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Sharp learning curve ahead for strong mayor 

If the April election took place today, you could be absolutely sure of one thing: Our new strong mayor would not be a sitting member of the Colorado Springs City Council.

No current councilors have entered the big race, with none definitely planning to do so. That's unprecedented in recent history: Current mayor Lionel Rivera was a sitting Council member when he took office, as were Mary Lou Makepeace, Leon Young, Bob Isaac and Larry Ochs previously. That takes us back to the 1970s.

But that's not far enough. The last time a candidate not on City Council was elected mayor was either 1905 (Henry Hall) or 1917 (Charles Thomas), depending on whether you ask the City Clerk's office or those history-lovers in Penrose Library's Special Collections.

Suffice it to say that for the past century or so, a potential mayor served first on Council. New councilors are mentored by more senior members to navigate a learning curve, often for a couple years. Now, however, under the "strong-mayor" governance model that voters approved in November, Colorado Springs' mayor will make $96,000 annually (instead of $6,250), with increased power and prestige. Eight candidates are actively running, but the only one with any extensive experience in city government is former Councilor Richard Skorman.

"I'm a big believer that the mayor should have some experience with local city government, because — even if it's been a few years — they understand the process, they understand the system, they understand the mechanics," says Councilor Scott Hente.

Vice Mayor Larry Small, who has considered running, also wants the next mayor to understand city governance. About a month ago, Small said he was dismayed that no announced candidates had regularly attended the 2011 budget meetings.

"Somebody who gets in that office for the first time needs to know a lot about how the city operates," Small said more recently. "I characterize it with: Would you want somebody working on your car who doesn't know anything about your car?"

Not running yet

If any current councilors plan to enter the race, they had better do it soon.

Mail ballots go out starting March 11 — meaning there's less than three months to assemble an organization, get volunteers, gather donations, buy advertising and political signs, put up a website ... you know, the necessities to win an election. Those already running have a big head start.

As of Dec. 1, candidate Brian Bahr had raised $124,720 (including his own money), Skorman said he had exceeded $50,000 in donations, Dave Munger had $12,730, and Buddy Gilmore $10,000. Steve Bach, who entered the race recently, is expected to be one of the best money-raisers, since he's a well-connected commercial real estate broker.

Small and Councilors Randy Purvis, Sean Paige and Tom Gallagher all say they could run. Gallagher and Purvis say they'd likely announce in January and wouldn't expect to spend more than $50,000 on a campaign. Paige isn't talking specifics.

However, the new job provides hassles. The mayor no longer will be allowed to have other employment. That's no problem for Small, who's retired, or Gallagher, who has struggled to find work, but Paige, who runs his own blog and nonprofit, and Purvis, who has a legal practice, would have to make sacrifices.

What's more, it's harder to win a mayoral race these days. This campaign should be fiercely competitive, and very expensive. Skorman thinks $200,000 is an absolute minimum. Purvis, Gallagher and Small think that figure is low — that top-tier candidates will secure more funding, including from out-of-state donors.

"I've never been a favorite with the money crowd," Gallagher says. "That's part of why I'm just considering and not announcing."

Purvis thinks he can win without the big bucks, but there's his career to consider — and his family.

"It's a question of ability to dedicate the time," he says. "And it's a question of the willingness for both myself and my family to go through a campaign that I am anticipating to be as negative as the last Senate race [between Michael Bennet and Ken Buck]."

Ups and downs

Joshua Dunn, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs political science professor, says a newbie mayor would face some major struggles.

If he or she doesn't understand city government, Dunn thinks the mayor will have to hire competent staff and lean heavily on them while appearing confident and able.

"If the new mayor comes in and it's clear that they don't know much about how the city functions, that would be disastrous," Dunn says. "...The last thing you want is to have your ignorance exposed."

Mary Ellen McNally, a former city councilor and strong-mayor proponent, says she expects a new mayor with no city-government experience would spend the first two to four years just learning the ropes — greatly delaying much-needed changes.

"I think it makes it much more difficult if you've never sat on City Council and you don't know anything about city government," she says. "... My first year on council, people would say, 'How're you doing there, Mary Ellen?' and I'd say, 'I am overwhelmed, bewildered and confused.'"

stanley@csindy.com

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