By John Hazlehurst
On May 19, Colorado Springs finally will elect a new mayor. It’s been a drawn-out process, featuring too many debates, too many mailers, too many TV ads and too much money. But why complain? That’s politics in the first quarter of the 21st century.
Whether Mary Lou Makepeace pulls the upset of the young century or John Suthers coasts to an easy victory, we’ll have elected an eminently well-qualified mayor.
How would each govern? They’ve both been local elected officials, and they’ve both distinguished themselves in public life. Their positions on significant issues are similar, yet their associations, history and records suggest deep differences — and not just over marijuana.
Interestingly, the two have followed parallel political tracks that never quite intersected.
Suthers served as district attorney for the Fourth Judicial District from 1988 to 1996. After a year in private practice, he lost to Ken Salazar in a 1998 run for Colorado attorney general. In 1999, he was appointed executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections by then-Gov. Bill Owens. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Suthers U.S. Attorney for Colorado, a position that he held until Owens appointed him to replace Salazar as attorney general in 2005. He served in that capacity until January of this year.
Makepeace was first elected to City Council in 1985, serving until 1997 when she was chosen by Colorado Springs voters to replace Mayor Bob Isaac. She was re-elected in 1999 and left office in 2003. Since then, she’s directed two substantial nonprofits in Colorado Springs and served on multiple boards and commissions.
Often frustrated by the alpha male politics of the legendary “Mayor Bob,” Makepeace advocated more open and transparent governance, more citizen involvement and more support for arts and culture. As mayor, she transformed a dysfunctional Council into a notably united and effective body.
Suthers’ campaign website is dazzlingly non-specific. He advocates no new programs, proposes no changes and promises nothing. He’s all for parks, public safety, infrastructure funding, fixing potholes and working with City Council to move the city forward. Makepeace touches on the same issues, but has issued detailed action plans to support her platform.
Apart from a few years in private practice, Suthers has spent 25 years in law enforcement, running complex public organizations. He’s dealt with governors and legislators of both parties, and has gained a deserved reputation as an honest and incorruptible public servant. He’s also managed to mollify the kingmakers of the Republican Party when necessary, but never sacrificed his integrity to do so.
We know what Makepeace will do, because she’s already done it. We’ll see renewed emphasis on downtown, on the parks system and on community input. We’ll see a more compassionate, egalitarian local government, one less closely linked to moneyed power brokers. She’ll continue Mayor Steve Bach’s homeless initiative, and make sure that the LGBT community has a seat at the table. And we’ll see a carefully structured, collaborative effort to deal with the city’s infrastructure problems.
Suthers is more opaque. We know that he’s a competent administrator who has worked in high government positions for the past 16 years. Although he’s left an enviable managerial legacy, he’s never had the kind of policy-making power that big city mayors and state governors enjoy.
Suthers has been endorsed by all three of the city’s public employee advocacy organizations: the Police Protective Association, the Professional Firefighters and the Colorado Springs Utilities Employee Advocacy Group. He’s also the preferred candidate of the business community, enthusiastically supported by a substantial majority of the city’s movers and shakers.
Such unanimity won’t last. His supporters expect that his low-key, non-confrontational style will be effective in the mayor’s office, but their support is predicated on his policy decisions.
Will he keep Bach’s managers, or replace them? Will he move City for Champions forward, or will he decide to focus on other priorities? Will he be a cautious bureaucrat or a transformative leader?
He doesn’t need to prove that he can manage a large organization, but pulling Colorado Springs out of a decade of drift and dysfunction will be the most difficult challenge of his career.
“He’s an attorney and a damned good one,” a retired public defender told me. “He’s too smart to tip his hand. But he’s tough as hell and he’s out to win. He’s like Hillary — he wants to run the show.”