His phone message sounded calm but ominous. We need to meet as soon as possible, Jerry Heimlicher said, to talk about a major, "life-changing" event for him.
OK, so either he's running for mayor, or something's terribly wrong and he has to resign from City Council.
We got together and he sat across the table, in full control of his emotions, saying he would be leaving — not just Council, but Colorado Springs. And not someday, but before Thanksgiving.
Asking for secrecy but sharing the thoughts that became his announcement Tuesday to the rest of Council, Heimlicher clearly was feeling relief. He knew he had made the right decision, at 68, moving with his wife Mary Margaret back to their roots in Memphis, Tenn., ensuring both their financial security and time with relatives and lifelong friends. And no, he didn't see this coming until last spring, about a month after being elected to his final four-year term.
But as certain as Heimlicher feels about saying farewell to Colorado Springs, he knows he'll leave unfinished battles behind. He felt he was the kind of moderate, inclusive Republican who could pull the city together. Some even have accused him of being liberal, which happens in this town when Republicans don't embrace, and espouse, every social issue that defines the far right. But he never has been liberal, or anything close. Just tolerant, open-minded, fair and focused on what he feels is best for Colorado Springs.
It has bothered Heimlicher that so many feel an inherent lack of trust for City Council. He couldn't believe so many cynics proclaimed that money was wasted in city government, especially after so many millions in budget cuts. So he would go online and battle them in word-to-word combat on local blogs, knowing he probably wouldn't change anyone's mind.
"But I feel like I have to try," he would say. "I guess I'm just too thin-skinned."
We talked countless times, analyzing issues and problems of the day, and he always was full of that same gutsy, principled determination. I was totally convinced that, deep down, Heimlicher wanted to be mayor of Colorado Springs. And why not? He cared enough to get out into the community, to meet with people, to organize groups as needed for specific purposes. He also knew, and still knows, that Colorado Springs needs stronger leadership in these treacherous times. And he seemed like a potentially formidable mayor, even coming from the southwest part of town — where the forgotten Old Guard Republicans live in frustration, the county GOP having literally and figuratively moved away from them.
Then came one unintentional hint, a few weeks ago. We were discussing how Councilor Jan Martin was finding her boldest voice yet in leading the push for her property-tax proposal in the upcoming election.
"In fact," Heimlicher said, "Jan's starting to make me think she could be a very good mayor when the time comes."
All of our previous discussions about the next mayor had also included him. Perhaps he felt the city might need someone different, I thought then. But it's clear now he had other thoughts in mind.
Sure, it's awful timing. City Council doesn't need this distraction, crammed in with the election and the budget crisis. Heimlicher's replacement will have to hit the ground running, one reason for Council to look for experience — in case former Councilor Richard Skorman decides to apply. Heimlicher's most recent opponent, Dave Gardner, is a possible candidate, along with some of that Old Guard. Hopefully, many qualified people will put in their names.
But that will be tomorrow's story, as the process unfolds. Today, the people of Colorado Springs are losing one of their most caring and energetic leaders. We'll never know how much of a steadying influence Heimlicher would've been, especially with City Council facing so much turnover between 2010 (if Mayor Lionel Rivera and Darryl Glenn win County Commission spots) and 2011 (when at least three at-large members will be term-limited).
We do know that Jerry Heimlicher made a positive difference for the city over the past six-plus years. And Colorado Springs will miss him.
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