May 08, 2003 News » Cover Story

'Are you ready for me?' 

Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera takes charge of a new era

As a Mexican-American growing up in the border town of El Paso, Texas, Lionel Rivera may have started out with odds against him in a white-dominated society.

But odds are Rivera's game. Smart, calculating and ambitious, he's always found a way to get inside, and become part of, the power structures that would historically have kept him out.

It started in 1976, when a friend helped him and a fellow Hispanic student get into the Kappa Sigma fraternity at Texas Tech University, which was reluctant to admit its first non-white members. Rivera eventually became the fraternity's acting president.

In the late 1980s, he ran into barriers again when he tried to enter the Colorado Springs business world upon his retirement from the Army, where he'd reached the rank of captain. He had earned a master's degree in business administration while serving at Fort Carson, where he had been stationed since 1984. But he was told that the local business community wasn't open to minorities.

That wasn't going to stop Rivera from establishing himself as a successful financial analyst. He, along with four fellow Hispanic businessmen, decided to found the Colorado Springs Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"What we had heard was that Colorado Springs was a good-old-boy town, and you couldn't do any business unless you knew somebody, and if you were black or Hispanic, the doors weren't open," Rivera said. "So we decided to create our own network -- open the doors, knock 'em down, whatever you want to call it -- and just find a way for Hispanics, and other minority businesses, to get a level playing field to compete. Just an opportunity to compete -- no quotas, no set-asides, but just let us get in the door and help us understand the process, so we can be part of the process."

In 1991, Rivera volunteered to help out with longtime-Mayor Bob Isaac's reelection effort. He ended up running the mayor's campaign that year, and again four years later, taking advantage of the opportunity to watch Isaac -- a legendary master of local politics -- closely. From Isaac, Rivera learned how to maneuver the game. In 1997 -- the same year he met his wife, Lynn -- Rivera ran for City Council with Isaac's support, and won. Four years later, fellow Council members elected him vice mayor.

This spring, Rivera entered a seven-candidate horse race for mayor widely seen as a toss-up between him and the other three main contenders, fellow City Council members Sallie Clark, Ted Eastburn and Jim Null. Realizing the implications of the city's new mail-in ballot system, Rivera began campaigning in earnest earlier than the other contenders. He didn't play up his Hispanic heritage, but did secure endorsements from Republican power brokers, including County Commissioners Wayne Williams and Jim Bensberg. Ultimately he pulled off a solid victory margin despite being heavily outspent by the runner-up, Eastburn.

The Independent sat down with Rivera last week for an interview. Though he had already managed to make headlines by passing a resolution to repeal benefits for same-sex partners of city employees, he had yet to decorate his new office at City Hall.

Indy: With 27 candidates running in the city elections, and with a very issue-oriented campaign, people didn't seem to get a good impression of who the candidates were as individuals. Do you have any hobbies?

Rivera: Investing in the stock market.

Indy: That's not a hobby. That's your job.

Rivera: It's not? That's how I started in the business. I started it as a hobby when I was in the Army, investing in the stock market. I really did it as kind of fun, initially, but then I started making a good amount of money. Of course, from 1982 to about the end of the '90s, it was the biggest bull market on record, so it was just dumb luck that I happened to be in the right place at the right time. And I learned that, once I got into the business; it's not as easy as just buying stocks. But I still find that lots of fun.

I guess another hobby would be running. I try to get away and escape and do a little bit of exercise. Skiing used to be a great hobby, but frankly, with all the time committed to City Council, it's very difficult to get away and do a lot of skiing.

Local politics is another great hobby. It doesn't pay very well, so it's got to be a hobby.

Indy: You've called former Mayor Isaac your mentor. What were the most important things you learned from him?

Rivera: Two things: Integrity in office -- that you are true to your principles and your values, and you do what you think is right. You don't cater to special interest groups; you don't count the number of heads in the room to make your decisions, to be popular with some special group. And then, always to be prepared. Whenever Bob went to a forum he had a yellow legal pad of stuff he had written down, all kinds of notes. And I'd watch him -- whenever he'd get a question asked, he'd flip through his notes, and he could refer to it.

Indy: Isaac didn't endorse you in the last campaign. Why not?

Rivera: You'd have to ask Bob. Bob is a good friend of Sallie Clark and Ted Eastburn, and I think basically, Bob didn't want to choose between his friends. And I actually think he's closer friends to Sallie and Ted than he is to me. We were close in '91 and '95, when I worked for his campaigns, and in '97, when he endorsed me and helped me get elected. But once I got on Council, he was off the Council. He wasn't the mayor anymore, and we lost touch. We didn't talk a lot.

Indy: Do you attach any significance to the fact that you're Colorado Springs' first Hispanic mayor?

Rivera: It is a big deal for this community. Colorado Springs, at one time, had the reputation of being a white-bread community. Now, that's changed dramatically -- you just look across the community, and you can see a Hispanic fire chief, police chief, library director, Pikes Peak Community College president. It really helps kids in this community identify with role models and give them dreams that they can accomplish if they really put their minds to it. There aren't any barriers based on ethnicity or color, and I think kids, when they see someone of their own culture or ethnicity, they can relate and say, "You know, I can do that."

Indy: Your first major act as mayor was to repeal health-care benefits for same-sex partners of city employees. This was reported nationally by the Associated Press, and a columnist for The Denver Post called the City Council "homophobic," "mean-spirited" and "anachronistic." Don't you think this creates an image issue for the city?

Rivera: It's hard to say how people will interpret what a vote is. But if they talk to the members who made the vote, and ask them their reasons why, it has nothing to do with homophobia or being anti-gay or gay bashing, as a lot of the popular press wants to portray it. It's strictly an issue of extending health-care benefits to employees, and to what extent do you extend those health-care benefits, and what standard do you use.

I frankly don't think it's fair to our entire workforce to say that we are going to provide health-care benefits to same-sex partners of city employees, but if we have a situation where we have a male employee and he lives with a woman -- and they love each other and they're committed to each other, and maybe they both work, and for tax reasons, they don't want to get married -- we won't cover that couple.

You could have a single employee that has a disabled brother living with them. You could have a single female employee having an elderly mom living with her. It's just a question of, Where do you draw the line? Where do you think it's appropriate to extend benefits? And my judgment is, we'll do it based on Colorado law and federal law, and what they recognize as a marriage.

Indy: A lot of people think the same-sex vote was payback to conservative religious groups and individuals who supported you during the campaign.

Rivera: [City Manager] Lorne Kramer came to me late last summer and said, "I'm thinking of making [this] recommendation to the City Council." My comments to him were that I don't think that's a good idea, I don't support it, I don't think it's the right thing to do with taxpayer funds. That was well before there was any campaign in place. I've been opposed to it ever since it was first brought up.

Indy: You voted in 1997 for the city's zero-tolerance discrimination policy, which covers sexual discrimination [and which was at the time largely interpreted to include gays and lesbians]. Do you still stand behind that policy?

Rivera: I think the interpretation of our resolution, with the word "sexual," [was supposed to be] discrimination based on gender. And yeah, I still support the policy we passed back in 1997.

Indy: How do you reconcile that with the vote to deny same-sex benefits?

Rivera: I don't think the vote on same-sex benefits has anything to do with discrimination. All single city employees are entitled to healthcare benefits whether they're homosexual or heterosexual. All other eligible dependents, based on state and federal law, are also covered by health-care benefits.

Indy: You've promised to focus on improving roads. How soon can we expect to see some real action, and what will it be?

Rivera: One of the first things we do, is if the Council agrees to reduce the sales-tax vendors' fee [the portion of the city sales tax that businesses keep as compensation for collecting the tax], that will immediately give us money to start putting into roads. And my focus has been, if we do that -- which I think there's support to do -- that we will use that revenue to improve Drennan Road, and that's something that can happen within, hopefully, less than a year.

Indy: We have a new mayor, five new City Council members, and a new and relatively inexperienced city manager. Several key department heads have left recently, including Public Works Director Dave Zelenok, Planning Director Quinn Peitz, and Airport Manager Gary Green. Police Chief Luis Velez is also new on the job. With the fast-growing city facing huge challenges, from water shortages to revenue shortfalls, what impact will the loss of all this management experience have?

Rivera: I guess I have no experience as mayor, but I have a lot of experience working on the Council and knowing how to get things done. Dave Zelenok's temporary replacement is Jim Hauck, who has well over 20 years with the city. Quinn Peitz's replacement is an experienced planner from another community, who has a great reputation for great planning. Gary Green has two deputies that work for him that are very well qualified. I am a firm believer that we grow our own internally here, and we bring people up that have good qualifications and good ideas. And new people are more willing than the entrenched, I believe, to try something different to improve the city. I'm not concerned.

Indy: The new Council has been described as very business-friendly. What will that mean in practical terms?

Rivera: I like to think of it as very "business savvy." There's a good understanding that in order for the government to get stuff done, we have to partner with different groups in the community -- the Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Corporation, even other elected officials. I think, in the past, the Council really hasn't elevated itself to that level.

Indy: What impact will this "business savvy" have on regulations that have been criticized as unfriendly to business -- like historic overlay districts, the streamside ordinance, or the proposed view-corridor ordinance to prevent the county from expanding the courthouse and blocking the view of Pikes Peak? Will such regulations be rolled back?

Rivera: There will always be regulations, and we always have to protect the interests of all our constituents. But what we need to do is eliminate bureaucracies [and] make sure the staff knows that their role is helping our customers and understanding their needs. Our customers are the business community, the neighborhood organizations, everyone who has an interest in what goes on in the city. I don't think it's a question of rolling back ordinances.

I frankly don't think that we need a view-corridor ordinance. If you look at all the ordinances we already have in place, we passed one that gives the City Council final approval authority over any County Commission development plans. I frankly don't agree with the historic overlay zone that was put on the old North End, because I think it infringes on personal property rights. I do think we need some form of streamside ordinance, [though] I was opposed to it before, because it treated commercial businesses differently than it did residential property.

Indy: You've said that extending Constitution Avenue and making it a major east-west thoroughfare would be many years off. Is that still your position?

Rivera: Yeah. I mean, the first priority has to be to finish Woodmen from I-25 to Powers, because that has the traffic load on it right now. And then, in order to really improve access to the airport, I think we need to focus on Drennan. And the other major corridor that runs almost through the middle of town is Austin Bluffs; there's a lot of work needed there. We need to extend Martin Luther King bypass all the way to Powers. We need to improve Fillmore, more so than we're doing now. We need to improve Platte from Chelton, all the way to Powers. So there are lots of projects that we need to do first, because they carry the load.

Indy: In your six previous years on the Council, the city didn't make much progress in resolving differences with the City of Pueblo over building the southern delivery system to pipe more water here from the Arkansas River. What will you be able to do that the old City Council hasn't already tried?

Rivera: The old Council never met face to face with the Pueblo City Council. For the last year, it's been our staffs negotiating back and forth. We haven't dialogued directly with the council members. We're going to start that process. We need to find out what their critical issues are, and see if there's a way for us to work it out -- which we haven't tried.

Indy: During the campaign, you talked about getting Southwest Airlines to the Colorado Springs airport. However, politicians have talked about that for years, 150 other cities also want Southwest, and the airline says it has no current expansion plans. Why would it want to come here, right now?

Rivera: Well, they're probably not going to want to come to Colorado Springs right now, and frankly, if I was one of the decision-makers at Southwest, I wouldn't be interested. Because we, as a community, have to do a lot more work before we can legitimately approach them and expect them to even have interest in us. There are things we need to do to improve access to the airport through Drennan Road. We need to finish the connection of Powers from Research Parkway all the way to I-25, and then we need to start recruiting some businesses to our [airport's] business park. When we develop that and manage that, and sell sites off, or lease sites off, that's revenue to the airport that will reduce landing fees. And it'll make it cheaper for airlines to fly into Colorado Springs, significantly cheaper than Denver.

We already have lower costs, but if we could bring those down significantly, then we'd become attractive. If we have the right kind of businesses in the business park, that need better air service, there's an opportunity to Southwest to come in and capture some of that market. I'll restate what I said at my [campaign] announcement -- my hope is that near the end of my four-year term, Southwest will be calling us and saying, "We want to look at your airport."

Indy: What's your grand vision for the city?

Rivera: A lot of it centers around the airport. I don't know if it'll happen in four years, but 10 years down the road, [my hope is] that when people fly into Colorado, they fly into Colorado Springs. If they want to go skiing, they come here, [and] when people come to Colorado to visit tourist sites throughout the state, they come here -- because we're cheaper, we're more convenient; it's just a better city to fly into. I think that tourism can be a way to drive this economy.

And then, we build upon that with better air service. Better air service is something that all CEOs want. If we can drive that market and attract more airlines here, then I think we'll attract more businesses. And then we can build that business park [at the airport] into a major distribution center for cargo or a lot of other products.

We're going to have an eastern bypass [that] will get people through Colorado Springs from the north gate of the Air Force Academy all the way to the race track, so we'll have less traffic on Powers and I-25. And with all this economic development and revenue coming in from tax dollars from tourism, we'll be able to fix our east-west mobility problem. And we'll be a lot better about planning. We'll start now, starting to acquire the right-of-way that we need for the future growth of Colorado Springs.

With a strong economy, and when we have strong businesses, then the community, the elected leaders, develop a philanthropic, sustainable revenue source for all the cultural activities -- whether it's a symphony, the Fine Arts Center, a convention center. We'll have the kind of amenities that we need to attract top-quality corporations and employers, and we'll do that primarily through the elected leaders showing the importance to our corporate leaders and getting them to sustain those kind of operations. Same thing will happen to our nonprofits. We'll have that revenue that they need -- because of a strong, successful economy -- to service those that are less fortunate.

And of course, we'll have our water problem solved well before that. Because if we don't, we're not going anywhere.


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