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Our local leadership monoculture 

City Sage

On Nov. 8, the nation will go to the polls and (Choke! Gasp!) choose either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to lead our country during these perilous times. Those of us who live in El Paso County districts 2, 3 and 4 will cast a vote for county commissioner.

Amy Lathen left the District 2 office this summer, and the Republican Party chose Mark Waller to fill the remainder of her term. Waller, the Republican nominee, has no opposition in November, while Stan VanderWerf and Longinos Gonzales triumphed in contested GOP primaries for the District 3 and 4 nods.

All three are favored in the general election — no surprise in our conservative county, which hasn't elected a Democrat to the commission since 1970.

We have five county commissioners and nine on the Colorado Springs City Council. If the three Republican commissioner candidates are successful, and if incumbent Commissioner Darryl Glenn loses in his bid for the U.S. Senate, both elected bodies will become double political monocultures.

Of the 14 elected officials serving on the two bodies, 11 are veterans and 10 are retired career military. Less surprisingly, 12 are Republicans and two are Democrats.

Is that bad? Does that mean we're effectively living under martial law, directed by hierarchal, hidebound, rule-following, unimaginative retired colonels? No on both counts, but it does mean the local political landscape has shifted dramatically since the mid-1990s.

In 1996, only two of nine members of City Council had military experience. Longtime Mayor Bob Isaac graduated from West Point and completed his service requirement, leaving as a captain. Vice Mayor Leon Young, who served on Council for 28 years, enlisted in the Navy after graduating from Colorado Springs High School in 1943, serving in World War II and the Korean War. The rest of us represented a cheerful grab bag of occupations, including a landscape architect, an accountant, a nonprofit manager, an attorney, a couple of small business owners and a real estate broker.

Quarrelsome, reasonably diverse (two African Americans, four women, ranging in age from mid-30s to mid-60s), Council seemed then to represent many of our community's various strands. Does it still? And what about the commissioners?

It's hard to argue that either body is diverse, or that the community's makeup will be fairly reflected post-election. Barring upsets, both groups will skew white (13 of 14), senior (11 of 14) and male (11 of 14).

What about the super-representation of retired military? You can attribute it to three factors.

• City Councilors make $6,250 annually — and it's a full-time job. That disqualifies most of us except the wealthy and retired. Military retirees typically leave after 20 years, receive a nice pension and can afford to be on Council. They also have experience working for large, complex organizations, supervising departments and working cooperatively with peers. Such experience is attractive to voters, who prize proven competence.

• Thanks to the shift from five at-large seats and four district seats to a 6-3 district/at-large ratio, City Council district races have become de facto partisan contests. The most conservative candidate usually prevails, and retired military folks often have more conservative cred than their opponents.

• Commissioners are well paid, more than $100,000 annually. It's a partisan election, and Waller, Gonzales and VanderWerf made it through tough primaries. Did their service help them? It certainly didn't hurt.

Yet, having so many retired colonels (and majors, and commanders) in local elected office may be good for the city, in ways that aren't so obvious.

Few officers make general or admiral. Most have to find new careers in their 40s. Doing so requires flexibility, intelligence and adaptability. You have to welcome risk, learn new skills and mix it up in today's unforgiving workplace. Look at the bios of our ex-military elected officials, and you'll see folks with precisely those qualities — exactly the kind of people we want in office.

So rather than railing at our conservative, white male military gerontocracy, we should rejoice in their competence and try to go them one better. Seek out and recruit smart, powerfully qualified candidates like Democrat Electra Johnson, who has a shot of upsetting VanderWerf in District 3.

And let's pay City Council — $50,000 would draw far more candidates to the races, make things more interesting and even allow tired, impoverished reporters a shot at the dais.

  • It’s hard to argue that either body is diverse.

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