Are city election races already over?

Filed under: News |

According to the City Charter, municipal elections are held every two years on the first Tuesday in April. This year, the election is scheduled for April 3, but it will actually take place much earlier.
That’s because the election will be conducted via mail. The ballots will be sent to active registered voters on March 14, and many, if not most, of them will be filled out and returned within a few days.
This means that City Council candidates have to adjust to a very different kind of election. It is, political experts agree, less personal, more expensive and even more incumbent-friendly than the traditional model.
Instead of pacing a campaign during the weeks leading up to Election Day, candidates face a truncated calendar with many unknowns. Campaign strategies such as phone-banking during the week before the election, or literature drops or candidate forums might be ineffective — and replacing them is expensive.
All the incumbent candidates, except recently appointed Councilman Bernie Herpin, successfully contested the mail ballot election in 2003.
That election was controversial because of the city’s decision to mail ballots only to “active” registered voters. Individuals who had not voted during the most recent general election were deemed “inactive” and did not receive ballots.
Of the nearly 220,000 registered voters within the city, more than 80,000 were classified as inactive, and, according to critics, effectively disenfranchised.
This policy will remain unchanged in 2007, according to City Clerk Kathryn Young.
Young said that registered voters who failed to vote in November’s election are considered inactive. On Jan. 1, response cards were mailed to about 130,000 inactive voters in El Paso County, who were asked to return the cards if they wished to be restored to active status and receive a ballot in April.
Only 5,000 city voters chose to do so, meaning that ballots will be sent to 135,000 of a total of 260,000 registered voters.
Young expects a return rate of about 60 percent, or 81,000 voters.
Clarissa Arellano, formerly with the Bighorn Center for Public Policy and now the government affairs director for the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors, has done research about vote-by-mail. During the last several years, she has testified at various state levels about the effects of mail ballots on the electoral process.
Arellano is puzzled by the sluggish pace of the campaigns for City Council.
“I would have started 30 days ago,” she said last week, “There’s no election day.”
Incumbency, she speculated, might not carry its usual weight during this election, since none of the present council members are particularly well-known to the voters.
“That’s why it’s crucial to get your name out there,” she said. “If I were running any of these (challenger) campaigns, I’d already have one mailer (direct-mail piece), then another when the ballots hit, and a chaser to pick up the stragglers and late deciders. And you have to micro-target — figure out your likely supporters, and make sure you mail to them, and that they mail in their ballots.”
Veteran political consultant Sarah Jack, who is actively involved in the campaigns of several council incumbents, agrees that the campaign season has yet to warm up.
“It’s really rather sleepy, so far,” she said. “But City Council elections are unique — it’s a different thought process. People who get involved seem to know the issues, and the participants, pretty well.”
And it’s a different political world nowadays.
“We’re way past the day when we could put up a few signs and walk around with flyers,” Jack said. “Even before mail ballots, (the increasing use of) absentee ballots had kind of changed the world.”
She agrees with Arellano that direct mail is extremely important for building and reinforcing name recognition, but she thinks that the four incumbents still have an edge.
“All of the polls that I’ve seen suggest that people aren’t terribly unsatisfied with city government — in fact, they’re pretty happy,” Jack said. “They may not like all the cone zones, but they’re glad that things are getting done.”
The business community seems to be leaning toward supporting the status quo. The Housing and Building Association has endorsed all four incumbent council members, and given each of them substantial contributions.
The Realtors and the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce have not yet announced their endorsements, but the three organizations have historically supported the same candidate slates during local elections.
That support is increasingly important, because council campaigns have become dramatically more expensive.
In 1991, no candidate raised more than $12,000. Randy Purvis, then seeking a second term, only raised about $3,000 — and retained his seat. Sixteen years later, Purvis, again an incumbent (he left council because of term limitation, and ran again in 2003) expects to raise and spend $50,000.
“I want to do at least one direct mail piece, just targeted at frequent voters,” he said. “I’ll do radio, and I’ve got a couple of billboards up, and yard signs. I hope that it’ll be a positive campaign, but if it isn’t I need to be able to respond.
“So far, it’s not been — there’s no overriding, galvanizing issue out there that everyone asks about.”
Arellano agrees with Purvis’ arithmetic.
“A campaign will cost easily $50,000,” she said. “Direct mail is very expensive. You have to design the pieces, print them and then mail. Even if you target, it’s still a big mailing. And then there’s radio, and billboards, and yard signs, and a Web site and TV.”
Challenger Tom Herold says much the same thing.
“I’ve budgeted $50,000 for the campaign, but I can only spend what I can raise,” he said. “Once you do mailings, and pay for billboards, yard signs, some radio, you’ve spent a lot. TV is very expensive. Surprisingly to me, it’s been a very, very low-key campaign. Not much in the Gazette, not much in the Independent.”
Do any of the challengers have a chance?
Arellano mentioned Jan Martin.
“Look at her Web site (electjanmartin.com),” she said. “Jan is running a very sophisticated campaign.”
Martin’s Web site features a daily blog.
A longtime community activist, Martin has garnered the support of two incumbent council members who are not facing re-election (Jerry Heimlicher and Scott Hente), as well as a long list of community leaders.
One veteran politico, who declined to be named, intimated that the election might not stay sleepy for long. “Not everyone in the business community is happy with all the incumbents. There are some people out there who might put some real bucks behind some of the challengers.”
And one of the challengers, Bob Null, has already committed $50,000 of his own money to his campaign. Another, Greg Timm, is a successful developer who could easily fund his own campaign.
But Jack thinks that any challenger will have an uphill climb — particularly since they have to build name recognition in less than three weeks.
“The people who are dissatisfied with city government are those who are worried about a few issues that aren’t important to most of the voters,” she said. “Polls are showing favorability ratings well above 50 percent (for the mayor and council).”
So does she expect that all the incumbents will be re-elected?
“Yes,” she said, “absolutely.”
John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com