County Commissioner Sallie Clark sits in the comfortable living room of her bed and breakfast, Holden House, delicately balancing a cup of tea. She's attractive and disarming in private, with no hint of the steely determination that has sustained her long run in Colorado Springs politics.
She's contested five elections and won three. She's been in a lot of fights — and now she's in another. This time her opponent is political novice Karen Magistrelli, who outpolled Clark at the Republican County Assembly. Magistrelli has top line in the mail primary ending June 26.
"I was at a meeting the other day talking to [Sen.] Mark Udall," Clark says. "He asked me whether I had a primary opponent. He said that there are only two ways to run: unopposed and scared."
While Republicans here and elsewhere have a certain tendency to eat their own, Clark's sudden unpopularity traces to her role in crafting the successful 2010 "term limits" measure that has allowed her to seek a third term. Clark's hitherto-disorganized foes had long chafed under the leadership of Boss Sallie. Finally, they have a stick to beat her with.
Is Clark scared? Few believe it. Her 15-year career in politics has been characterized by a graceful fearlessness. She began in 1997 as a neighborhood activist fighting the proposed closure of Fire Station 3, which serves the historic neighborhoods of Old Colorado City and the west side. She singlehandedly took on City Council, Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace and Fire Chief Manny Navarro. With the patient canniness that has characterized her since, Clark found that many firefighters opposed the closure, but Navarro had forbidden them from talking. Claiming that Navarro and Council were "muzzling" firefighters and playing politics with public safety, Clark forced her opponents into a no-win position.
Riding her sudden notoriety, Clark ran for mayor in 1999, positioning herself as a conservative activist opposed to Makepeace's alleged heavy-handedness.
Votes split three ways between Clark, Makepeace and ultra-conservative auto dealer Will Perkins. The conservative vote split, and Makepeace won with a plurality. "I was talking to Will some time ago," Clark said, "and he admitted that I would have won if he hadn't run."
Undaunted, Clark ran for City Council in 2001, easily defeating incumbent Linda Barley. In 2003, Clark ran again for mayor, joining Councilors Ted Eastburn, Jim Null and Lionel Rivera in the race for the term-limited Makepeace's seat. Moderates and progressives split their votes three ways, and Rivera prevailed. Clark has no regrets ... she says.
"It's funny how you become good friends with former opponents," she said. "I loved Ted [who died two years ago], and Jim's a friend and a supporter." She doesn't mention Makepeace or Rivera.
A year later, she ran for county commissioner, walloping local businessman Jack Gloriod. She's been there ever since.
Clark quickly formed a productive partnership with fellow commissioners Dennis Hisey and Jim Bensberg. The three of them ran El Paso County for six years, shutting out Douglas Bruce and Wayne Williams from any leadership role. In her three years as chair, Clark icily muzzled the irascible Bruce, cutting him off in debate or refusing to recognize him.
Clark found her signature issue in 2007.
"Jim [Bensberg] told me to apply to the state child welfare allocation committee, which allocates money to counties to fund programs for abused and neglected children. I went to my first meeting, and I found that Denver's allocation was being raised by $4 million and we were being cut by $1.5 million. So I pounded the table — I couldn't believe it."
Eventually, the funding wasn't just restored, but increased by $2.7 million.
"I can't tell you how important that was, and how serious child abuse and neglect is in this county," Clark says. "It's funny — now I'm the senior person on that committee. And you know, I really feel that I found my purpose. Welling [Clark's husband] and I don't have any children, but I do feel that I was put here by God to do this work."
And suppose the voters don't agree?
"We'll see — but I don't take anything for granted. This is just the primary, so if I win I'll have to take on [Democrat] John Morris."
She pretends to be worried.