El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark — how many times have I, and other reporters and columnists in the Pikes Peak region, written those words?
When Clark leaves office in January, she will have served 12 years. Before that, she ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Colorado Springs in 1999, was elected to City Council in 2001 and ran again for mayor in 2003. She might have won, but Will Perkins took a big slice of the conservative vote, allowing incumbent Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace to prevail with a plurality.
Defeat didn't slow Clark down. In 2004 she was elected to the Board of County Commissioners, where she's been ever since.
"You don't always choose your paths," Clark says, musing about her career in politics. "Sometimes they choose us. Running for mayor the second time might have been a mistake, but it led me to the commission."
In retrospect, Clark has been the most consequential Colorado Springs elected official of this century. She's served three years as BOCC chair and several as vice chair. Collaborative and pragmatic, Clark quickly gained a reputation as a shrewd negotiator and a cunning foe. She forged alliances with other pragmatists, including Jim Bensberg, Amy Lathen and Dennis Hisey. Successive "Gangs of Three" ran El Paso County, paying little attention to conservative ideologues in ever-changing "Gangs of Two." Clark's considerable political skills were very much in play as these enduring coalitions stayed intact through good times and bad.
"I was the chair in 2006 when we had to cut the budget by $45 million," she recalls. "It was very difficult, but we did what we had to do, and put the county in a much better position in subsequent years. Most of the issues we deal with aren't partisan. You work with public safety, PPRTA, public health — I just did what I thought was right."
What are her most significant accomplishments?
"Being on the Commission or on Council is a collaborative process," she says. "It's never 'I did' — it's always 'we did.' And sometimes things that seem very insignificant turn out to have a big impact. When I was on Council, we refused to extend a water pipeline to the John Bock property, and that led to our partnership with the Trust for Public Lands to acquire Red Rock Canyon — and that's why we can hike there today. On the Commission, successfully referring Issue 1A, the sheriff's proposed public safety tax, has made an enormous difference. And I think that my involvement with NACO (the National Association of Counties) has brought us a lot of benefits."
Clark worked with NACO for many years, culminating with her election as president of the organization in 2014-15.
So what's next?
"I'm going serve out my term," Clark says. "I'm not going to resign after the election. Then I'll take a little break. They say that when one door closes, another opens. Everyone thinks I'm going to run for City Council, but I absolutely am not. The more I say I'm not, the more people seem to believe that I will. I've been contacted by a few nonprofits, but that would be volunteer work. I think that I'll do some private consulting in areas that I can contribute to, but certainly not politics right now. Someone will take my place next year, and I hope that whoever it is will continue to work on some of the projects that are important to the county and the district."
Clark cites Rainbow Falls and No Man's Land along West Colorado Avenue as ongoing projects of particular interest.
Volunteer work, a consulting company, family time, Holden House (the Westside B&B that she and spouse Welling Clark have owned and operated for 30 years) — sounds fine, Sallie, but what are you really going to do?
While acknowledging that changes in the larger political landscape might create unanticipated opportunities, Clark wouldn't speculate further.
There's one obvious target: governor. John Hickenlooper is likely to leave office before the end of his term for a job with the Clinton administration, and has no obvious successor. Sen. Cory Gardner's election shows that moderate GOP conservatives with experience in government can win statewide, while extreme righties have no shot. Clark, a skillful campaigner, would attract votes from suburban women and unaffiliated voters. If elected, she'd be the first governor from Colorado Springs since John Love in 1962.
Haven't we waited long enough?
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