Does Colorado Springs have a permanent governing class? The April city election tossed that commonly held belief into the dustbin of history, but the election-night wag who said that “Boulder just moved to Colorado Springs” was wrong.
This is a city dominated by the Republican Party. President Trump swept El Paso County in November, beating Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points. Republicans dominate our legislative delegation, the Colorado Springs City Council and other partisan elected offices. No Democrat has ever represented the 5th Congressional District, and no Democrat has been elected to the county commission since 1970. Want to serve in elected office? If there’s a big blue D next to your name on the ballot, you may be S.O.L.
Ambitious wannabes sign up with the Rs, and try for that bright red splash that will endear them to Republican caucus-goers and primary voters. Consider State Representative Dave Williams, who in 2009 was removed from his position as UCCS student body president for refusing to sign off on a request by Spectrum, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender club on campus, for $2,100 in student activity fees to fund a “coming out day” observance. Whatever the merits of the case, it fast-tracked Williams, a smart guy with a long political career ahead — if he so chooses.
Who’s the most powerful Republican in town? Not Doug Lamborn — he may be our guy in Washington, but his job is to respond to the needs of the business/military structure. The city’s CEO and chairman of the board is Mayor John Suthers, a veteran Republican elected official whom Colorado Springs voters overwhelmingly chose in a non-partisan 2015 election. He’s been an effective change agent, wrenching the city from years of dysfunctional political paralysis. Will a new council majority seize the reins and move the city in new directions, or will Suthers remain in control?
Let’s take a look at our reconstituted city council, whose members are now in full, friendly kumbaya mode.
Solid conservatives: Only Don Knight and Andy Pico really fit this category, and neither are hard-line righties. They’re smart, patient and do their homework. Knight’s attention to detail can be infuriating, but may be essential to bringing his new colleagues up to speed.
“It’ll be good to work with Don,” said newly elected Council President Richard Skorman, who served on council from 1999-2007. “When I was on council before, we trusted Larry Small. For example, we knew that Larry had read and understood utility bond documents, and would let us know if there were problems.”
Moderate conservatives: Merv Bennett, Tom Strand and probably David Geislinger. Bennett and Strand have consistently supported the mayor’s initiatives, and helped lead council away from the 2013-2015 era of confrontation. Elected without opposition, Geislinger was sensible enough to keep his mouth shut and his options open.
Change agents: Yolanda Avila, newly elected President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler, Skorman, Bill Murray — call them the Feisty Four. New initiatives will emerge from this group, but they’ll need help from their colleagues to move forward. Putting together coherent and sustainable council majorities has always been difficult, and doing so without the mayor’s support will be nearly impossible. Given the present popularity of the doughty Suthers, it’d take nine Bill Murrays even to try.
Their best shot is to concentrate on utility issues. The mayor has no power over CSU, a situation that he may deplore but cannot remedy. The Feisty Four might want to hasten the demise of the Martin Drake downtown power plant, resetting its projected closing date from 2035 to 2025, or even earlier. They could also reset council’s strangely subordinate relationship with CSU management by scheduling board meetings at City Hall, rather than in a cramped and unfriendly CSU conference room. And while they’re at it, why not have twice-monthly utility board meetings, as well as dedicated staff?
Council can also make land use decisions without risking a mayoral veto, thanks to our quirky City Charter. You can bet that the Feisty Four and the inquisitive Mr. Knight will delve deeply into the soon-to-be proposed details of the Banning-Lewis Ranch deal. And what about the Strawberry Fields land swap? If the appeals court rules against the city, will the new council agree to continue the fight, or revert to the status quo ante?
We’ll see. Meanwhile, it looks as if it’ll once again be fun to cover city council. Guess I won’t have to move to Pueblo after all!