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Dancing with elephants 

The GOPs lock on nonpartisan local elections riles local liberals

click to enlarge Source: The Independent      Data: El Paso - County Clerk and - Recorder
  • Source: The Independent Data: El Paso County Clerk and Recorder

It's not supposed to matter who is a Republican and who is a Democrat -- at least in city and town politics across Colorado.

But in conservative El Paso County, everyone knows that, if you want to win, it often helps to be a member of the Grand Old Party. "It's always bubbling under the surface," said Richard Skorman, who two weeks ago was ousted as vice mayor of Colorado Springs when his colleagues selected the decidedly more conservative Larry Small to be the second-in-command on Council.

"And to be frank," Skorman said of his own reputation as a liberal, "it did play a role in the selection of vice mayor."

The rationale for nonpartisan politics is simple: Rather than focusing on the party machine, mayors and council members can spend their time tackling common issues. And for the most part, the system works. (One notable exception occurred last year, when Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera, a Republican, introduced Vice President Dick Cheney at a local GOP gala. Democrats, Rivera declared during his introduction, are "weak; they can't take the cold.")

Manitou's four donkeys

According to El Paso County's current voter roles, 47 percent of voters are registered Republican, 32 percent are unaffiliated and only 21 percent are Democrat.

An Independent survey of the voter registration records of 64 politicians serving on the various councils and boards of El Paso County and Woodland Park in Teller County shows an overwhelming and similar tilt of Republicans holding most offices.

The nine-member Colorado Springs City Council is comprised almost entirely of Republicans, except for Skorman, who is registered as unaffiliated.

The councils of Monument and Woodland Park are comprised almost entirely of Republicans. Fountain, Palmer Lake and Ramah each have two Democrats, while Calhan and Green Mountain Falls each have one.

Manitou Springs has the highest concentration of Democrats, with four on a seven-member city council.

Altogether, almost 69 percent of elected officials surveyed are registered Republican, and around 13 percent are unaffiliated. Similar to the proportion of Democrat voters, around 19 percent of the elected bodies are registered as Democrats.

The person or the label

Some politicians, such as Skorman, are comfortable with the official nonpartisan format, because "people then tend to vote for the person rather than the label," he said. "And, in fact, there's not many issues we deal with that are overtly partisan."

Skorman said if he were to have his way, all elected officials in the United States -- including the president -- would be chosen in nonpartisan races.

Others reject the notion that partisanship is a problem. For example, Larry Small, who calls himself a "lifelong Republican," rejected the suggestion that his rise to vice mayor was fueled by politics. "My case was more compelling than (Skorman's)," he said, citing his priority of nurturing business and the local aerospace industry. Small added that he enjoys Democratic support. "I think I could get as much done no matter what my party affiliation."

But on the heels of Colorado Springs' most dismal voter turnout in 24 years last month, John Morris, the new chairman of the El Paso County Democratic Party, is itching for change.

Less than 15 percent of eligible voters cast ballots for the City Council race on April 2. They returned four Republicans to office. No Democrats bothered to run.

"I assert that if you had a partisan election, people would be much more excited," said Morris.

Currently, partisan-defined seats include state senators and legislators and El Paso County's commissioners, sheriff, assessor, treasurer, clerk and recorder, and coroner. All, save one -- Democratic state Rep. Michael Merrifield -- are currently Republican.

"The one place where Democrats have a chance of getting elected is on the city councils," said Bob Loevy, a Colorado College political science professor and longtime observer of local politics.

"You see what happens when you have party affiliation," he said. "The Republicans take everything."

Slaughtered by the system

On April 28, the Gazette editorialized about Small becoming vice mayor, proclaiming that for Skorman, "it can't be easy being one of the most conspicuous liberals in this largely conservative town."

In response, Skorman offered this: "I certainly am not denigrated. I'm an unabashed social liberal and I'm very pro-environment.

"Sometimes I think I should tattoo it on my forehead for the number of times people call me a liberal."

But others, such as Morris of the El Paso County Democrats, aren't as amused.

"We've been slaughtered under the old system," he said. "There's a tremendous need for progressives in this county to have a voice that speaks for their perspective."

-- Dan Wilcock

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