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Different election takeaways

Between the Lines

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Analyzing any Colorado Springs city election requires a mixture of curiosity and historical perspective.

It was easy to draw quick conclusions after the 2019 election ended last week. Springs residents appear content with their city government, evidenced by Mayor John Suthers winning a second and final term by a huge margin. Similarly, the City Council at-large race produced a positive snapshot with familiar face Wayne Williams and incumbents Bill Murray and Tom Strand defeating eight opponents. And the local firefighters' quest for bargaining rights was shot down, another indication voters trust their elected leaders.

Enough of that. Let's dig a little deeper into three more subtle storylines:

1. We now have a clear-cut favorite to replace Suthers as the Springs' next mayor. Williams, after dominating the at-large contest with 47,581 votes — more than 16,000 ahead of his nearest challengers, Murray and Strand — has positioned himself perfectly.

Williams will be 60 in four years, perfect timing for one last career challenge. And his path resembles that of Suthers, having served as county clerk and commissioner (Suthers was district attorney) before moving on to state office as secretary of state (Suthers was Colorado's attorney general).

We'll see how aggressive Williams will be as a councilor. Don't be surprised if he moves thoughtfully, using the next few years as a learning process, picking his spots to have a power-wielding influence.

2. Here's a statistic that conveys a sobering message: 63 percent of registered voters, or exactly 166,803 residents, didn't bother sending in ballots. Granted, 98,281 did vote, but that's only about one-fifth of the city's 465,000 residents.

That means election apathy still reigns in Colorado Springs, despite the convenience of having ballots mailed to each voter's home. It also induces new questions: Has the time come to move April off-year elections to November, lessening voter fatigue? Could the solution eventually be some kind of secure system that allows voting online? More to the point, what will it take to inspire many more people to vote?

There's no way to know exact numbers, but given that older folks are far more likely to fill out their ballots, it's possible (even likely) that between 80 and 90 percent of adults 40 and younger didn't vote in this election.

That age group — obviously including many Independent readers — for the most part isn't interested in local elections, even when refreshing candidates from left and right make the effort to run. Suthers was safe, even if everyone had voted. But any kind of reasonable turnout by Millennials and younger Gen-Xers could have swung the at-large battle in favor of Terry Martinez, Regina English or Tony Gioia.

Hopefully those and others don't give up. And the time is now, as veteran Councilor Jill Gaebler posted online last week, for the city to get serious about paying a decent salary to councilors, thus enticing more interest from the 30-49 age group.

3. Good outcomes aren't guaranteed. Sometimes they're fortunate. One election postmortem begs a quick history lesson, and a belated credit to someone far removed from public life.

Lionel Rivera, the mayor from 2003 to 2011 with a record of highs mixed with lows, was edging toward lame-duck mode in 2010 as a campaign emerged to change the city to a strong-mayor form of government. He attended a forum at Penrose Library with an agenda including how to restructure City Council. At that time, the mayor was one of the nine elected Council members, along with four at-large reps (voted on by the entire city) and four positions chosen by districts. But under the proposed system, the strong mayor would head the executive branch, separate from the legislative City Council.

Much discussion at that 2010 forum centered on whether to have Council's 5-4 split favor districts or at-large. Rivera spoke up, unexpectedly suggesting six districts and only three at-large councilors, hopefully meaning a more diverse group. The forum attendees went along, and the 6-3 split became reality.

Rivera's idea came back to mind last week. In the cluttered at-large race, fourth place went to ex-state legislator Gordon Klingenschmitt, whose homophobic and other nauseating views have embarrassed Colorado Springs repeatedly. Yet, if not for Rivera, we'd be lamenting Klingenschmitt's win of a seat on Council.

Instead, we have the stability of Suthers and a mature City Council, making today look positive. But the apathy is still there, an ugly wart.

So what about tomorrow?

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