Dave Gardner has barely taken a sip of his coffee when the big question comes.
The progressive Democrat launched two unsuccessful attempts to join the Colorado Springs City Council in 2009: first in the District 3 election against incumbent Jerry Heimlicher, then six months later when Heimlicher resigned and Council appointed an interim replacement. So, will Gardner try next for an at-large spot in 2011, or will he face off in District 3 with Sean Paige — the Libertarian appointed three months ago?
Gardner smiles. It's no secret the Paige outcome was a double disappointment. Gardner was overlooked, even after getting 43 percent of the vote in the April election. But the slight surprised no one; Gardner, a vocal fighter against growth, isn't exactly chummy with the development-loving Councilors.
Clearing his throat, Gardner makes a surprise announcement.
"I would love to run," he says. "But there's not enough time in the day."
And just like that, another progressive candidate bites the dust.
In 2008, it appeared local Dems were finally coming up with some fresh candidates, spurred by the Obama campaign. New potential leaders emerged, like Rob Andrews, a key local worker in the Obama effort that managed to get 40 percent of the vote in El Paso County. There was a hope that newly active liberals would become even more involved.
But there are no apparent progressive Council candidates for 2011 yet. Gardner's out. Andrews, who disappointed many last spring by backing out on a Council run at the last minute, says he's unsure. Others reportedly are thinking about it, but nobody else has stepped forward, and the time for organizing is now.
"I feel like I'm letting some people down," Gardner says, admitting he's still tempted. "I know that there is a movement afoot for the progressive community to be more organized and have good candidates."
State Rep. Michael Merrifield says it's difficult to find progressive candidates for "nonpartisan" seats, like City Council and school boards.
"Even though we've made gains, we're obviously the minority," Merrifield says. "And you look at positions that take as much heat as City Council and school board, that are voluntary or almost voluntary: It's a pretty big choice to make, especially if it's any kind of uphill battle."
Indeed, Gardner, like all Councilors, would have to work almost full-time (if not more) to concentrate on an office that pays about $6,000 a year. He adds that he'd be an impotent politician unless he somehow could persuade other Councilors to vote with him.
Perhaps the most revealing reason why Gardner's not running, though? He thinks he can do more for his cause outside of elected office.
Gardner realized he wouldn't have time to finish his self-produced film, Hooked on Growth, if he were on Council. The film, to be completed in 2010, is an argument against expansion of development and population growth. He's put years into it, and the issue is obviously the one he's most knowledgeable on and passionate about.
But when Gardner tried to bring his anti-growth platform to his 2009 Council campaign, even his supporters tried to tone him down. As Andrews notes, local Democrats have to be moderate if they want to gain ground inside the political system.
Former county Democratic chair John Morris says the party plans a bigger role in backing progressive candidates for nonpartisan seats by offering organizational help with campaigns, particularly in 2011 when as many as seven of the nine Council positions could be up for grabs. He points out that Springs voters have shown themselves willing to vote for the best local candidate, regardless of party.
Emphasizing his business credentials, progressive Richard Skorman won a City Council seat in 1999, and he held onto it until leaving to work in U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar's office in 2006. And then there's Merrifield's four-term run as state legislator, along with the more recent elections of state Sen. John Morse and Rep. Dennis Apuan.
Maybe that's why the mood remains upbeat as Merrifield hosts a fund-raiser at the Cottonwood Center for the Arts on Jan. 6 — just hours after Ritter has announced his withdrawal from the governor's race. Merrifield, three days removed from his 63rd birthday, is buoyant as he circulates in a crowd of about 50 friends and supporters. When he gets up to speak, he makes a passing reference to Ritter's decision before coaxing the group to join him in a sing-along: "This county's your land, this county's my land ..."
Among the attendees is City Councilor Jan Martin, a Republican. Martin says she plans to support Merrifield regardless of who gets the Republican nomination.
"We've created a one-party system in this county," she says.
Tonight, the room is full of life, and maybe even a little hope. It must be said, though, that apart from Martin, many of the faces are those of old-guard Democrats or party leaders. Missing are the college students wearing face paint and the surprised-looking 20-somethings getting active in politics for the first time.
So looking around, you can't help but think of a question posed by Springs-based political consultant Patrick Davis.
"Without Barack Obama at the top of the ticket," he asks, "what gets them off the couch?"