The importance of next April’s mayoral election to the business community can hardly be overstated. Whoever fills the office will wield unprecedented power, able to single-handedly decide issues of crucial importance to business.
Despite such high stakes, the business community is unlikely to unite behind a single candidate.
Although some prominent business figures, led by real estate developer Steve Schuck, have been working behind the scenes to promote business unity, others are less convinced that such a strategy is appropriate.
Chuck Fowler, who chairs the City Committee with Broadmoor CEO Steve Bartolin, said a number of candidates had sought the endorsement of the government accountability group.
“Oh yeah!” he said. “(But) I’m glad that we’re a 501(c)3. We don’t endorse candidates. We see our role as providing useful information to all candidates. There’s jockeying for position, and the ponies are just coming into the paddock — so which one are you going to bet on? With so many potential candidates, do you put all your bets on one horse, or keep your distance? Do you wait for a potential runoff?”
In 2003, the last vigorously contested mayoral race, four incumbent council members battled for business support. They succeeded to some extent, but at least one big player in the business community chose to stay out entirely. The Housing and Building Association, its ranks split, chose not to endorse.
County Commissioner Jim Bensberg thinks the business community will eventually find its preferred candidate.
Of the declared candidates today, four (Steve Bach, Brian Bahr, Buddy Gilmore and Dave Munger) have both extensive business experience and deep roots in the community. “My sense is that the business community will coalesce around the candidate with whom they feel most comfortable,” Bensberg said, “and with whom they have the longest experience.”
But Gilmore, a defense contractor who was an early entrant into the race, disagrees.
“I think that each one of us has a different constituency,” he said. “Brian and Steve kind of share one (in the real estate/development community), Dave has CONO (the Council of Neighbors and Organizations), and my base is in the defense and small-business community.”
Fowler doesn’t see a clear business favorite.
“There’s something good about all of them,” he said, “but where’s Superman?”
Fowler said that City Committee is concerned not only about the mayoral race, but also about the new council.
“We’re concerned that we’ll have seven rookie council members and a rookie mayor,” he said. “That lack of experience in governing a municipality will be very significant, and city staff will have to step up in ways they never have had to before.”
With the change to a strong mayor form, power that had once been diffused throughout city government is now concentrated in the mayor’s office, making its occupant vitally important to the business community.
No business is unaffected by city regulations, city land-use codes, or city budget decisions. The city issues 21 different business licenses, regulating businesses as varied as circuses, concrete contractors, food peddlers, pool halls, and pawnbrokers. City ordinances determine how and whether development can proceed, and sharply restrict development in hillside and streamside terrain, locations that are always popular with developers.
City zoning codes also determine where businesses can locate, how intensive home-based businesses can be, and whether off-street parking must be provided to building tenants.
“It’s a very powerful position,” said Vice Mayor Larry Small, who may himself be a candidate. “The mayor has complete control of spending, as long as he’s within the budget. Land-use items still go to council, but the mayor makes all appointments and gives all direction to staff.”
Until 1979, the mayor was merely the councilmember chosen by his/her colleagues to preside over meetings. In 1979, Bob Isaac became the city’s first popularly elected mayor.
Isaac enjoyed the unanimous support of the business community, which he retained during his re-election campaigns in 1983 and 1987. In 1991, business support was divided between Isaac and council member Mary Ellen McNally. Isaac prevailed, and won a fifth term in 1995 without serious opposition.
Isaac resigned in 1996, setting the stage for a hotly contested election to fill the remaining two years of his term in 1997. Three incumbent council members ran, each commanding substantial business support. Mary Lou Makepeace won, and was elected to a full term two years later despite a lack of unanimous business support.
In past years, candidates seeking business support sought the endorsement of four organizations: the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors, the Chamber of Commerce, the Housing and Building Association, and a loose association of powerful developers headed by Schuck.
Those players are still powerful, but their impact on the mayoral race may now be diminished.
La Plata CEO Scott Smith, who serves the HBA as its political consultant, said things have changed.
“The economy is definitely a factor,” he said. “A lot of (former campaign contributors) may be sitting on the sidelines.”
Smith wouldn’t predict whether the business community would rally around a single candidate, or even whether the HBA would choose a single person to endorse.
“This is a fascinating process,” he said. “We’re in uncharted territory. There’s just a whole lot of things out there that we don’t know yet.”
But suppose the business community fails to unite around a candidate? Could an unacceptable candidate win?
“I think you can absolutely paint that picture,” Smith said. “It’s a real volatile environment.”
What’s more, a business-friendly candidate might not be enough for the business community.
While Colorado Springs mayors since Isaac have all been business-friendly, none have been business-favorable, according to Small.
“A business-friendly mayor will weigh the legitimate needs and wants of the business community as well as those of other groups, and decide accordingly,” said Small. “A business-favorable mayor will always decide for business. I think (this election) it’s more important to them to have a business-favorable mayor.”