Who will be our city's next mayor?
During the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012, it seemed inevitable that Mayor Steve Bach would have two terms. In those fretful days, he impressed not only residents of the Pikes Peak region, but of the state and the nation. Even my sister, a Democrat who has lived in Denver for decades, was a fan.
"I really like him!" she said. "He ought to run for governor — he's great."
But what many of us thought was the beginning of the Bach era may have been its high-water mark. When the Indy raised questions about the inner workings of the city's fire response, Bach wouldn't answer. Then internal wars increased in bitterness and frequency, as Bach feuded with shifting Council majorities over budgets, Utilities, City for Champions, stormwater, the Urban Renewal Authority, Council staff and the city attorney.
The essence of politics is disagreement. Master politicians such as Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Roy Romer, and Mary Lou Makepeace have known instinctively how to manage disputes. They schmooze, they paper over differences, they find common ground and move forward.
That's not Bach's style.
"I've known Bach for 30 years," says one friend, "and he's the bluntest man I've ever met. He's as far from being a politician as anyone could be."
In 2013, six new councilors took office. Bach lost two supporters when Tim Leigh and Angela Dougan were replaced by Joel Miller and Don Knight. They were joined by newcomers Keith King, Andy Pico, Helen Collins and Jill Gaebler.
Led by veteran legislator King, the new majority was as combative, uncompromising and tough-minded as Bach. It was a combustible mixture, which erupted anew in last week's angry name-calling over stormwater.
Bach's decision to go all medieval on the widely praised initiative surprised many observers. Was he doing a Doug Lamborn, positioning himself on the anti-tax right in advance of the April 2015 election? Was he signaling that he won't run, and feels free to speak his mind regardless of political consequence? Or did he make a catastrophic political mistake?
We don't know. But it did reshuffle the mayoral deck, giving rise to what we might call "The Progressive's Dilemma."
If the architects of the 2010 strong-mayor initiative hadn't included a runoff election provision, Richard Skorman would be mayor. In practice, the runoff virtually guarantees the election of someone conservative. Absent a strong, qualified and well-financed progressive candidate, it seems likely that any 2015 mayoral runoff will match two conservatives.
Who would enjoy the support of the 43 percent who backed Skorman in the 2011 runoff? Let's suppose that Bach doesn't run, and term-limited Colorado Attorney General John Suthers is joined in the runoff by County Commissioner Amy Lathen. (Both have already expressed interest in the job.)
First appointed to replace Douglas Bruce in 2008, Lathen is a longtime Republican activist and ardent gun-rights supporter. Hardly a liberal, she's a smart, capable official whose leadership has been crucial to stormwater. She has helped build coalitions and work across political boundaries. If county voters approve the stormwater authority in November, she'll get much credit.
Suthers is a man of extraordinary intellect, integrity and experience. He served with distinction as district attorney and then attorney general. He's also a 63-year-old white guy who blocked gay marriage in Colorado, a move that some saw as cynically political. I don't agree — having known Suthers for many years, I buy his explanation that the attorney general is obliged to defend all state laws, regardless of personal beliefs.
If conservatives are divided, Skorman supporters could decide the next mayor. The choices may not seem palatable politically, but Lathen has appealing characteristics. She's 47, female and has worked effectively with Miller, Knight, King, Jan Martin, Val Snider and the rest of Council.
Will she turn into a sweet-tempered moderate? Not a chance. Could she run the city, support downtown revitalization, and build on Bach's legacy? Absolutely, but so could Suthers.
Voters may have the chance to decide next spring — and how about a three-way race before the runoff?
Bach, Suthers, Lathen ... imagine the possibilities!