Colorado Springs election was a ‘citizen uprising’ against dark money, smears and special interests

The city council will now have a more moderate majority

Colorado Springs election was a ‘citizen uprising’ against dark money, smears and special interests

COLORADO SPRINGS — On Wednesday afternoon, Richard Skorman was wearing a black apron while at work in Poor Richards, the restaurant he owns downtown. He also owns the adjacent cafe, bookstore and toy store — a string of storefronts that has been for decades a gathering place for progressive causes in this traditionally conservative city.

Tuesday night, Skorman won an election to the nine-member city council along with three other candidates that could tip the balance of power here in a more moderate-to-progressive direction.

Skorman will join re-elected incumbent Jill Gaebler on council with Yolanda L. Avila and David Geislinger, who also won Tuesday, handily beating a slate of candidates backed by special interests and developers. Together with current councilman Bill Murray they could form a five-member majority voting coalition on issues.

What that could look like in practice for the Springs is anything from more investment in trails and open spaces to allowing the sale of recreational marijuana— which is currently prohibited in Colorado’s second largest city— to the shuttering of a downtown power plant within the next decade.

“What if we could create an arts district down there?” Skorman said of the Martin Drake coal plant, which looms over the heart of downtown and has been the source of much recent controversy and lawsuits. His comment gives a hint at just how transformative the election might have been.

For Trig Bundgaard, a homelessness advocate who directs the Coalition for Compassion and Action and watchdogs city council, the results made clear that this city, with a checkered reputation in the shadow of Pikes Peak, wants a change from the status quo.

“The council is now a majority of people who appear sympathetic to the homelessness crisis,” he said, adding how he believes the five who could form a majority also understand how affordable housing fits in. 

But while Councilman Murray, who has been in office for two years, acknowledges “the moderates won,” he cautions that there’s no guarantee they’ll always work together.

“We’ve got personalities and we’ve got egos,” he said. The class has been elected. Now let’s see if they can govern. “This could be the best council that it’s ever been,” he says. “We’re on the cusp of some real opportunities.”

Plenty of observers see Tuesday night’s results as a stinging rebuke to a dark money campaign and negative attacks against Skorman and another candidate, Gaebler— a smear job that ratcheted negativity up to a level unusual for the city’s elections. Gaebler filed a criminal complaint against her opponent for spreading falsehoods about her in campaign literature. (The DA declined to file charges.)

Also during the election, a group called Together for Colorado Springs formed with a goal to get more progressive and moderate candidates elected to offices in the area. More than 500 people attended the group’s launch in early February, where speakers lamented the reputation the city has for right-wing causes like the anti-gay Amendment 2 and being the birthplace of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. The group also did candidate training, research and polling in some districts, and sent mailers on behalf of two candidates who won.

Related: Hundreds in Colorado Springs packed the launch party of a new progressive-moderate group

Meanwhile, the daily newspaper’s editorial page coverage of the election, which also unleashed harsh attacks on Skorman and Gaebler, became the subject of a protest from Together for Colorado Springs outside The Gazette newsroom last month.

National politics might also have played a role.

Following the election of President Donald Trump— El Paso County went for him 56 percent to 34 percent over Hillary Clinton—  the Springs saw more than 7,000 flood a downtown park for a women’s march that organizers called the largest demonstration in the city’s history.

While voter turnout was not high— around 30 percent— the city council election was the first ballot voters here have seen since Trump became president.

“People want to get involved and they are frustrated with national politics, but they can get involved locally,” Skorman says. “And I think you’re going to see this across the country. Colorado Springs is one example, but people aren’t going to let these local elections slide like they have in the past.”

The Gazette’s news coverage of the election was robust, and the paper in late March asked if dark money and “sharp elbows” would be the new normal in the city’s local elections. The Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly endorsed all six winners in the election and frequently covered the dark money influence and negative campaign tactics throughout.

“They, I think, rebelled against it,” Skorman said of voters. “I think there was a bit of a reaction, basically a backlash. It may relate some to what’s happened nationally and I think people didn’t expect it in a local election.”

The municipal election also featured something else atypical for the Springs: A slate of candidates backed by special interest groups and developers that benefitted from attack ads aimed at their opponents.

“For the first time really, which was unusual, all this dark money came in on behalf of a ticket that was in a position to take over city council or gain the majority,” said Colorado College professor emeritus Bob Loevy, a political scientist who closely followed the election and once ran for council himself. “Because of all the dark money you just didn’t know who they were or what they were really about.”

But the slate lost.

“I think what it said was, ‘This is our community … and we don’t want to be told what to do, we don’t want to be told who to vote for, and most of all we don’t want people who are bought by special interests,’” said Mary Lou Makepeace, who was mayor from 1997 to 2003 and lost a comeback run in 2015 to John Suthers, the state’s former Republican attorney general.

Makepeace called the election “a citizen uprising almost.”

Back at a table in Poor Richards a day after he won, Skorman, who previously served on city council from 1999 to 2006 and lost a bid for mayor in 2011, said he hoped the election results might change some perceptions of the city in other parts of the state.

“Colorado Springs has really grown, and I think it’s grown a lot in ways that aren’t what people think about us traditionally,” he said. “We have a lot more young people here, there’s a lot more people that are moderate-thinking. I wouldn’t say that we’ve become Boulder. We have a ways to go. But it’s definitely a lot more balanced, and this election really proved it.”

 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the year of a mayoral election.

Photo by Corey Hutchins

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project.

1 Comment

  1. Donna Strom on said:

    In addition to all the aspects of the April 2017 election covered in this article, I offer one more. The Broadmoor Land Swap of 2016 was extremely unpopular with the citizens of Colorado Springs. Despite a clear public mandate, the Colorado Springs City Council voted to approve the swap by a vote of 6 to 3. Two of the winners in this election courageously stood against the swap; Skorman by leading the fight to oppose it, and Gaebler by her council vote. It’s more than reasonable to believe that this election served, for many voters, as the referendum on Strawberry Fields which was denied to the people at the time when it should rightfully have taken place.

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