December 16, 2015 News » Cover Story

No Council for old men 

What to know about running for City Council if you're not a geezer

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Our elected officials — specifically, those on the Colorado Springs City Council — are typically white, male and over the age of 60. They're often cautious, conservative and risk-averse. They pay lip service to young professionals, to fresh new ideas, to creating an entrepreneurial culture in Colorado Springs — but that's hardly enough. It's one thing to fill potholes, but quite another to create a dynamic, interesting and powerful city.

We're 15 years into the 21st century, but in many ways we're stalled in the last one — a sprawling, suburban backwater dependent upon tourism, military spending and retired baby boomers.

Clearly, we need younger leadership.

That seemed like an appropriate topic for an Ignite presentation, which I delivered earlier this month at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. If you're not familiar with the event, which was launched in Seattle in 2007 and has since spread to cities around the globe, Ignite is "a series of speedy presentations. Presenters get 20 slides, which automatically advance every 15 seconds. The results are fast and fun presentations that last just 5 minutes." 

It's performance art, a means of engaging, amusing and motivating the live audience.

My intention was to offer advice for how to be elected to local office in Colorado Springs without waiting until you're really, really, really old. My presentation was influenced by my six-year stint on City Council nearly a quarter of a century ago (from 1991 to 1997), but it was inspired by a 17-page letter written by then-Colorado Springs Mayor John Robinson, who was 40 at the time, on July 31, 1901.

The young mayor's letter was addressed to "the Citizens of Colorado Springs of the Twenty-First Century" and sealed in Colorado College's Century Chest, which was opened in 2001.

It's an extraordinary and moving document from our past. It bears witness to a time of change, growth, and the restlessly civic-minded young men and women who led Colorado Springs at the turn of the 20th century.

What follows are the 20 points I shared during my presentation. The first 11 are bits of information aimed at motivating younger generations to run for office. The remainder are tips for doing that once the inspiration kicks in. Consider them 20 sparks for igniting a City Council revolution.

1. Who are these guys (pictured above)? A '60s rock group dressed up for Halloween and sprawled languidly on the front porch of an old frame house? They might have been called Doctor John & The Aldermen. That's Mayor John Robinson (front row, second from right) and the Colorado Springs City Council (then called aldermen) in 1901. Average age: about 37.

2. Mayor Robinson, a fine-looking man, was arguably the second-greatest community visionary of his time. Enjoy Palmer Park? Robinson put the deal together, persuaded Gen. William Jackson Palmer to cough up the dough and announced the news in his letter to the future (see sidebar, p. 23).

3. General Palmer established Colorado Springs in 1871, at the ripe old age of 35. By the time Palmer got around to establishing the city, he had served in the Civil War, won the Congressional Medal of Honor, risen to the rank of Brevet Brigadier General and founded the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.

4. Young people built Colorado Springs into a thriving city of 21,000 in just 30 years.

5. One of them was W.C. Jones, the so-called Boy Alderman, who was 22 when he was elected.

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6. The Aldermen didn't sit around and argue; they did things, and their works are all around us. Look closely at one photo of their City Hall (above), a rundown old house on Kiowa Street, and you'll see the beginnings of the stone foundation for the next City Hall, which we continue to use daily, 113 years later.

7. The average age of today's City Council: over 60 — almost certainly the oldest in the city's history. The youngest person on today's Council (Jill Gaebler) may be older than the oldest alderman was in 1900, about 48.

8. Younger, faster, smarter, stronger — that's what NFL coaches say they want. In politics, you need a mixture of canny veterans and eager newcomers. We were on our way in 2011, when Lisa Czeladtko and Brandy Williams were elected to Council. But Czeladtko declined to run for a full term in 2013, and the 80906 power structure threw its support to the eventual winner: 65-year-old Keith King.

9. Today, councilmembers are paid $6,250 annually. In 1901, aldermen earned $800 a year, equivalent to $40,000 today. (A $20 gold piece in 1901 was worth $20, while today it's worth $1,125. The mansion at 720 N. Cascade Ave. in 1901 cost $20,000 to build; in 2015, $1.5 million. ) Aldermen may not have earned enough to live luxuriously, but their civic salaries weren't too shabby.

10. What do councilmembers today do for a living? Nothing — eight of nine are retired, and those eight appear to receive government pensions, Social Security or both. And as befits cautious and frugal folk, I expect they have ample savings as well.

11. Ever been in the military? A majority of today's councilmembers are retired career military. As young people, they learned to shut up, follow orders and wait their turns. Hierarchical, conservative, orderly, predictable — bold action isn't their style.

12. Run for Council — and win. Start right now. Go out into the community, get involved and network furiously. That worked — twice — for me.

13. Understand your demographic. Springs voters are old and getting older. Don't call 'em geezers. Don't call 'em seniors. Don't suggest they're useless or irrelevant. Know who votes — and realize that your peers mostly don't. In fact, few local geezers have ever heard of the Mostly Don'ts, so don't be afraid to be the kind of suck-uppy, fake respectful-to-his-elders kind of person you despised in high school.

click to enlarge Colorado Springs City Council. - PHOTOGRAPHY BY SUZANNE
  • Photography by Suzanne
  • Colorado Springs City Council.

14. Democrat? Don't let that stop you. City Council is one of the few places you can be an out Dem (Tom Strand and Bill Murray) or a progressive (Jill Gaebler) and get elected in Colorado Springs. Just don't be tempted to run on the Democratic ticket for a no-hope-of-winning seat in the state Legislature or on the Board of County Commissioners. That killed a couple of great candidates this year.

15. Show humility. Don't imitate the braying donkeys running for president. Appear to be humble, ready to learn, determined to serve and not full of yourself. That's tough, because you need a big ego to run. Ask for advice, and pretend to take it. And ask for help — with yard signs, fundraising, emotional support, etc.

16. Work the room. Colorado Springs is a very large small town. Whether you're running in a Council district or at large, you have to meet people in person. Join Rotary Club. Adopt a sweet, gentle Labrador and bring her to nursing homes. Volunteer at the Marian House. Be a good person — even if you aren't!

17. Get hip to history. Learn about the city you want to lead. Longtime residents always vote in city elections, and they're deeply aware of local history.

18. Always be closing (ABC). You're a salesperson with one product: yourself. Bad hair days aren't permitted. You're always onstage. Do whatever is necessary to look your best. Politics has been called show business for ugly people, but you need to be a five-tool actor: sing, dance, remember your lines, improvise, and smile, smile, smile!

19. Be nice to media. Pretty, pretty please. Don't try to buy us off (unless you have serious money), but try not to play favorites, be available and quotable, don't lie to us, and return calls promptly.

20. Commit right now. If this were an old-fashioned revival, this would be the come-to-Jesus moment. Bless you, my children (actually, grandchildren), for you are about to sin. Let your imagination run — for City Council, mayor, governor, maybe even president of the United States.


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