Jariah Walker says he just wants to make a difference.
And if Walker is elected to District 5 of the El Paso Board of County Commissioners, he'll make a huge difference in one way: He'd be the first Democrat elected to the County Commission since 1970, when Stan Johnson took District 1.
Since then, 35 Democrats have run for a Commission seat. Jerry Buchholz came closest to winning, in 1990, when he challenged Republican incumbent Gary Shoupp for the District 5 seat but lost 51 percent to 49 percent. The gap was 401 votes.
More recent Democrats have been less successful. In 2012, John Morris ran against Republican incumbent Sallie Clark for District 3 but lost 57 percent to 43 percent. In 2010, former state representative Michael Merrifield ran against Republican Peggy Littleton for an open District 5 seat but was defeated 60 percent to 40 percent.
Democrats haven't done much better seeking other county elected offices. The last time a Democrat won any county elected seat was in 1984, when Barry Iuppa was elected 4th Judicial District Attorney.
Add that to the fact that Walker will apparently have to face both incumbent Peggy Littleton and a second challenger, Republican Thomas Austin. Neither Austin nor Walker has current financial information filed with the Colorado Secretary of State, but Littleton already has reported over $16,000 in her war chest.
So how does Walker assess his odds?
"I think my chances are fantastic," he says, adding, "I don't look at it as I'm a Democrat running against this huge mountain. I look at it as I'm the best candidate, and it doesn't matter if I'm a Democrat or a Republican. I'm running as Jariah."
What it takes
Walker is a 36-year-old partner with Walker Asset Management Realty, a company founded by his grandfather, where he works in property management and residential real estate. His family has lived in Colorado Springs for generations. He's married, with two young daughters.
Before entering the family real estate business, he worked as a bartender at TGI Fridays and Tony's, did marketing for a plumbing distribution company and acted in his spare time for the Star Bar Players, among others.
He's recently volunteered and held leadership positions with Leadership Pikes Peak's Leadership NOW! program, and Family Connections, a child abuse prevention program. He's a facilitator for Food for Thought, a community discussion group, and sits on a committee for the 21st Century Library Campaign.
In other words, Walker is an involved member of the community, but lacks political experience. That may not be a bad thing. Merrifield, who's now running for the Colorado Senate, says that a big part of Walker's strategy can be pointing to Littleton's weaknesses. After four years on the Commission, he says, Littleton has shown herself to be far right despite the fact that her district is mixed politically. "Jariah," Merrifield says, "has the opportunity to come in with a clean slate."
Joshua Dunn, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs associate professor of political science, says that a young, eager candidate with no "votes they can be hung by" is probably an ideal Democrat to run for the County Commission. But asked what he thinks it would take for a Democrat to actually win the seat, he laughs.
"A miracle," he says.
Dunn explains that because there are only five districts drawn across a largely conservative county, every district is a safe seat for Republicans. Walker's campaign has noted that District 5 could be winnable because while it holds nearly 24,000 Republicans, it's also home to nearly 16,000 Democrats and over 22,000 unaffiliated voters.
"Those are grim numbers for Democrats," Dunn counters. "Most unaffiliated voters are sort of closet partisans. ... In El Paso County, that means most of those people vote Republican."
Indeed, in the 2012 presidential election, District 5 was carried by Mitt Romney, 52 percent to 45 percent.
On the issues
Walker says his campaign will consist largely of door-to-door visits and house parties.
If elected, Walker says he'll concentrate on attracting infill projects to his district and raising real estate values. He says he'll work with Sallie Clark to try to reduce the county's high rate of child abuse. He'll talk to the heads of local colleges, universities and businesses in an effort to match skills training with workplace needs.
As for the hot issues, Walker seems to still be formulating his views. He says he's supportive of City for Champions, but would like to see it further vetted.
"I don't want to be reckless, but do I think it can work?" he asks. "Yes."
He's proud of the county's response to the Black Forest Fire, calling it a "strength," but is less sure what to do about the region's stormwater problem. He says he thinks long-term development could generate funds to help, but concedes that something will have to be done in the short term to alleviate emergency issues. He's not sure what that will be, or whether a regional approach is preferable.
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