Twenty years ago, Lionel Rivera celebrated his first political victory.
As part of an effort to remake his geezer image, Mayor Bob Isaac had tapped Rivera to manage his 1991 re-election campaign. In Rivera, an Army veteran starting a career in finance, Isaac found a young professional who would burnish the image of any aging pol.
Elected to Council in 1997, and re-elected in 1999, Rivera ran for mayor in 2003 against a crowded field including three Council colleagues: Jim Null, Ted Eastburn and Sallie Clark. While those three fought over the votes of moderates, Rivera cannily moved to the right, winning a narrow plurality.
His political future seemed bright. Conservative? Check. Hispanic? Check. Republican? Check. Smart? Check. Veteran? Check. Ambitious? Double-check.
The question was not whether he'd rise to a more significant office, but when. Congress? Governor? An appointment in the Bush administration? He seemed to be fortune's child.
Soon after taking office, Rivera noted with amusement that even the weather was on his side. "I hope that you've noticed," he told me, "that right after I was sworn in, the drought ended. Was that a coincidence? I don't know, but I'm sure that you'd blame me if it hadn't!"
It was a classically Nixonian remark: prickly, defensive, yet entirely sensitive to political realities.
Rivera's immediate predecessors, Isaac and Mary Lou Makepeace, had left tangible legacies. Isaac oversaw a new airport terminal and municipal court building, both of which bear his name. Makepeace unified a once-fractious Council and gained voter approval for significant improvements, including America the Beautiful Park. Each measurably improved the city.
Rivera, however, sensed taxpayers had little appetite for ambitious public expenditures. Only one project made the cut: Southern Delivery System.
For decades, Colorado Springs Utilities had sought unsuccessfully to build a new system using the city's Arkansas River water rights. Mountain communities had stymied Utilities, leaving a single difficult, uncertain and expensive option — a pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs.
In 2003, SDS was little more than a gleam in water managers' eyes. Today, the $1.7 billion project, almost entirely funded by local ratepayers, is under construction. When finished, it will deliver more than 80 million gallons of additional water per day, slaking the city's thirst for at least the next 40 years.
SDS will be Rivera's legacy, matching those of his predecessors. Not since the 1950s, when elected officials approved the Blue River Project, has any Council made such an expensive bet on the city's future. Had SDS collapsed, Rivera would've been blamed, so it's only fair to give him credit.
But that's not his only legacy. Like Nixon, mistakes rooted in hubris and secrecy will also define his tenure.
After a stunning loss in the 2006 GOP congressional primary, Rivera put political ambitions aside. Easily re-elected in 2007, he ardently supported a U.S. Olympic Committee retention package, which he and senior city staff secretly created and negotiated. It was meant to be a three-way partnership among local developer Ray Marshall, the city and USOC, with most of the cost borne by Marshall.
As recession struck, the deal collapsed. An insolvent Marshall couldn't perform, but the city was still on the hook, mortgaging the Police Operations Center and a fire station to fund the USOC headquarters building. Rivera, who had been Marshall's financial adviser, was accused of violating the city's code of ethics. Furious voters went on to scrap the Stormwater Enterprise fee, which Council had imposed without voter approval.
As the local recession deepened, the Rivera-led Council slashed services, shutting off streetlights and water for parks.
That did it. In a final gesture of disdain, 40,000 registered voters signed petitions to dissolve the city manager form of government.
In a sad coda to his political career, Rivera announced his opposition to the "strong mayor" initiative a few weeks before the November election. No one cared; initiative spokesperson Rachel Beck was mockingly dismissive.
"He's desperately seeking a way to remain relevant," said Beck, calling Rivera's stance "the resentment of a solitary politician whose pending exit will be welcomed by most voters."
The initiative passed overwhelmingly.