A lot of people have ancestors who said or did things that make their descendants cringe. But there’s an extra burden if your name is Walker Stapleton, a candidate for governor and scion of a proud family with a last name written large in Denver’s history.
The New York Times wrote an article Tuesday that declared, “Family History Haunts G.O.P. Candidate for Governor in Colorado.”
The 1,601-word story by Julie Turkewitz spoke of Walker Stapleton’s glittering resume of public service, primarily as state treasurer the past eight years. His political lineage goes four generations deep into Colorado history, and he is a cousin to the presidential Bush family.
Then the Times adds this:
But there is one aspect of his family’s past that Mr. Stapleton has largely avoided mentioning: His great-grandfather, Benjamin Stapleton, a five-time mayor of this city, was also a powerful member of the Ku Klux Klan, a bespectacled former judge who helped the group seize control of Colorado government in what is now considered one of the state’s darkest periods.
Benjamin Stapleton served as Denver’s mayor for five discontinuous terms (1923-31, 1935-47).
Stapleton didn’t talk to Turkewitz, who covers the Rocky Mountain region for the Times, for her story.
“Some voters said they would like Walker Stapleton, the gubernatorial candidate, to address this past in a more direct way,” she tweeted. “Others said it would be unfair to expect him to do so.”
Colorado Politics has sought for months to have a discussion with Stapleton about his great-grandfather’s ties to the KKK. On Tuesday he said this:
All reasonable people understand my great-grandfather died in 1950, about 25 years before I was even born. (I) am focusing on the future.
When he first ran for state treasurer eight years ago, Walker Stapleton spoke of his great-grandfather for 23 seconds in a three-minute ad. (Watch it at the end of this story.)
“His accomplishments included building the first civic center in Colorado, helping reinvigorate Denver’s park system, including right here at Red Rocks, and building Colorado’s first municipal airport, Stapleton Air Field,” the candidate said then, not mentioning his ancestor’s KKK ties.
His great-grandfather’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan were not unusual in Benjamin Stapleton’s day.
Benjamin Stapleton was only one of the first in a wave of elected officials to help the Klan seize control of the state in the 1920s.The group’s first recruiter arrived from Georgia in 1921. By 1924, the Klan had won control of the mayor’s office, the city police, the governor’s seat, both United States Senate seats and much of the state legislature. Hooded men marched through town; opponents were kidnapped and pistol-whipped.Much of this took place amid anxiety over crime and ascendant minorities.The Klan fell, but Mayor Stapleton survived, and he went on to help lay the foundation for modern Denver.
The times left other legacies of shame.
“While Catholics, Jews and Blacks spoke out against the Klan in newspapers such as Denver Express, Denver’s major papers were silent or neutral. The Klan infiltrated both political parties,” notes an article posted by the Denver Public Library‘s Western History Collection under a picture of Benjamin Stapleton and Gov. Clarence Morley standing with Klansmen.
Benjamin Stapleton eventually broke with the Klan. He acquired the nickname “Ben the Builder” for civic improvements he fostered.
Walker Stapleton’s candidacy comes amid a heated national discussion on race and politics, with President Trump’s policies on immigration and on football players kneeling for the national anthem adding to that acrimony.
Today’s Stapleton has embraced Trump as well as Tom Tancredo, who got in the governor’s race last year after a group with ties to the deadly Charlottesville, Va., conflict lost its contract on a Colorado Springs venue.
The campaign of his Democratic challenger, Jared Polis, passed on the opportunity to comment on The New York Times story.
“I spoke with A LOT of people for this piece,” Turkewitz tweeted. “While the South has long grappled with the legacy of the Confederacy, historian Patty Limerick explained that Colorado has been slower to examine its own scarred past.”