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Wayne Williams: Playing the political game

City Sage

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Who's our consummate professional politician in Colorado Springs? Is it County Commissioner for Life Sallie Clark? Clerk and Recorder/Treasurer/Party Planner Bob Balink? Councilman/State Sen. Bernie Herpin?

Let's define terms. A "professional" is someone who can make a living in a particular field because of his/her expertise, training and natural ability. You can't be a professional baseball player if you can't hit the curveball, and you can't be a professional politician unless you can get elected and re-elected to offices that pay a living wage.

It's tough to be a professional pol here, with so few qualifying positions available. There are dozens of starter jobs around, though. You could get elected to your local school board (pay: $0) or to City Council ($6,250).

But even if you did a couple of stints on the School District 11 board and then served two terms on Council, you wouldn't be a professional. To reach that lofty status, you have two paths from which to choose: the state Legislature and El Paso County. If serving on City Council is like playing semipro baseball, the Legislature is the minor leagues. At $30,000, the salary isn't great, but you get decent benefits, reasonable working conditions, and work only four months of the year. Commuting to Denver is a pain, but the $183 per diem makes life a little easier.

But if you're not afraid to dream, go for El Paso County. You may think that our five county commissioners, treasurer, assessor and clerk and recorder are obscure bureaucrats slaving away in musty government offices, but you'd be wrong.

They're the Pharaohs of Politics, the Sultans of Service, the Ri$ing $tar$ of Republicani$m. Each collects a mouth-watering $87,300 annual salary plus fabulous benefits. And yes, they're all Republicans.

Serving as commissioner compares to serving on City Council as prime rib and Dom Perignon compare to soggy nachos and Coors Light. You have no bosses, no hours, no defined duties and a single statutory obligation: attend meetings. Get there, and you're a professional. Get re-elected, segue into another county post — you're an All-Star.

Wayne Williams served from 2003 to 2011 as a commissioner. Detractors point out that he was never chosen by his peers to chair the board, but it served him well. He managed to work with polarizing colleagues such as Douglas Bruce and Jim Bensberg without angering any of the local GOP's quarrelsome factions. Such agility helped when he moved seamlessly from commissioner to clerk and recorder, with 68 percent of the vote.

But serving as clerk has certain disadvantages. It's an actual job with lots of tiresome, work-related tasks. To his credit, Williams has done well in the position, administering the law while making the obligatory Republican noises about voter fraud.

Williams has been grazing in the tall grass for 11 years and could easily get re-elected in 2014. Instead, he is running for secretary of state.

Incumbent Scott Gessler is leaving to run for governor. The canny Williams has moved quickly, sewing up endorsements from virtually every living prominent Colorado Republican.

It's hard to forecast an election 11 months out, but Williams is superbly positioned to win. He may have little statewide name recognition, but his likely Democratic opponent, Joe Neguse, has even less. Williams already has shown himself in other counties as an amiable, supple campaigner — the Republican John Hickenlooper, if Hick were a conservative Latter-Day Saints bishop with an amazingly photogenic family.

But why would Williams want a Denver job that pays $20,000 less than his current position? Could he be thinking ahead? Hick may be a little down in the polls, but it'll be difficult for the much-maligned Gessler or the other GOP challengers to take out a sitting governor, especially after a bruising primary race.

Williams may coast through without a primary, win election easily and be perfectly positioned to grab the brass ring in 2018. He'll be the sensible, hard-working Republican who won't have to stray into the loony precincts of the extreme right. Hickenlooper will be term-limited, Colorado voters may be sick of the Dems, so why not Williams in '18?

You think not? Remember, professionals always plan ahead...

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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