Great blue hope? 

Three candidates look to end Dems' drought in county races

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El Paso County's jail is packed, its roads are cracked and its budget is threatening to burst.

Twenty-two county employees lost their jobs after recent budget cuts. Selling county park land was mentioned as an option for balancing the books.

It's so bad that the all-Republican board of commissioners is poised to ask voters to approve a new 1-cent sales tax for public health and safety needs.

So maybe it's a good time to be a Democrat running for county commission.

Well, not so fast. No Democrat has been elected to El Paso County's board for more than 30 years. Republicans outnumber Democrats in each of the county's five districts, sometimes by multiples of two or three.

The odds are daunting, but John Morris, chair of the county Democratic Party, seems pleased with the way things are shaping up as three incumbent commissioners seek re-election. For starters, the Dems have candidates facing each of them.

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Pam Berry is hoping to unseat Sallie Clark as representative of District 3, which extends from the edge of downtown to the county's western border, including Old Colorado City and Manitou Springs.

Berry's in some ways an unlikely candidate, shying away from having her picture taken and speaking most passionately about a campaign issue some supporters suggest she avoid.

If elected, the 59-year-old says, "I'd certainly pay more attention to the human capital."

In a 30-year career at School District 11, Berry worked in a school library, as a receptionist and in other capacities before spending 10 years in the business office and 11 years in human resources.

She started working in 2000 for the county as a compensation and employment specialist. She quit in 2003. She says she encountered a hostile work environment and was puzzled by inconsistencies in the county's compensation practices that apparently rewarded some while leaving others feeling undervalued. (Last year, the county actually eliminated its human resources department, outsourcing the work to a private company.)

"I think we need to be like any other organization," she says.

Berry says it's hard to get many Springs residents interested in a rung of government that can be invisible to those who don't live in the rural areas that rely on county services. She laughs despairingly when asked to rate her chances of winning in November, but says she's hopeful the situation will continue getting better.

"I think the demographics are beginning to change," she says.

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Allison Hunter could be described as a sort of utility Democrat. In 2006, she ran against incumbent Rep. Bill Cadman (now a state senator) in the staunchly conservative House District 15, receiving about one-third of the vote.

The 43-year-old planned to run for the same seat again this year and liked her chances against appointee Rep. Douglas Bruce but the single mother of two could not see herself commuting to Denver for the wintry months of the legislative session. So she made way for Democrat Michelle Maksimowicz, who will face off in November against Bruce or Mark Waller, depending on who wins the Aug. 12 primary.

At the Democratic Party assembly in February, no one seemed inclined to run against Bruce's replacement as commissioner for District 2, which covers the county's sprawling eastern section. Hunter says she volunteered to run against Amy Lathen partly to inspire other Democrats.

"If a working, single parent can get out there," she says, "then they can do it too."

Hunter now works as a property and auto claims adjuster, but she says she'd happily shift gears if elected commissioner, which pays $87,300 annually. She says she'd try to help the county escape its financial woes. Short-term fixes and stopgap measures, she believes, won't address the larger budget problems.

"You may not pay now," she says, "but you will pay later."

Andre Vigil, running for the second time against Dennis Hisey to represent the county's southwestern District 4, wants to make changes large and small.

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Vigil, who works as an electrician at the county jail, thinks the county could centralize things to save money.

For instance, he asks, why not consider combining office-supply purchases with the city to make savings of scale?

The recent layoffs point to what he sees as bigger problems. For instance, the county now gives more than a dozen managers hundreds each month for car allowances and to cover gas expenses. He questions the recent decision to keep those payments in tough budgetary times.

"I'd have cut [the allowances] before I'd lay people off," he says.

Vigil, 51, thinks favoritism is rampant in county employment practices. He's also convinced the county's use of certificates of participation as a way to pay for building projects, essentially taking on debt without voter approval, has weakened its financial position. And he wonders if the county could save money by trimming the number of commissioners elected to lead it.

"Why does it take five commissioners?" he asks. (Other counties have as few as three.)

Vigil says the county is at a point where it might need some smart micromanaging.

"I'm not a disgruntled employee," he says. "I'm a disgruntled citizen."



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