Back in 2007, Mark Waller had never thought of running for office. In fact, he had never even attended a caucus.
It was a friend, he says, who got him to run for the Legislature in state House District 15. Originally, Waller thought he'd be running for an empty seat, as then-Rep. Bill Cadman was term-limited. But by the time Waller declared his intention to run in late 2007, Douglas Bruce had been named to fill the seat temporarily as Cadman left early to take a seat in the state Senate.
This looked like bad news, Waller remembers. But Bruce was quickly transforming from the conservative folk hero behind the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (the ballot issue that put a stranglehold on state and local governments) to persona non grata in the Republican Party. On the day of his swearing-in ceremony, Bruce famously kicked a photographer and was later censured.
The result was that community and party leaders flocked to Waller, and helped him get elected in 2008.
"The first year I served in the Legislature, I was the guy who beat Doug Bruce," Waller says. "But I've got to tell you, I was very appreciative of everybody there allowing me to be Mark Waller every year after that."
Waller, who rose to House minority leader in 2013, says his proudest achievement in the Legislature was the relationships he formed — including with Democrats — and a bill that made certain cases of driving under the influence a felony. He fought years for the bill; it passed the session after he left the Capitol.
Waller served until 2014, when he announced for attorney general before bowing out of the race when it became clear that Cynthia Coffman was the party favorite to replace John Suthers. She went on to win election.
Now, Waller, 47, is running for the District 2 seat on the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners. And the tables have turned. Waller now finds himself the experienced politician with a record to rely on (or defend), while his young opponent, Tim Geitner, 37, has never run for office.
"I don't have political alliances," says Geitner, a legislative assistant for the Colorado Springs City Council. "I come with no strings attached."
A few twists of fate have complicated the District 2 race.
First, the Democratic candidate, Michael Seraphin, dropped out when he discovered that he hadn't declared as a Democrat soon enough. The technical glitch cost him his candidacy, leaving behind two Republicans, Geitner and Waller.
That meant the June 28 primary election, not the November general election, would decide a victor for the position, which will pay more than $113,000 a year.
Then, on May 17, the politically-influential group Colorado Springs Forward announced its new executive director would be Amy Lathen, ironically the District 2 commissioner since she was appointed in 2008 to replace Bruce. Lathen will start at CSF on July 11, meaning her commissioner seat will be available early. A vacancy committee will fill the seat, and it seems likely that the committee will choose the GOP primary winner.
Thus, while three seats on the five-seat BOCC are up for grabs, the District 2 race could be seen as particularly frantic.
As of last Nov. 2, Geitner had raised $4,050, while Waller had raised $8,760, according to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office. Neither candidate was willing to provide updated figures, though both seemed convinced that Waller, who has major endorsements like The Political Action Committee of the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs and Colorado Springs Forward, would be the top fundraiser.
Aside from political experience, Waller and Geitner actually share quite a bit: Both are conservative, have served in the military and are married with two children.
Waller grew up in a small town in Illinois. He became an Air Force officer and then a reservist, deploying to Baghdad in 2006. An attorney, he's served as deputy district attorney in Pueblo and El Paso counties. He has two teenage kids and lives in Black Forest with his wife, Jennifer, an Air Force colonel.
Geitner, on the other hand, grew up in Florida with a mother who struggled with her mental health. As a child, he sometimes lived in homeless shelters. He grew up to be an Army officer and reservist who deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. Now he works for City Council, and he's also helping set up a charter school in Falcon School District 49, volunteering for CASA of the Pikes Peak Region and helping his wife run an embroidery business. The couple has two young boys.
Waller and Geitner are on the same side of many local issues.
Both, for instance, say they don't want to see a new tax or fee to support stormwater infrastructure. Both refuse to promise not to ask for a renewal to the county's Public Safety Sales Tax, which sunsets in 2021, but that they prefer to see taxes serve a purpose and go away. Both would consider selling county park land (a la Strawberry Fields) depending on the circumstances. Both would like to expand shared services with other governments in hopes of saving money, and both are not interested in continuing the county's recent real estate buying spree, saying they'd rather spend the money on aging infrastructure and roads.
The two candidates agree that controlling recreational marijuana grows to prevent illegal activities, disruption of neighborhoods and destruction of houses should be a major priority.
So what sets them apart?
Waller says that when he heard of the scandal surrounding Sheriff Terry Maketa — which both candidates say they would have investigated as soon as possible — he was reminded of a similar situation in the past.
"My mom was [disgraced former New Life Church pastor] Ted Haggard's receptionist," Waller says. "And I remember when those stories first came out about him, and she called me up and she was just angry that folks could concoct some sort of story against a guy like this. I didn't have a relationship with Ted Haggard; I didn't know him from Adam. But my mom did. And I remember how angry my mom was at that time, and I was right there, trying to be a supportive son, and saying, 'Oh yeah, this is terrible, it's horrible, it should never have happened.'
"And then all of a sudden it was true. Right? And I learned at that time, boy, you've got to take every claim seriously against any kind of public figure, whether you like 'em or not."
Waller thinks he's the better candidate for the District 2 job, in part, because he'd be able to unite the commissioners in times of trouble — such as a major scandal. After all, when he led his party in the state House, his job was to get his people on the same side.
Geitner says what sets him apart is that he thinks about things from more of an outsider perspective. One of his top priorities is putting the county's financial information in an easily searchable database online.
"I think it will go a long way in reestablishing trust in our government," he says.
And while Waller sees the controversial, county-approved NextEra Energy Resources wind farm near Calhan as a settled land-use issue, Geitner, who can see the wind turbines from his windows in Falcon, sees it as a communications issue. The county simply didn't give citizens enough opportunity for input on the project, he says.
"I think there's definitely lessons to be learned there," he says. "Engaging with the community is necessary."