Call it the Trump effect in Trump country.
Hundreds flocked Tuesday evening to fill the Stargazers theater in heavily conservative Colorado Springs for the launch of a new local social change organization. Founders of this new nonprofit, called Together for Colorado Springs, are pitching it as a long-term organization “dedicated to mobilizing a powerful progressive/moderate coalition” in the Pikes Peak region.
That characterization comes from John Weiss, a local businessman who founded the Colorado Springs Independent, the city’s alternative weekly (which, despite the name, is not connected to The Colorado Independent). Weiss has been organizing Together for Colorado Springs for the past year. The goal is to form a centrist consensus in the area on big questions facing the state’s second-largest city.
Here's a look at some of the issues Together for Colorado Springs seems interested in pic.twitter.com/U1XERN6MMu
— The Colorado Independent (@COindependent) February 8, 2017
The new group plans to interview candidates for the next city election and might make endorsements, and will form community-wide task forces on multiple issues.
One of those issues is extending and potentially expanding a 2003 measure set to expire in 2025 that would continue funding trails, parks and open spaces. Also on the agenda is a city ballot measure to strip out a part of the state and city’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment. Commonly called the ratchet-down effect, it limits revenue the city can keep to the previous year’s tax receipts. (The measure would keep the part of TABOR that requires voters to approve tax increases.)
The group also wants to explore raising pay for city council members. They currently earn an annual stipend of $6,250. Weiss worries the low pay limits who can run to people like retirees with good pensions who can afford it. Exploring better public funding for local arts and culture in the region is also on tap.
At Tuesday’s kickoff, more than 500 people filled every seat in the theater to hear speeches from locals such as longtime attorney Greg Walta. Walta is a board member of the new group, which is a 501(c)4 social welfare organization.
Colorado Springs, Walta said in a speech from the stage in the darkened theater, often gets a bad rap for things said and done by its conservative politicians. He name-checked former GOP Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt who once performed a public exorcism of Barack Obama on air, and Congressman Doug Lamborn who wants to strip funding for NPR.
“We need to elect moderate public officials,” Walta said.
Sally Fitzgerald, who lives in nearby Manitou Springs, said she heard about the launch party for this new group during a recent ladies luncheon and decided to attend.
“We’re just in an uproar about things that are happening,” she said. “Even if you voted for Trump you can’t be happy with things. The whole world is in an uproar, it’s not just us in Colorado Springs … we have other agendas but yet we’re still all sisters and brothers in this world.”
The packed event didn’t just draw the usual suspects who show up at left-of-center community gatherings in the Springs, said Bob Nemanich, a local Democrat who made a name for himself as one of a handful of Electoral College members to who tried to organize an unsuccessful revolt against Trump.
“My hunch is a third of the crowd was Republican,” Weiss said, adding that he spoke to several who told him they voted for Trump.
El Paso County, ringed by five military installations and home to a network of churches and religious nonprofits, went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points.
But Republicans in the region are fractured, Weiss said.
“They’re not a united party,” he said outside the event as attendees filtered out and shook his hand or patted him on the shoulder. Weiss aims, with this new group, to try and rally support from segments of the region’s business community, and liberal and conservatives residents alike.
What interested local residents Charlie Campbell and Deborah Adams about the new group was its mission to bring moderates and people on the left together.
“With the national election … we have to learn to speak to people who are on the other side as we see it,” Campbell said.
“We have for a long time had this reputation of being a community of hate, and we really aren’t,” Adams said.
That was one theme of the night as speakers inside, such as Walta, talked about the history of the Springs as being ground zero in the culture wars of the 1990s. The city is also the hometown of anti-tax folk hero Douglas Bruce and his revenue-limiting Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. And the Springs made national news years ago for the way it handled the Great Recession by severely cutting government services.
Major companies, Walta said in his speech, do not want to locate their businesses or try to attract employees to live in places with reputations like that.
Things might be turning around for the city, he indicated, but there must be a moderating force to make it happen faster. At another point in his speech, Walta praised the city’s new mayor, former Republican Attorney General John Suthers, for pushing a temporary sales tax increase last year to help fix the city’s crumbling roads. The line was followed by a big applause.
“We need to let companies know that we not only disagree with these crazy things our elected officials say, we need to let them know we will honor all their employees,” Walta said, no matter their race or creed. “And yes,” he said, “that we will honestly welcome your employees who happen to be gay, lesbian or transgender.”
In the parking lot following the event, Weiss stressed that the seeds of this new organization were planted pre-Trump. But it was clear at Tuesday’s gathering and the crowd it attracted that politics at the national level is getting more people engaged in their local communities.
And the new group, Weiss said, is no short-term project: “We’re creating a permanent organization.”