City auditor Jeff Litchfield marched down the center aisle of City Council chambers. Wearing a kilt and giant bearskin hat, and carrying his bagpipes for a mid-meeting performance, he looked like a party surprise for an excited 9-year-old.
City Councilor Margaret Radford, looking every bit the part of the special birthday girl, took one look at him, laughed heartily, and exclaimed, "Oh, cool! That's so awesome!"
After eight years, the term-limited Radford was saying goodbye to Council on April 14. Hers was the lone seat to change hands in the city election; Bernie Herpin was sworn in April 21.
Radford's colleagues, looking giddy as the bagpipes played, apparently wanted to send her out in style. After the performance, many said her candid emotion, as much as her dedicated service, would be missed. Radford was often warm with citizens and staff, and was known to shed a few tears when hard decisions were made.
"You truly cared about people as individuals," said Councilor Jan Martin, now the only woman on Council.
Out of the frying pan
Radford, a Des Moines, Iowa native, started out as a journalist. Working for big newspapers in Texas alongside her husband, Bill, she began to yearn for a more personal experience. The couple decided to work for a smaller paper. Wowed by the mountains, they moved to Colorado Springs in 1988 to work at the Gazette. Bill still works there, but Margaret left after about six years.
She remembers once, in a pugnacious moment, former Gazette editor Jon Stepleton snapped at her, "You have a disproportionate interest in fairness."
It was one reason she left the paper and took up life as a freelancer. And then came politics.
"I got involved because a guy rode around on a bike with a flier that said, 'No Constitution Highway,'" she remembers.
After catching wind that city staff was secretly planning to build a freeway-style, east-west corridor down residential Constitution Avenue — right through her neighborhood — Radford became involved in neighborhood groups and started calling Council. Before she knew it, she was causing trouble alongside then-neighborhood activist Sallie Clark. Radford ended up helping Clark run for mayor in 1999.
"We thought, 'Oh sure, we're incredibly naïve, we don't know anything, we'll just tie yellow ribbons around trees' — that became her symbol, yellow ribbons," Radford remembers, chuckling. "So, she lost."
(Mary Lou Makepeace won that one.)
Then, before the 2001 city elections, City Clerk Kathryn Young altered the Council districts. The change threw the incumbent in Radford's home district, Linda Barley, into foreign political territory that she would fail to master in a race against Clark. Radford found herself politically excited and in an open district. She ran — often citing Stepleton's "fairness" comment — and won handily.
Who you know
Shortly after she took office, Radford got a phone call.
It was then-Councilor Lionel Rivera. That call was the start of a long, sometimes rocky, friendship. In the early days, Radford says, Rivera was a "big brother" figure, helping her to understand city government, asking her what she needed. Everything was great until 2003's seven-candidate mayoral race, which included three of Radford's closest allies, then-Councilors Clark, Rivera and Ted Eastburn. Radford stood by her old friend, Clark.
When Rivera won, he called again. They resumed working together. But in 2004, when Radford ran for county commissioner, Rivera supported her rival, Herpin. (Douglas Bruce eventually prevailed.)
"We've been through it," she says of the mayor.
Yet Radford and Rivera have worked together on many issues, including the Southern Delivery System. As she departed, Rivera sang her praises to a crowd that included Clark and many old buddies from Radford's neighborhood activism days.
"You can't get anything done without relationships," she says.
Of course, relationships can turn sour. Radford says she sometimes regrets helping Councilor Tom Gallagher get elected. Gallagher went on to be the most outspoken critic of SDS, the nearly approved project that Radford considers her greatest accomplishment.
Mountains and molehills
Radford understood city issues when she started out on Council, but not Colorado Springs Utilities.
"The thing I was absolutely ill-equipped to do was utility board," she says. "And yet, it became the thing that consumed me."
SDS, a planned $1.1 billion pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir projected to fill the Springs' water needs through 2046, was a tough sell, especially because it meant having to win over the city of Pueblo. Radford remembers secret talks with Pueblo, alongside Clark, in her early days. When Clark left Council in 2003, Rivera and now-Vice Mayor Larry Small stepped in. Today, the project is sailing toward final approval.
There were easier victories. Like in her second term, when Colorado Department of Transportation's Dave Poling was talking to Council about the city and state "swapping" control of Powers and Academy boulevards. Initially, the city was to pay for moving utilities off Powers — a $16 to $20 million undertaking. As Poling yakked, Radford heard something that sent her eyebrows flying skyward. Poling said, "When we move the utilities ..." implying the state would pay after all. Carefully, sensitively, Radford coaxed Poling until he said on the record that the state would foot the bill.
"I thought that was a pretty good day's work," Radford says.
They weren't all good days. She says she regrets voting for the short-lived streetlight fee. And she's not proud of her "no" votes on same-sex benefits for city employees and the diversity fair. Both votes were motivated by religious objections to homosexuality.
"If I ever had to make those decisions again," she says, "I would look a little more closely at what Jesus Christ would want me to do, and not what people tell me Jesus Christ would want me to do."
Radford says she's not planning to run for office again, but one never knows. She believes she wouldn't fare well in a partisan race because she's "had to do things that actually mattered" instead of just "phoning it in" in hopes of political gain. She also doesn't think she could afford to spend any more time on Council, where she earned just over $6,000 a year.
"My family has suffered financial consequences for these eight years of service," she says. "My kid doesn't get to go to [the University of Colorado at] Boulder because we can't afford to send him to Boulder. "
That said, Radford's glad she put in the time. She just wishes more citizens would take ownership of their city, start paying more local taxes to support the services they demand, and get involved in their government — instead of standing on the sidelines and criticizing.
"This stuff isn't easy, folks," she says. "Step up. Let's see you. Let's see you make something happen, [Gazette columnist] Barry Noreen. Let's see you make something happen, [conservative activists] Danny Cole or Sean Paige."
Ultimately, she says, it's up to the citizens whether Colorado Springs wastes away or prospers. And on that note, Radford has a message for everyone:
"Either get involved, step up and help lead, or learn to be better followers."