of the politics of illegal immigration. To some, it shows how a good man trying to do the right thing was taken down by the forces of intolerance. To others, it shows what can happen to elitist politicians who dismiss voters' frustrations over unchecked illegal immigration. "A lot of people in Weld County remained silent" as people like Selders criticized the December 2006 raid, said County Dist. Atty. Kenneth R. Buck, who supported Selders' opponent. "They don't want to be called racist, they don't want their business to be boycotted. . . . There were a lot of people who were waiting to be heard in their anonymous way."

Greeley, founded in 1869 by a newspaper reporter who followed fabled New York editor Horace Greeley's admonition of "go west, young man," is a city split in two.

The more prosperous western side has subdivisions with names like "Promontory" or "Glen Meadows." The largely Latino eastern side consists mainly of weathered Victorians, mobile homes and trailers. Looming over these working-class neighborhoods is the massive Swift & Co. meatpacking plant.

As an agricultural hub, Greeley has long had Latino residents. But the Latino population soared in recent decades as the meatpacking industry shifted to an immigrant-heavy workforce. Latinos now make up about one-third of the city's 90,000 residents.

Now signs in City Hall are bilingual. One in 5 Greeley elementary school students needs help speaking or reading English. Critics blame illegal immigrants for part of the $36 million a year in uncollected bills at the local hospital, and a 73% rise in violent crime since 2000.

"Businesses are shutting down, our professional people are leaving to find a better place," said Joy Breuer, an opponent of illegal immigration who runs a shelter for the homeless. "This town used to be one of the most beautiful places to live in Colorado."

By his own admission, Selders rarely ventured into the eastern half of town while growing up on the west side. He left Greeley to study chemistry at college in Boulder. He moved back after serving in Vietnam as a naval officer, and quickly founded a company that built bridges and culverts.

It wasn't until 1990 that Selders tasted local politics. He joined the Parks and Recreation Commission. The city was planning to close a public pool on the eastern end of town. "I said, 'Wait, isn't this the part of town where we want recreation facilities,' " he recalled.

The city reversed its decision, and Selders was hooked on public service. He served two terms on the City Council, then, after selling his stake in the construction business and starting a small computer firm, he was elected mayor in 2003.

Selders made a point of going to the east side and meeting with community groups. "For the first time we had someone we could call on, and he'd respond," said immigrant rights activist Ricardo Romero.

In November 2005, after winning his second two-year term, Selders and the rest of the City Council refused to follow Dist. Atty. Buck in demanding that the federal government open an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Greeley. Selders feared it would lead to racial profiling, a stance that angered many here.

On the morning of Dec. 12, 2006, Selders was in his home office when the city manager called -- federal immigration agents were raiding the Swift meatpacking plant. The workers were accused of stealing or buying identities and Social Security numbers to secure jobs.

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