Can Democrats and progressives elect one of their own as mayor of Colorado Springs? And if not, can they achieve a majority on City Council?
It may be that the runoff provision guarantees that the mayor elected will be a card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool Republican. Absent that provision, Richard Skorman would have won in 2011.
Running against two strong opponents (Steve Bach and Brian Bahr) in the general election, Skorman finished first, narrowly outpolling Bach. But Bach easily prevailed in the runoff, 57 percent to 43 percent.
In that 2011 runoff, turnout was the highest ever in a municipal election, at 64.12 percent. It dwarfed the 2009 figure of 35.9 percent — not surprising, given that sleepy, district-level Council contests historically have seen lower voter numbers.
Looking at actual votes cast, the numbers have been fluid since 2003, when 81,822 voted in a lively election that featured four Council incumbents running for mayor, four at-large seats and two contested district seats. We reached our nadir two years later, when only 34,352 voters (14.95 percent) out of 229,834 registrants bothered to vote. In 2011, it was 99,306 out of 154,884 registered voters who participated in that Bach-Skorman runoff.
Such fluctuating numbers aren't unique to Colorado Springs. In Denver, 114,494 (46.8 percent) turned out in 2003 to elect a mayor and 13 councilors. Two years later, with nothing on the ballot but a couple of referred measures, turnout dropped to 62,897 (25.1 percent). Last week, when Mayor Michael Hancock ran unopposed, turnout was a dismal 28 percent.
The takeaway: If Democrats and progressives want to influence municipal elections by increasing turnout among the young, they should focus their efforts on years when there are no city-wide contests, no divisive ballot issues, and nothing much at stake.
Let's imagine a sanguine and satisfied 2017 electorate. Let's further imagine a booming local economy, soaring home prices and a frothy job market.
We'd be back in the '90s, and ready for the Liberal Hour.
As defined by economist John Kenneth Galbraith, the Liberal Hour is a moment in time when the most obdurate reactionaries become suddenly amenable to reason. Such events, like total eclipses of the sun, are rare and wonderful.
Assuming that John Suthers prevails in the ongoing mayoral runoff, we can expect an amiable, non-confrontational administration and an amiable, cooperative City Council. The fighters and biters are gone (Bach and Joel Miller) or defanged (Keith King, Don Knight, Helen Collins). A moderate/right coalition that includes Merv Bennett, Tom Strand, Bill Murray, Jill Gaebler, Larry Bagley and Andy Pico seems to be in the driver's seat.
Come 2017, six district seats will be up for grabs. Pico, Bagley, Gaebler and Knight (who, despite losing some like-minded colleagues, remains in a conservative district he won easily in 2013) seem firmly entrenched, and could likely beat back any challengers. Meanwhile, even though Collins fended off a well-financed recall effort, her ethical woes and eccentric policy positions make her vulnerable. And stripped of his position as Council president, King might decide to retire in 2017, if not sooner.
Those seats — Collins' in the southeast part of town, and King's, which encompasses downtown and the west side — would appear as good a bet as any for progressives. And one thing is clear — there are plenty of unmotivated young voters out there who might support such candidates.
According to an analysis of 2015 returns by Aaron Briggs of the HB&A planning and design firm, the best-performing precincts in town for 30-to-44-year-olds were all in the Skyway/Broadmoor area. Turnout in other neighborhoods ranged from poor to abysmal.
"[Colorado College] is one of the worst," Briggs notes via email. "66 votes out of 2,498 registered 18-29 year olds. That's 2.6%! Downtown has a lot of young voters, but they didn't turn out. 49% of the voters in the downtown precinct are under 44, but they only cast 20% of that precinct's votes. 4.5% and 12.4% turnout downtown for the 18-29 and 30-44 year olds respectively."
Time for the Liberal Hour, if the stars align in 2017 ... and they will!
On Aug. 21, 2017, go to Casper, Wyoming, stand at Highway 220 and South Poplar Street at 11:42:34 a.m. ... and experience the first total eclipse of the sun visible from the contiguous United States since 1979.