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Colorado mayor's sympathy for immigrants costs him his job

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.

Spouses and children converged on the plant for news of whether their relatives had been arrested or deported. Local charities raised tens of thousands of dollars for families whose breadwinners were jailed.

Selders regretted the raid's effect on the workers' families as well as on the city's largest business. Swift had complied with a federal program to verify its workers' Social Security numbers, yet it still lost millions of dollars because of the disruption. But Selders stayed quiet.

"These things can take on a life of their own," he said. "I felt it was better to not say a lot."

In May, a local church-based group asked Selders to speak to pro-immigrant organizations in Washington that lobby for immigration reform. He decided that he had an obligation to go. "I felt it was the right thing to do," he said.

He put out a news release about the trip; he felt compelled to tell his constituents. The morning he left, the Greeley Tribune ran a story about the trip on its front page. The calls -- all negative -- began pouring in before Selders' plane landed in Washington. They picked up after he backed a Senate immigration reform proposal the next day that critics labeled amnesty. Selders immediately realized he was in danger of losing his mayor's job.

His challenger was Ed Clark, a former police officer who works as a school security guard. Clark hammered Selders on the city's crime rate, which he tied to illegal immigration. In August, Buck, who supported Clark, held a forum on the need for an ICE office, drawing several hundred people who heard him speak of the link between crime and illegal immigrants. He and Clark estimated that 10% to 15% of the crimes in the town were committed by undocumented immigrants.

Fliers critical of Selders were mailed to voters. One had a photo depicting gang members flashing signs. The caption read: "Tom Selders is good for business." Clark and Buck said they had nothing to do with the fliers.

After beating Selders, Clark said: "I have seen over the years a growing presence of Mexican nationals and illegal immigrants that are starting to join the gangs here. I'm not going to let this take root." Selders was partly the victim of an anti-incumbent wave in Greeley. Another council member was defeated and a third survived by a few dozen votes. But even Selders' backers said crime and illegal immigration led to his downfall.

"People are angry enough with all the gangs in town, and they feel Mr. Selders didn't do much to stop that," said Jan Boedigheimer, an underwriter who voted for the former mayor. She knew he would lose, and termed his trip to Washington "career suicide."

Selders' wife, Sandi, said she wasn't surprised he was blindsided by the hostility. "It's hard for Tom to understand a difference of opinion," she said. "He really does believe that good will triumph, and it doesn't always."

Before handing over the mayor's office to Clark the week after the election, Selders drove around the eastern neighborhoods he felt were defamed in the campaign.

He went past the hulking Swift plant. Signs in Spanish advertised for 1,300 new workers. He gestured at the small, tidy homes.

"Nothing wrong with these places," Selders said. "They're just not very big."

Opponents of illegal immigration are elated to see Selders go. "Now it's going to change," Breuer said. "People who don't want to follow the laws will get out of here."

Immigrants rights activists in Greeley are still in a state of shock and wonder whether they missed a chance to help a rare ally.

Selders' campaign got some support in the heavily Latino neighborhoods, said activist Sylvia Martinez. "People didn't believe [in Selders] because he is white, because he is a Republican, because he is a businessman," she said. "I don't think a lot of people believed he was running for his life."

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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