Likely front-runners emerge early in Colorado Springs mayoral race

Jan. 28—Candidates in a crowded mayoral race to replace Mayor John Suthers in April will slug it out publicly in the coming months, throwing all they have at it: money, name recognition, political experience and strong vision for the city.

Likely front-runners with stuffed war chests and lengthy resumes include Wayne Williams, Colorado Springs councilman and former secretary of state; Longinos Gonzalez, a county commissioner; Sallie Clark, a former Colorado Springs councilwoman and El Paso County commissioner; and Yemi Mobolade, political newcomer and businessman.

They are among 12 candidates running to replace Suthers, who is term-limited. They join Councilman Tom Strand; former county commissioner and city councilman Darryl Glenn; businessmen Andrew Dalby and Jim Miller; and comedian and model Kallan Reece Rodebaugh. Johnathan Tiegen, a former CIA security contractor and founder of a local militia group, and Lawrence Martinez, who has worked as a hospice home care specialist and a business consultant, are also competing.

Though Williams faced an unsuccessful recall effort in the summer, he doesn't feel it will hinder his campaign, he said.

"The fact that people overwhelmingly rejected that attempt shows that is not where the majority of people in Colorado Springs are," he said.

Williams was targeted for his appearance with Secretary of State Jena Griswold in a public service announcement about the security of elections.

He also faced criticism for voting to reduce the amount of parkland developers must give to the city when they build new homes; for opposing an effort known as Protect our Parks that would require a vote of the people to approve parkland deals; and for supporting District 3 Councilwoman Stephannie Fortune's appointment to City Council. Fortune was also named in the same recall effort.

The candidates will need to address top resident concerns in their campaigns including public safety, affordable housing and development, homelessness, transportation and an unstable economy, local politicos said.

They are competing to replace a mayor that saw strong economic growth during his tenure.

In the past eight years, the city added 47,000 jobs, added 50,000 residents, and saw its annual gross domestic product grow to $40 billion, up from $30 billion, Suthers reported in September during his last State of the City speech. The city also saw only 0.1% of an economic loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

Possible front-runners for mayor have been fundraising in earnest ahead of the little more than two-month campaign before them. Mobolade is leading with the most cash available — about $204,800 — as of Jan. 11, the most recent city finance records show. Gonzalez had about $179,300, Williams about $106,600, and Clark about $104,400.

The next round of campaign finance records must be filed with the city by Wednesday.

Strong fundraising allows candidates to reach more people with messages about key challenges, such as housing, water availability and public safety.

The city will need a strong voice at the state level to help keep housing construction costs down, Gonzalez and Williams said.

"Smart growth" would also mean looking for options to build near existing infrastructure and essential services, Gonzalez said.

On Tuesday, the City Council approved a new zoning code that lays a foundation for more infill building and future neighborhoods with a wider variety of housing, as well as other changes.

Gonzalez said he thinks the new code will be a key part of helping the city keep housing costs down, emphasizing that "we need public dialogue to best take advantage of these revisions."

Mobolade said the city should also focus on its "missing middle" earners, or residents who make between 60% and 150% of the area's median income. In El Paso County, those are residents with household incomes of between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, he said.

"These are our firefighters, law enforcement officers, teachers, clerks," he said. "These are working professionals that we need to help keep our city running. ... There's virtually, right now, no housing for that group of people."

Mobolade said if elected, he would work to implement a "missing middle gap fund" that would partner with businesses and philanthropic organizations to provide funding for more efficient housing that will, in turn, "drive down the cost of new types of housing that we need in our community."

The strength of Colorado Springs' economy, Williams said, will also depend on its housing availability. In the discussion of whether Space Command headquarters should remain in Colorado Springs or should move permanently to Huntsville, Ala., he said, housing availability in the Pikes Peak region has been a concern.

The council has taken a number of steps to address the housing crisis, including adopting a fee rebate program for developers to encourage them to build more affordable housing for some of the lowest income earners in town, he said. Colorado Springs Utilities will also earmark $2 million each year to pay for infrastructure costs for 120 single-family homes or 2,000 apartments, "key actions" he said the next administration must continue.

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Colorado Springs will need to participate in regional solutions for water availability as the Colorado River experiences a megadrought, candidates said.

The City Council also on Tuesday approved a tweaked version of a controversial water rule that requires Utilities to have 128% of the water necessary to serve existing city demand and the projected demand from new properties.

The council said it, too, would study regional water needs, as several neighborhoods in El Paso County rely on diminishing groundwater and could require in the future water from Utilities.

"We need to bring all our stakeholders together to see how this rule, or any rule, should be implemented and how it affects us all," Gonzalez said.

A proposal from Councilwoman Nancy Henjum on Tuesday to form a regional water task force that would deliver recommendations received broad support. The council, though, did not commit to a date to set up a new task force.

Clark said she supports the proposed task force to "slow down" the conversation and assess the community's resources. If elected mayor, Clark said she would commit to establishing the task force within her first 90 days in office.

"How we grow is going to be determined by our resources," she said. "... This water rule can have long-ranging impacts on our community."

Alongside the new water ordinance, Williams said, officials must "continue to work on where to acquire water resources, and work collaboratively with our neighbors to acquire water in a way that still allows farmers to grow agriculture to support our state and community."

Public safety, too, should be top of mind for the next administration as the city fights rising crime rates, candidates and politicos said.

Though the council in December approved a $1 billion budget, adding funding for 15 police officer positions, the city is still short about 50 police officers. Officials will have to fill those new positions amid changing attitudes toward law enforcement, Clark and Williams said.

"The numbers are there in terms of ability to hire. The question is, why we aren't able to fill those positions?" Clark said.

Clark said the next administration should consider bonuses for officers who recruit peers, keeping wages and benefits competitive, offering opportunities for continuing education, and ensuring officers have support from supervisors, the City Council and the mayor.

Gonzalez said more conversation between the community and police force through town halls could help re-instill public trust in law enforcement, which will help recruit more officers.

The city's efforts to implement a police academy that can operate more frequently throughout the year could also help, Williams said. Typically, applicants could wait months between receiving their employment offer and joining the academy, increasing their chances of finding other work in the interim to provide for themselves, he said.

"Being able to decrease the waiting time between the offer and the start of the academy is one of those critical steps that we need to take," he said.

Leaders must also find better ways to address homelessness, Clark said.

"How can we be tough, and how can we also be compassionate, and how can we also be innovative in solving this problem?" she said.

An innovative and tailored solution requires engaging leaders across several sectors like health care, behavioral health and human services, criminal justice, employment, education and others, she said.

Candidates also said fire-response times and evacuation routes must be top of mind.

No matter who is elected in April, Mobolade said, Colorado Springs leadership has to work collaboratively together and with residents.

"We have to keep moving forward. We cannot stay stagnant," he said.