The strong mayor initiative is on the ballot. It’s propelled by money, voter discontent, money, powerful men and women, money, organization, and … did I say money?
We can expect a powerful, well-financed campaign to drown out dissenting voices. It’ll probably pass, and then we’ll have to elect a person to fill the newly created office. I have no idea who that person will be, but he/she will need to be extraordinarily well-qualified.
It’ll be the task of the new mayor to structure, direct, staff and administer a new city government. He/she will have to not only reinvent the city, but also forge an amicable relationship with nine virtually unpaid city council members, at least five of whom will be newcomers, hire or retain key senior staff, promote economic development, represent the city in the state, region and nation, and both be and seem-to-be a strong, effective leader.
What qualifications should the mayor bring to the table, other than deep and lasting roots in Colorado Springs?
1) Experience as an elected official.
You can’t expect to function effectively in the political wilderness without survival skills, and you can only gain them in the field. You don’t ask green recruits to lead a Delta Force team, or newly minted attorneys to represent BP. Political newbies, however skilled, are easy prey for the media, for their peer and for entrenched bureaucrats.
2) Experience in the management of large, multi-faceted organizations.
Do we really expect to round up the usual local political suspects, throw them into the strong mayor cauldron, and have them survive, let alone thrive? Whether our new mayor has management experience in the public, private, or nonprofit sector is irrelevant – he/she needs to understand the dynamics of scale. And no, running a Mom & Pop isn’t enough.
3) Communication skills.
All politicians communicate, but most make do with clichés, sound bite, and political talking points. We’ve had good communicators in the past – witness Bob Isaac and Mary Lou Makepeace – who knew how to talk to their fellow residents simply, plainly and without pretension. We don’t need smoke & mirrors, or partisan blather, but objective truth. Think Bill Gross, think Warren Buffett, think Chuck Berry and Andrew Romanoff, both of whom were superb Speakers of the Colorado House.
4) An understanding of power.
If you don’t understand power, you can’t exercise it. Powerful people are often subtle, indirect, and unobtrusive. They’re less interested in taking credit than in getting the job done. They listen more than they talk, delegate easily, recognize competence, never hold grudges, and treat their peers, subordinates and superiors with respect. They don’t “kick down and kiss up.” They know when to strike, and when to hold back. I’ve never worked for a powerful person – but I’ve had the pleasure of working with powerful people, who have the capacity to inspire, to delight, and to empower those whom they supervise.
5) High intelligence.
Many charismatic politicians are charming, cunning, remorselessly calculating, and dumber than dirt. I don’t have to name any – you can do that! We’ve all been fooled a time or two by snake oil salesmen/women, but we can’t afford to entrust the city to a con artist. And let’s face it – the average dumbo could no more lead and run the city than could the average newspaper columnist.
The office is by definition non-partisan. The mayor represents everybody, not just Republican primary voters. Any person who owes his/her career to currying favor with any narrow political group can’t function effectively in the office. Our best mayors have been nominal Republicans with broad support, folks who were suspicious of ideologues of all stripes.
Is this list too demanding? You might argue that Denver’s last three mayors (Messrs. Pena, Webb, and Hickenlooper) have been outstandingly successful, although two were lawyer/politicians and one was a bar owner. That’s true, but Denver has had a strong mayor form of government for more than a century. The structural template is there, the staff is experienced, and the game plan is in place.
I can only think of a few individuals who meet even five of the six criteria: Mary Lou Makepeace, Pam Shipley, and Scott Blackmun come to mind. None of them are presently available, nor are they likely to be. But there is one person who meets all six: Bill Hybl.
Bill? Bill? Are you there, Bill? It’s me, Colorado Springs …