This year’s city council elections have been epically nasty. Scorched-earth political tacticians have targeted Richard Skorman, Jill Gaebler and Yolanda Avila. It seems that Richard, Jill and Yolanda are weak-minded, sanctuary-cities loving, Sierra Club-supporting, big-spending, city-bankrupting liberals who deserve to go down to defeat! Fun accusations for sure — does it matter if they’re false?
As the old saying goes, all’s fair in love, war and politics. If you can get away with maligning your opponent, so much the better if it helps you win an election. Still, it’s dismaying to see such practices migrate from national and statewide contests to our once amiable, polite and resolutely non-partisan city elections.
And who’s fault is it? Some people blame the activists at Colorado Springs Forward and Housing & Building Association for the present state of affairs. Others gnash their teeth and clench their fists at the take-no-prisoners style of the Gazette’s editorial page (I’m talkin’ to you, Wayne Laugesen!), or shed crocodile tears over the $90,000 that a “dark money” PAC has thrown into the election (I’m talkin’ to you, Dede Laugesen!). But these are symptoms, not causes.
Our unruly elections are the predictable result of two voter-approved city charter changes. Changing the form of government meant that the mayor was no longer a member of city council, and not so incidentally mandated a runoff election if no candidate received a majority in the first round.
Absent that provision, Richard Skorman would have been the city’s first strong mayor. As you may remember, he led all candidates in the first round, then lost to Steve Bach in the runoff. Bach managed to claim the conservative mantle, and the strategy worked.
Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson said, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” Similarly, Lamborn’s Law of Local Politics states that no candidate in Colorado Springs can do very wrong if he places himself to the right of his opponent.
The second charter amendment, suggested by former Mayor Lionel Rivera, changed the composition of city council from four district councilors, four at-large representatives and the mayor to three at-large and six district.
At-large elections tend toward civility. As a candidate, you don’t get any traction by trashing your opponents. You want to be one of the top three, four or five, depending upon the number of at-large slots available. If there are five, you want to be on as many ballots as possible — there’s no strategic advantage in being a first choice over a fifth choice. Hence, candidates praise each other for being fine, civic-spirited folks who are eager to work together.
Running in a district is different. You try to demonize, out-conservative and outspend your opponent(s). Powerful folks that you’ve managed to offend may also target you.
Gaebler and Skorman shouldn’t be surprised that the Gazette’s editorial page has gone after them. They both strongly opposed the Strawberry Fields land swap between the city and The Broadmoor hotel. Phil Anschutz owns the Broadmoor and the Gazette, his son Christian Anschutz is a member of the editorial board, and any newspaper’s opinion page reflects the views of its owner. As Jim Croce might have put it, “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape … and you don’t mess around with Phil.”
It’s pretty clear that the power players want a predictably business-friendly majority on council, one that will approve a revised Banning-Lewis Ranch annexation agreement/master plan and agree to support a measure creating a separate Colorado Springs Utilities Board of Directors.
But even if their candidates win, there are no guarantees. Once elected, councilors tend to cast off the shackles and vote as they please. No one wants to be identified as a tool of the power structure, and you can’t make big money as a Tejon Street lobbyist after you’ve left office. As far as I know, no former councilor has acquired money, power and influence after leaving office. Some leave town, some retire and the rest of toil in deserved obscurity.
Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Gazette declined to endorse candidates for political office, thereby (perhaps inadvertently) contributing to civil debate. That practice may have originated in the libertarian belief that politicians are scoundrels by nature, so why encourage them?
Here’s what the Gazette got right in their attack pieces this year: they correctly spelled Skorman, Avila and Gaebler.
Here’s what they got wrong: Almost everything else.
Here’s the truth: To the best of my knowledge, all the candidates for the six district seats are decent, honorable folks who if elected will do their best to move the city forward. In local government, national political labels are meaningless — productive city councilors are smart, well informed, collaborative and not given to grandstanding. Consider present incumbents Tom Strand and Merv Bennett (singled out in part because they’re not up for re-election) or former Mayors Bob Isaac and Mary Lou Makepeace. Their common goals — to get stuff done.
In local government, hard work beats ideology every time.