John Suthers may never unleash the fever pitch of many successful conservative politicians, but in an era of by-any-means-necessary Republican political cockfights, his lack of charisma is an obvious strength.
He’s dry. He’s logical. He’s frank. That’s his reputation.
Some in the Republican Party have floated his name as a possible pick to challenge Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in 2016.
Cynthia Coffman, the attorney general and once likely Senate candidate, is tangled in GOP scandal, leaving no clear viable Republican contender for the 2016 Senate race. Supporters of Suthers say the stoic former attorney general turned Colorado Springs mayor would bring much needed honor to his tarnished party.
But Suthers says being mayor of Colorado Springs is an endgame.
“No one who has any political sense to them thinks of this as a stepping stone,” he told The Colorado Independent.
Most of his career, Suthers’ conservative Republican politics have been dwarfed by his duty to the law as it is written. He gets branded with the word “honorable,” even by many of his opponents.
When he served as state Attorney General, conservative gun lovers and liberal marriage-equality champions alike scorned him for enforcing the laws of Colorado – the bans on high-capacity ammunition magazines and same-sex marriage.
Boxes of hate mail piled up in his office. Profane calls loaded his voicemail system. Death threats forced him to call in law enforcement to protect him and his family at home.
But he stuck to his conviction that his duty was to the law – not to his pro-gun, pro-religious-freedom, anti-same-sex-marriage politics. Whatever the law was, he says, his job was to enforce it, even when he disagreed.
As he likes to tell it, he was “marching to the dictates of the Constitution.”
The Constitution still matters to him now that he’s mayor of Colorado Springs, but he has to take stands on issues he cares about. His personal perspective matters – not just the written law.
Now, he has veto power. If the City Council passes a measure he doesn’t like, he can strike it down – unless council members vote down his veto.
He can’t use that power capriciously. His seat entails a constant wooing of City Council and Colorado Springs’ voters – retail politicking he doesn’t have much experience with. The last mayor had a deep divide with the Council, and Suthers was elected, in part, on promises that he would stitch that gash.
In short, he can’t be a jerk.
But can he be himself? What does John Suthers believe and how will his convictions play out politically over the next four years?
Some Democrats fear Suthers is organizing alongside anti-gay, anti-trans evangelicals and working with them to make sure religious people have the right to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
He does believe that the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage may compromise religious freedoms. But politically, at least in Colorado Springs, he says religious freedoms aren’t his priority right now.
Since taking office a month ago, he’s more interested in talking about infrastructure and economy than marriage equality and the concerns of evangelicals.
Colorado Springs has a reputation as more religious than other cities because it’s home to Focus on the Family. But that’s just not true, Suthers says, mentioning a study that shows his city’s residents are no more likely to attend church than people in any other part of the U.S.
It’s a big city, he notes — the 41st largest in the country, with a population that trumps those of Miami, Minneapolis, New Orleans and Oakland.
And Colorado Springs is culturally diverse, he adds. One benefit of diversity is the money it brings, which he embraces.
For example, he’s mostly sure he’ll issue a welcoming letter to the group organizing this weekend’s Pride parade. He has no plans to march in it and prefers to stay out of what he calls “controversial” issues. But he’s grateful for the money the LGBTQ community will bring to the city because of the event.
If events bring in money, he says he’ll welcome them — no matter which groups are organizing them.
Money is a big issue in the largely Republican city where many diehard conservatives loathe taxes. But Suthers’ people have polled Colorado Springs residents and found that they are sick of having pocked roads that puncture tires and put cars’ alignment out of whack.
People are willing to pay a little more for better roads – as long as it comes from sales tax and not property tax, Suthers says.
So, he’s sending his proposal to the voters in November, giving them a TABOR-style chance to decide whether decent roads are worth pennies on the dollar.
The Colorado Springs economy is still recovering from the recession, and people there need jobs.
He’s trying to lure California entrepreneurs shut out by the exorbitant cost of doing business in the Golden State – something Denver has done well particularly because of the booming recreational marijuana industry, which is banned in Colorado Springs and Suthers opposes.
Even without pot, he wants people to remember that the Springs is a modern place with street lights and green parks – not the shut down, dried up wasteland national media portrayed it as a few years back, when The New York Times said the city was in a “dark age” in 2010 after it quit watering the grass, shut off lights, auctioned off police helicopters and cut its police force.
The city came under deeper criticism when City Council refused federal money from the Local Jobs for America Act the same year.
Suthers says the water’s back on and so are the lights. Colorado Springs parks are world class, he says, but the city has still not recovered from the media hit to its dark-age reputation.
If Suthers’ plans work out, Colorado Springs will see a sports stadium, an Olympic museum and a new welcome center for the Air Force Academy closer to the interstate. The old train station would be converted into a high-tech business center. Industry would boom.
The work as mayor is harder for Suthers than any other job – including District Attorney of the Fourth Judicial District and Attorney General, he says. But he’s confident that he’s getting it done and done well.
As of now, Democrats’ fears that he’s fixing to use his post to attack equal rights of LGBTQ people seem unfounded. And he says the GOP has no chance of luring him away from his hometown for national politics — well, unless a president offered him a post as Attorney General of the United States.
Then, he says, he’d “quit in a heartbeat.”
Photo: John Suthers, public domain.