Karen Cullen and Stan VanderWerf may share some views, but in person, they're nothing alike.
The two Republicans are facing off in the June 28 primary for the Board of County Commissioners District 3 seat on the county's west side, where longtime Commissioner Sallie Clark is term-limited. The victor will face Democrat Electra Johnson in November for the position, which pays over $113,000 a year.
Cullen, 53, is a third-generation Colorado native whose career started in real estate, moved to retirement planning, then IT, and then to owning a bed and breakfast. She is currently a property manager and runs an IT consulting firm. Cullen, who ran unsuccessfully for House District 18 in 2010, is married and lives in Manitou Springs. She says she considered running for county commissioner for several years until finally deciding, "It's time."
VanderWerf, 55, spent more than 30 years in the Air Force where he rose to colonel, traveled the world and "focused on R&D, production, and sustainment of a wide variety of products from space systems to aircraft, electronics, communications, and more." After retiring in 2011, he started two businesses, a 3D printing company and an aerospace defense consulting firm. VanderWerf, married with one adult child and a teenager, lives in southwest Colorado Springs.
He says he's running because he wants "to introduce a bunch of bold new ideas and get them into the public discussion."
As of June 2, Cullen had raised $15,260.31 and had given her campaign a $50,000 loan, plus a $149.94 donation. VanderWerf had raised $38,482.87 in the same time period, and, according to the latest campaign finance reports, he has given himself $7,855.10 in donations. Two donors who share his last name have added a total of $5,200.
VanderWerf has endorsements from the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak Association of Realtors and Colorado Springs Forward, as well as notable developers, business people and some former and current elected officials, including Sheriff Bill Elder. Cullen also has notable business supporters and elected officials, including Clark, county treasurer Mark Lowderman, assessor Steve Schleiker and coroner Robert Bux.
Sitting down to talk at a local coffee shop, VanderWerf rattles off ideas with impressive speed.
An avid outdoorsman, he says he'd like to help find ways to integrate the park and trail system, and explore adding streetcars or trolleys to key areas of town. He thinks the Springs should consider a "museum row" as in Denver and a riverwalk like in Pueblo.
On the jobs side, he wants to create a "multi-industry economic development strategy" based on "ecosystems for industry," attracting industries that mesh with our community and making sure schools can train workers. He thinks the city's focus on cybersecurity is a great fit — specifically protecting commercial information from being stolen — as many people coming out of the military have the right skills.
With Sierra Completions landing in the Springs, VanderWerf says it makes sense to help Pikes Peak Community College teach aircraft mechanics. Or the community could add a brewing school, similar to Chicago's Siebel Institute of Technology & World Brewing Academy, to train people going into Colorado's booming microbrew beer industry.
"If you will, Mayor [Steve] Bach introduced City for Champions, and you can argue whether it was a great idea or whether it was not a great idea. ... What I liked about it was it was an idea that finally got out into a public discussion," VanderWerf says. "We needed that. I would like to do six more of those and as a community talk about all of them. What would make the most sense?"
VanderWerf says he's also thinking outside the box on issues like disaster planning and mitigation, and stormwater management. He says he's been researching alternative stormwater control systems that could save the county money, and he hopes to explore the ideas more if elected. He'd also like to look into deploying drones over urban forests to monitor for fires.
Listing his expertise, VanderWerf says he has overseen a public budget of close to $1 billion, managed hundreds of employees, and is an expert on drones. He notes that he has "a ton of background in disaster planning," because he was once in charge of analyzing national contingency disaster plans for viability at North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command.
With a degree in industrial engineering, he also says he's skilled at identifying efficiencies in systems, and notes that he's written policies that have been incorporated into national statute.
VanderWerf moved to Colorado Springs permanently in 2011, after having been stationed in the city twice during his time in the Air Force for a total of about six years. He's since served on boards and he founded the Aerospace Defense Team, a group connected to the Regional Business Alliance that advocates for local aerospace companies.
In conversation, Cullen tends to emphasize her knowledge and experiences with the county government, and her intensely local focus. She says most of her supporters are small business owners and retired military, and she notes that she performed the challenging task of petitioning onto the ballot, which required gathering 2,958 valid signatures.
VanderWerf went through the caucus to make the ballot.
Cullen says her qualifications include handling accounts in her business, leading Manitou Springs' Chamber board and helping Manitou develop a post-flooding marketing plan and score a grant. She notes that she's dealt with all the issues that come with running a business, from hiring and firing, to helping an employee navigate a domestic violence situation. She also says she's attended meetings with elected officials to learn more about the county, including one that highlighted disaster recovery.
Cullen believes she is the best person to represent the needs of smaller communities in the county.
"I think that my philosophy, as a small-town gal, can make sure that the small communities are also included," she says, "because they have to participate with their voice as well."
If elected, Cullen says she will be accessible and will volunteer for a variety of other community and government boards to ensure the county's viewpoint is represented. She hopes to focus her efforts on completing the Westside Avenue Action Plan (revamping the area along Colorado Avenue known as No Man's Land), and continuing to perform disaster mitigation and recovery from the region's fires and floods. She notes that she was present for the floods that struck Manitou in recent years, and though she was not personally impacted, she was willing to lend a hand.
"I was shoveling the muck," Cullen says.
She says she believes her background in IT could help improve the county's web presence, making information easier to access for citizens.
"An example of that would be integrating the clerk and recorder's office and the voter database with the assessor's office and the assessor's website," she says.
Overall, Cullen says that one of her strengths is listening to her constituents and being flexible, even after a decision is made.
"You communicate, you understand everyone's passions," she says, "you acknowledge their passions, you come up with a solution and if it doesn't work, you adjust it."
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