John Suthers might not have needed it in the race to determine Colorado Springs’ next mayor, but he definitely found himself riding a new wave in local politics.
Thanks to a surprising late surge, 88,966 voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s municipal election, 1,592 fewer than those who voted four years earlier. But voter turnout, as measured by the percentage of active registered voters who mailed or turned in their votes, was 39 percent as opposed to 62 percent in 2011.
That’s because the number of active voters skyrocketed in 2014, thanks to a Democrat-sponsored measure in the state Legislature mandating that ballots be sent to all registered voters in statewide and federal elections. In 2015, the city mailed out 228,000 ballots to active voters, compared to 151,000 in 2011.
Yet, despite virtually identical turnouts, this election was hardly a replay of 2011.
Four years ago, Richard Skorman led the mayoral race with 35.83 percent of the vote. Skorman’s percentage may have been reduced by Dave Munger’s candidacy, which attracted 4.45 percent of voters, and by Tom Gallagher’s quixotic bid, good for 5.29 percent. Together, they received more than 45 percent of the total vote, auguring well for Skorman’s prospects in a runoff.
The three leading conservative mayoral candidates in 2011 (Steve Bach, Buddy Gilmore and Brian Bahr) accounted for just over 52 percent of the vote.
But this year the moderate/liberal share of the electorate plummeted. With 46.37 percent of the vote, Suthers doubled Mary Lou Makepeace’s 23.56 percent. Two other conservatives in the field, Amy Lathen and Joel Miller, received 27 percent of the vote, putting the conservative share at well over 70 percent.
Given that Democratic candidates running citywide for state and national office usually poll between 35 and 38 percent in the city, and given that the April voters have traditionally been more moderate than those in November, what happened? Did Makepeace run a bad campaign, did the base not turn out, or was Suthers just an overwhelmingly powerful opponent?
The runoff should answer these questions. At first glance, it seems unlikely that Makepeace can prevail.
In 2011, 99,306 voters participated in the runoff, up 10 percent from the 90,558 who voted in the first round. Bach prevailed over Skorman, and won by a 57-43 margin.
Suthers received 40,900 votes in the first round. If 96,000 voters cast ballots in the runoff, he’ll need 48,001 to win, an additional 7,101 votes. With 20,783 in the first round, Makepeace will need an additional 27,218. That’s a tall order — in fact, it’s not a stretch to say that it’s politically impossible.
In 2011, Jan Martin led the at-large field with 44,901 votes, or 11.12 percent of votes cast. This year, at-large leader Merv Bennett garnered 33,690 votes but received 15.09 percent of the votes.
That’s because 2011 was a transition year, thanks to a change in the City Charter. Voters selected five at-large Councilors that year, but only three on Tuesday.
In a diverse and powerful 2011 field, Martin, Val Snider, Merv Bennett, Brandy Williams and Tim Leigh won out. The election also served as a trial run for three Councilors who will take their seats on the dais this month: Helen Collins, Larry Bagley and Bill Murray.
On Tuesday, Collins fought off a recall attempt, which failed by a 55-45 margin. Bagley defeated Kanda Calef in District 2, while Murray claimed one of the at-large seats. All three clearly benefited from losing efforts in 2011, particularly Murray.
In 2011, Murray received 25,826 votes, good enough for second runner-up. This year, he increased his total to 26,437 and won. As he pointed out, he was outspent 10-to-1 but prevailed anyway.
Bagley fell far short of victory in the 2011 District 2 race, getting only 21 percent of the vote and finishing a weak third among four candidates. This year, he engineered a dramatic reversal, defeating Calef with 69 percent of the vote.
Less friction, more collaboration
Voters also narrowly approved two minor charter changes that may lessen friction between the Mayor and City Council. One relieves the mayor of the responsibility to sign contracts executed by Colorado Springs Utilities, while the other authorizes Council to hire and fire its own support staff.
The new Council, as Murray said after his victory, will have a lot on its plate. If Suthers prevails, he has promised to move aggressively forward to identify the best means of funding the city’s deteriorating infrastructure, including stormwater and street maintenance. Decisions involving the controversial City for Champions projects will have to be made, even if the controversial downtown stadium/events center is removed from the list.
Former Councilor and third-place mayoral candidate Miller has made it clear he will oppose back-door public funding for downtown infrastructure improvements that would benefit the proposed Olympic Museum, which could in turn lead to a contentious citywide vote.
The election is just about over. Now it’s time for the main event.