Maybe it’s the delivery, not the message

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

Michael Douglas in his role as Gordon Gekko from the movie “Wall Street” and Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera share an appreciation for dapper dressing.

Sometimes, as we all know, style is more important than substance, emotion trumps reason and logic takes a back seat — even if we’re making vitally important decisions.
We get married for the first time to people who are utterly unsuitable (but gorgeous), we go to college and major in subjects so obscure that no employer will hire us, we start businesses that offer products for which there is no demand, we buy houses in dangerous neighborhoods in decaying cities … well, enough of my biography.
It would, I suppose, be desirable if we all acted logically when making decisions big and small, but that’s not the way we’re made.
I thought of that simple truth a couple of weeks ago, listening to/looking at Mayor Lionel Rivera, as he sat glowering at the Pueblo folks who had rented a room at Colorado College to talk to Colorado Springs residents about water.
They wanted, they said, to explain Pueblo’s positions concerning the Southern Delivery System, Fountain Creek and sewage spills into the waterway.
They seemed like a pleasant, unpretentious bunch.
Bill Thiebaut, the Pueblo district attorney who has filed suit against our city because of the sewage spills, had the rumpled, slightly bewildered look of a man with 15 kids. Barb Vidmar, a member of the Pueblo City Council, and Jane Rawlings, the assistant publisher of the Pueblo Chieftain, were quietly articulate and impressively “down home.”
Vidmar and Rawlings, both attractive women in their 50s, were simply dressed — no flashy jewelry, no designer outfits. They might have been high school principals, or small business proprietors or your mom.
The Pueblo delegation didn’t talk much about the individual issues that have caused so much friction between the communities; rather, they talked about emotions and feelings.
They spoke about their sense that Colorado Springs looks upon Pueblo as a second-rate community, a loser in the decades-long struggle for prosperity and economic development. They spoke about their belief that Colorado Springs is a treacherous and unreliable partner, one which is perfectly willing to bankrupt its neighbors in pursuit of its own best interests.
And most of all, they spoke about their desire for respect, for understanding and for a partnership between equals.
Then our mayor rose and, in effect, dismissed their complaints and emotions as irrelevant. Colorado Springs had, he said, already gone the extra mile. It was up to Pueblo to realize that the Springs owned water in the Arkansas and is entitled to take it — so, he said, shut up and do what we want.
Well, those weren’t his exact words, but that’s what he conveyed. And the audience, a good third of whom were Colorado Springs Utilities employees, cheered and applauded his tough, intransigent words.
Lionel didn’t look one bit like the Pueblo folks. He was dressed in an expensive dark suit (as is his wont), a perfectly knotted (and equally expensive) tie, a perfectly folded handkerchief in his breast pocket, perfectly polished shoes and the whole outfit crowned with a perfectly pressed shirt — a striped blue number with a white collar.
As he spoke, he somehow looked familiar. He reminded me of someone who wore those shirts … and suddenly, I got it.
Gordon Gekko. Remember him?
He was the ruthless investment banker played by Michael Douglas 20 years ago in the film “Wall Street.” Supposedly the film’s villain, he inspired a whole generation of bankers, private equity sharks, hedge funders and broker wannabes.
Here’s the famous — or infamous — statement of his credo.
“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind …”
What does Lionel do when he isn’t playing mayor? He’s a financial executive.
Then County Commissioner Sallie Clark came forward. Like Rawlings and Vidmar, she was dressed simply and informally. Clark had helped create the “Fountain Creek Visioning Task Force,” a joint effort of regional governments and elected officials.
It was clear that the Pueblo folks liked Clark — not because her positions are materially different from those of Rivera and his fellow City Council members, but because they feel that she’s a trustworthy person, someone to whom they can relate.
And it’s not as if Vidmar and Rawlings are simple folk, poor but proud.
Vidmar, whose Pueblo auto dealerships sell seven different makes, was the first woman president of the American Import Automobile Dealers Association. Rawlings, the daughter of Chieftain Publisher Bob Rawlings, is heir presumptive to the most successful medium-market daily newspaper in America.
They could probably buy and sell Lionel a dozen times over — and throw the other eight members of council in as an afterthought.
But they think of themselves as hard-working Puebloans, blue-collar people in a blue collar town.
They might not trust Lionel any farther than they can throw him. They likely see him as an upwardly mobile, nouveau-riche arriviste, without conscience or scruple. They’d probably deny any such beliefs, and say that it’s all about the issues that divide us, not just the personalities.
But it isn’t.
If they subconsciously believe that Lionel and the city will try to renege on whatever deal they make, Colorado Springs is in an impossible negotiating position. It doesn’t matter what you’re willing to agree to, if your negotiating partner believes that you’re Gordon Gekko.
Late last week, at a local watering hole, I ran this scenario past one of our city’s smartest, most successful builders. He wasn’t surprised.
“Look”, he said, “It’s all over. It’s just like an infill development deal, when the neighbors hate your project — it’s too big, it blocks their view, it’ll create lots of traffic. I’ve learned to say ‘OK, you don’t like it. I’ll just drop my option on the property and do a different deal.’ Because once the neighbors are against you, you’re finished. It doesn’t matter what we say — they hate us, they can kill it and they will.
“It’s our water, (but) we’ll have to figure out another way to get it.”
That’s fine for a development deal, I said in rejoinder. But we might not be able to take the water another way. What happens then?
He smiled, shrugged, and sipped his drink.
“Damned if I know.”
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.