What an interesting city election! It almost seemed as if we had experienced another iteration of “the liberal hour,” once defined by Adlai Stevenson as that rare moment in politics “when even the most obsolete men become reconciled, if briefly and expediently, to the realities of the present world.”
That may overstate things a bit, but for a longtime observer of/participant in Colorado Springs politics, it’s beginning to look a lot like the mid-1990s.
The ’90s saw economic revival, contentious yet productive local government and far-reaching decisions by voters and elected officials that continue to shape our community.
City council during the six years that Mary Lou Makepeace held office was progressive, thoughtful and even fearless. Councilors such as Ted Eastburn, Jim Null, Lionel Rivera, Margaret Radford, Sallie Clark and (remember?) Richard Skorman shaped and implemented policies that still drive the city. Passage of the SCIP bonds by a scant 50.8 percent of the vote in 1999 was the first of many significant achievements. But council was, to use Doris Kearns Goodwin’s memorable phrase, a team of rivals.
In 2003, Makepeace was term-limited, despite having served only a term and a half. Clark, Eastburn, Null and Rivera all resigned from council (as the charter required them to do), and ran for mayor. Rivera won with 34 percent of the vote, and the progressive majority was history. Under Rivera’s leadership, council was noticeably more conservative and less risk-inclined. That didn’t mean that it had suddenly become ineffective or overly timid — the next eight years saw both important and lasting initiatives (the Souther Deliver System ) and bold fiascos (the USOC retention deal and the short-lived Stormwater Enterprise).
From 2009 until Mayor John Suthers took office in 2015, the city endured a prolonged recession, two major fires, a significant flood and a change in the form of government. Between 2011 and 2015, the mayor was ineffective and council veered between dysfunction and impotence.
Competent, experienced and sure-footed, Suthers took office with a simple agenda: Clean up the mess! Council gratefully sat back, supported the mayor’s initiatives and tried to figure out what its role might be.
This election was a revelation. While Mayor Suthers cannily refused to endorse any candidates, many observers supposed that the Colorado Springs Housing & Building Association/Colorado Springs Forward/Gazette-approved slate would be more to the mayor’s liking than any combination of their rivals. That group also benefitted from approximately $250,000 in so-called “dark money” from a Denver-based independent expenditure committee, whose funders remain anonymous.
Why and how did the business-supported slate fail so miserably? Of the five contested districts (David Geislinger was unopposed in District 2), only one of the slate was elected, incumbent Andy Pico. Endorsed by both the Gazette and the Colorado Springs Independent (owned by Colorado Publishing House, which also owns the Colorado Springs Business Journal), the amiable Pico also benefitted from three relatively weak opponents.
In every other district, insurgents and incumbents outworked, outsmarted and outpolled the business slate. It wasn’t a liberal landslide by any means, but a simple demonstration of old-fashioned retail politics.
- For the favored five, it was all Dire Straits: money for nothin’! They didn’t have to rely on $25, $50 and $100 donations — the dough poured in, their campaigns were professionally managed, and they were free to… well, do whatever they pleased. They were, in effect, the trust fund babies of politics, shielded from the vulgar necessities of glad handing, fundraising, working the phones and connecting with voters.
- Dark money funded negative advertising usually works, but it didn’t this time. People in their districts know Don Knight, Jill Gaebler and Richard Skorman, and may have been offended by these tactics, just a few months after enduring a year of national nastiness in the presidential election.
- Colorado Springs Forward, the Anschiutz-owned Broadmoor, the Strawberry Fields land swap, the Anschiutz-owned Gazette’s unrelenting editorial attacks on Gaebler and Skorman; the linkages seemed self-evident to many voters, especially…
- Democrats, who joined with moderate Repubs and independents to work on the Gaebler, Skorman and Avila campaigns.
So what does the future hold? Council seems to be in the hands of moderates and liberals. Knight and Pico are firmly conservative, Merv Bennett and Tom Strand are committed moderates, Gaebler, Avila and Skorman are somewhat liberal and Bill Murray is unclassifiable.
It’s a mix that should be entertaining, imaginative, mildly quarrelsome and, let us hope, productive. Good luck guys.