Are we on the verge of recreating Colorado Springs, of making it more just and more equal? Will we admit how much white privilege has shaped our city and ourselves? Or is this apparent public enlightenment another false dawn?
White privilege shaped me, and enabled me to partially escape it. Thanks to money inherited from my paternal great-grandfather (a Confederate soldier after whom I am named), I bought a sailboat, took off for the South Seas and got married in French Polynesia. My eldest son, six grandchildren and two great-grands came from that union, and are all people of color. Many were here in Colorado Springs in February for a family event at our home, a multicultural festival that would have appalled Gen. John Gill. Yet despite that history, I’m still an old white man trying feebly to overcome the stupidity, insensitivity and cluelessness of my age, gender and color.
To move toward the bright future that many of us yearn for, we have to make difficult structural changes in state and local government. The business community must also reevaluate a host of “business-friendly” tax breaks and regulatory policies that it has enthusiastically supported in the past.
Let’s take a look at our City Council. A group photo taken in 2019 depicts seven elderly white guys and two young-ish women. Bill Murray, Tom Strand and Wayne Williams are at large, while Don Knight, David Geislinger, Richard Skorman, Yolanda Avila, Jill Gaebler and Andy Pico are elected from council districts.
Our city is far younger and far more diverse than our elected representatives. Are council’s skewed demographics accidental, or the unavoidable outcome of deliberately crafted municipal policies?
Twenty-five years ago Springs voters narrowly approved an annual $6,250 stipend for councilmembers, who had previously been unpaid. It was better than nothing, but very far from a living wage. The demands of the job have increased since then and few people without a high-earning spouse or substantial personal wealth can afford to take on a full-time unpaid job.
Voters have since rejected pay-for-council proposals, apparently believing that paid councilmembers would be “professional politicians” who would only be in it for the money.
There’s no way to put lipstick on this pig: By declining to pay their elected full-time representatives, city residents have discriminated on the basis of age and race. Young people and people of color make less and have less access to wealth than older white people, and council’s past and present reflect that imbalance.
We can fix it with a new vote, but unless we do so in November it’ll have no effect on the April 6, 2021, municipal election, when five of six district councilmembers will have served two terms and be ineligible to run for reelection. If the city has really changed, the new council won’t look like the old one.
And what about the El Paso County Commissioners, a deeply partisan body that has not included a Democrat since the 1970s? The five commissioners make more than $120,000 in annual salary and benefits (thanks to the state legislature!) and are generously staffed. Could state lawmakers mandate nonpartisan at-large elections for county commissioners statewide, thereby giving every resident a reasonable shot at a plum political job? It might even be best to give a new non-partisan board of commissioners the power to appoint (and, if necessary, remove) the sheriff and other elected county offices.
During the past few years of frenzied growth and soaring real estate values, downtown Colorado Springs has benefited from extraordinary tax credits, exemptions and state economic growth incentives. Downtown south of Boulder Street is almost all within a federal “Economic Opportunity Zone.” According to the city’s website, such zones are intended to “draw long-term investment to communities with high unemployment and poverty rates … investors will be able to defer their capital gains taxes by investing them in opportunity Funds that provide needed long-term investments in our region’s opportunity zones to promote economic vitality.”
C‘mon, folks! Downtown no longer qualifies under those criteria, and such bennies may now support gentrification, not community renewal. Encourage investments in other, clearly legitimate opportunity zones in the Pikes Peak region.
Since Jill Gaebler will be termed out in 2021, real change would come with three new women, three people of color, three under 40 and all five under 50. That’d be exciting and fun — if I were 40, I’d run.
If it paid…