Dana, a 22-year-old college senior studying Colorado Springs' response to chronic homelessness, couldn't believe what she was seeing.
"It was just so awful," she said. "Some of the people who were about to be forcibly evicted from the tent city established in a parking lot adjacent to Springs Rescue Mission came before City Council to plead their case, and these old white men just sat there and stared into space, didn't look at them, didn't listen — it was like they didn't exist. Jill Gaebler was the only one who listened. She focused on them really intently."
Told that Jill had worked many years for Greccio, a provider of affordable housing, Dana wasn't surprised. "I thought she might have some direct knowledge," she said, "but what about the rest of them? Why is everyone else on Council so old? You need more people like Jill!"
The day before, Dana had been helping displaced people find new campsites.
"This is a sentence I never thought I'd say," she said. "Yesterday I helped three people move under a bridge."
How do you explain political power in Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region to Dana and her peers? Do you tell her the truth, that much of the region is under the thumb of an intelligent, sclerotic minority that has pretty much run things for the past 40 years? Do you tell her that the power geezers in April's municipal elections have targeted Gaebler and her colleague Don Knight for defeat as punishment for their obstinate independence? Do you tell her that the city she sees — downtown, the near suburbs, Westside, Old North End and Manitou Springs — is just an illusion, an insignificant stain on the grand suburban tapestry of greater Colorado Springs?
Despite the visible rebirth of downtown (thanks, Susan Edmondson!) and the Westside, suburban growth has far outstripped that in and around the core. According to the recently released annual UCCS Economic Update, 9,000 new active residential water accounts have been created in Colorado Springs since 2008. Almost all of that activity was on the city's periphery.
Countywide, the same pattern is evident. There were 2,585 single-family building permits issued in 2014, 2,935 in 2015, and 2016 is on pace for 3,300-plus. But hardly any were for core city single-family residences.
The prosperous suburbs that ring Colorado Springs are, like similar suburbs in other Western cities, overwhelmingly white and conservative. But perhaps because of the city's strong military presence, many of our suburbanites are comfortable with settled hierarchy. Barnburners and rebels occasionally get elected to local office (Joel Miller, Tim Leigh, Brandy Williams), but seldom get re-elected.
So who are the head geezers in charge? Alas, there's no shadowy hierarchy pulling the strings, no Godfather sending orders down the chain of command. We'd love to believe that Phil Anschutz and Bill Hybl meet occasionally, decide a course of action and the entire power structure falls in line, but it's not so simple.
There's a settled business/political establishment that shares goals and usually supports the same local candidates. If you're thinking about running for City Council next April, stop thinking. You're already too late.
Through some mysterious, osmotic process, the power structure already knows who the "serious" candidates are (i.e., those who might qualify for their support). If you're among them, you've been invited to send in your "resumé and platform" and, if you passed the paper screen, to come in for an interview. Fifteen interrogators will greet you, representing the Housing and Building Association, Pikes Peak Association of Realtors and Colorado Springs Forward. Pass the test, and your campaign will be well-financed, professionally managed and widely supported. If you come up short, it's your fault.
I should have told Dana that councilors make only $6,250 annually. She would have erupted, noting that such a policy benefits the rich and retired, while disqualifying the young and anyone who has to work for a living.
In 1950, I would have known what to say.
"Dana, dear," I would have murmured in patriarchal tones, "you just need to find yourself a nice husband, a good Republican doctor or attorney. And when the kids are grown up, you can run for Council. Just make sure you get home in time to make dinner for hubby!"
And the message today? "Dana, if you want to help run things, move. This damn town will never change."