Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. More about those dogs later, but what has been happening politically and culturally this year in Colorado’s second largest city is astonishing, encouraging … even inspiring. Progressive/populist activists who’re organizing all across America to build grassroots movements strong enough to counter plutocratic rule and govern in the people’s interest now have a radiant model of success in one of the least likely places.
Since the 1990s, Colorado Springs has been shaped by an inordinate number of hard, hard, HARD right-wing institutions and forces, including:
- The national and international headquarters of more than 70 evangelical Christian outfits, many preaching fire-and-brimstone intolerance
- A swarm of rabid anti-tax, anti-union, anti-gay, anti-Obama Republican front groups funded by corporate extremists
- The US Air Force Academy and four other military installations employing 65,000 soldiers and civilians
- The Gazette, the city’s one daily newspaper, owned by Philip Anschutz, a multibillionaire buddy of the Koch brothers. The Gazette‘s Fox News-style editorial pages relentlessly push “alternative facts” and reactionary policies
- A paternalistic downtown establishment of politically connected developers who, incredibly, tout themselves as the “moderates”
Yet, like nearly all such neon-red spots splattered throughout our land, the Springs also is home to a hardy band of progressives, including environ.mentalists, unionists, women’s champions, scrappy entrepreneurs, LGBTQ activists, students and teachers, a sizeable immigrant population, social justice church groups, some sensible libertarians–and, importantly, a vibrant alternative newsweekly. The Colorado Springs Independent regularly links all the above and lives up to its name with a steady output of investigative journalism.
In 1993, after city leaders and The Gazette led a statewide campaign to legalize open discrimination against gays and lesbians, the Independent was launched as a unifying political vessel for diverse locals trying to advance progressive principles. In this turbulent sea of arch-conservatism, they had to be satisfied with only very occasional victories.
A little over year ago, however, John Weiss, founder and recently retired publisher of the Independent, began to think that more could be done. Through a listening tour with engaged locals, he found that on numerous economic and environmental issues–from willingness to spend more tax money on municipal services to outrage over big money’s perversion of local democracy –many townspeople were downright progressive-minded. (Full disclosure: Weiss is a good friend and also serves on the Lowdown’s board of directors.)
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders was bringing new, highly energized voters into play–he handily won the county’s 2016 Democratic caucus. Young people who had previously evinced zero interest in the old Democratic-Republican duopoly were rallying behind Bernie’s grassroots populism. And his revolutionary call to rein in America’s corporate oligarchs also sparked a fire in older, working-class people, including Repubs and none-of-the-above folks who’d given up on the idea that either party gave a damn about people like them. Weiss sensed a shift in Colorado Springs’ political zeitgeist– one that might open a path for new alignments and a progressive-populist movement.
But movements don’t just happen–until someone literally makes a move, inspiring others to join in, take action … and get moving. That’s what is happening in Colorado Springs.
In the midst of 2016’s national Trumpian tumult, Weiss and a core group of community allies started exploring strategies for a fresh political organizing effort in Colorado Springs. They pinpointed two decisive shortcomings in past efforts: One, progressive campaigns tended to be defensive, reacting to the extreme right’s framing of issues and then spending much of their time and money countering disinformation and dirty tricks. Two, while developers and the hard right maintained permanent staff and campaigns, progressives started every battle from scratch, scrambling to create new organizations, which were handicapped by lack of institutional memory.
Making their move
So this audacious band of populist allies decided to make a big move. They called on progressive forces throughout the Pikes Peak region–including Democrats, Berniecrats, Greens, and non-partisan issue advocates–to come together and build a permanent social change organization. Moreover, they reached out to fair-minded, commonsense moderates and sensible libertarians who were embarrassed both by religious crazies (whose intolerance sparked the town’s moniker: “Hate City”) and by the political toadies of the area’s corporate kingdom. These business-friendly cronies used city government to further enrich the elites while ignoring pressing needs for funding parks, mass transit, street lights, public bath.rooms, and for saving drought-stricken trees.
Through the spring and summer of 2016, the allies met with more than 100 local organizations and activists and formulated a straightforward goal: to mobilize a broad coalition around progressive values and common-interest proposals and then to assemble the full-time staff, tools, and resources needed to initiate and win candidate and issue campaigns.
Last October, seven local activists–including local entrepreneurs and digital gurus as well as long-time civil rights and environmental organizers–formed Together for Colorado Springs (T4CS) with a can-do slogan: “Together We Can Move Mountains.” Working committees were formed to handle the nitty-gritty chores of turning the ideas into effective action.
After Trump’s surprise victory last November, Colorado Springs moderates and progressives–like folks across the nation–were eager to mobilize in response. These newly activated citizens were able to plug into T4CS, which announced itself in exactly the right fashion: by throwing a wang-dang-doodle of a party. After all, sustaining a grassroots, democracy-building movement requires more than non-stop political action. It also needs social and cultural events to round out its appeal, unite its members, and express its democratic spirit. So T4CS’s public launch last February put the party back in politics, with a joyous crowd of more than 600 coalition supporters jammed into Stargazers Theater for a night of funky music, tub-thumping speeches, and a renewal of hope–plus, of course, plentiful libations to lubricate the new movement.
The very next day, though, it was down to business, for city council elections were coming up in April, less than two months away. The council had long been a rubber stamp for development interests, and its constant subservience to both moneyed and religious royals had irked regular folks of all political stripes. As the elections approached, this cronyism became a defining populist issue as T4CS hammered on one especially galling example of rank favoritism: The Strawberry Fields caper.
If a homeless person had been caught stealing strawberries in Colorado Springs, at least one of the council members would have bellowed, “Thou shalt not steal,” and demanded jail time for the wretched miscreant. But when Lord Philip Anschutz–the second richest man in Colorado (and the 35th richest person in America)–wanted to get his hands on a 180-plus-acre public park known as Strawberry Fields, he didn’t need to steal anything. The city council stole it for him.
Even though this unique, natural space has been owned by the citizens of the Springs since 1885 and serves as a very popular re-creation and nature area, the mayor and council seemed to expect praise when they announced in January 2016 that they’d cut a deal to let the billionaire take title to the people’s property. The clueless politicos gushed that Anschutz was willing to develop the “useless” land for the betterment of the city.
But Anschutz is no altruist. He is an imperialist who inherited an oil fortune and used it and his political connections to expand his holdings into railroads, media, pro sports teams, music events, telecommunications, movie theaters, and more. Along the way, he amassed a $12-billion fortune for himself. Far from wanting to help the local citizenry, Anschutz wanted Strawberry Fields so he could bulldoze nature and build an exclusive horse stable and event center on it to serve the wealthy swells (including Charles and David Koch) who pay top dollar for getaways at the nearby Broadmoor hotel and resort. That swank, sprawling 5-star facility happens to be owned by –who else?–Anschutz.
Piling outrage atop outrage, the “deal” that city officials approved required no money from the billionaire! Instead, he was allowed to trade some 370 acres of relatively worthless land that The Broadmoor owned elsewhere for the prime space owned by the people. For months after the deal was announced, the Springs boiled in fury. Thousands of locals signed petitions against it, and a subsequent poll commissioned by the Independent found that two thirds of the populace was opposed to the deal. But Anschutz used his financial clout and the PR power of his Gazette newspaper to pull the business establishment behind his proposed theft. So, in May 2016, despite huge public opposition, the city council sold out the people by a 6-3 vote.
Unfazed by public opinion, Anschutz, The Gazette, the Springs’ corporate political network, and their hard-right Christian allies headed into this spring’s council elections with a business dream team and mountains of money, fully expecting to increase their control by winning all six of the seats up for a vote. Sure, the T4CS group had popped into view, but it was seen as just another collection of liberal losers. Here’s how the city’s district races matched-up:
DISTRICT 1 Incumbent libertarian Don Knight, a retired Air Force officer and conservative Christian, had stepped on corporate toes by asking too many pesky questions, so Anschutz and local power brokers recruited the CEO of Champion Windows to try to knock him off. T4CS recommended Knight as the better of the candidates.
DISTRICT 2 An open seat in this district that went heavily for Trump pitted a right-winger against Dave Geislinger, a lawyer turned Catholic chaplain. Geislinger is himself conservative on many issues, but he idealizes Pope Francis and ran to help ensure that the city’s poor get a fair shake. At the last minute, Dave’s opponent dropped out, leaving the field open to add this relatively progressive Christian voice to the council. T4CS did not endorse Geislinger outright, but recommended him as well.
DISTRICT 3 This district includes The Broadmoor itself, and the establishment put up a developer who looked to be a shoo-in. Just before the filing deadline, however, Richard Skorman, a popular small business owner who lives near Strawberry Fields, entered the race with T4CS’s full-throated endorsement. Critically important: When Skorman filed, three other progressively inclined candidates voluntarily dropped out so that the progressive vote would not be split.
DISTRICT 4 Either the incumbent (a fervid Trump supporter) or the corporate candidate (a public schools privatizer) was expected to win. T4CS endorsed a long shot–transit activist Yolanda Avila, a Bernie backer who had grown up in this district’s low-income community. Another activist, a bronze star veteran, voluntarily stepped aside to consolidate the progressive vote.
DISTRICT 5 Here T4CS endorsed moderate Republican incumbent Jill Gaebler, an independent-minded, retired military officer who has championed pragmatic solutions and neighborhood issues–including opposing The Broadmoor’s Strawberry Fields scam. The right-wing establishment viciously opposed her re-election and bankrolled her opponent, a corporate executive.
DISTRICT 6 This district, dominated by tea party disciples and people even farther out on the fringe, was not contested by T4CS.
On April 4, with T4CS, the energy of volunteers mobilized by Unite Colorado Springs, strategic use of polling and social media, and a little luck, the upstarts pulled off a stunning upset. Even though T4CS was outspent by at least 10-to-1 (their opponents’ war chest included some $385,000 in secretive “dark money” that many suspect came largely from Anschutz and/or the Koch Brothers), the people’s efforts prevailed. All three T4CS endorsees were elected by substantial margins, as were the two candidates it recommended. These five joined Bill Murray, a progressive holdover whose at-large seat was not up this year and, thus, a pragmatic-progressive coalition now holds a solid majority at City Hall. In its first move, the new council, over the objections of the pro-development establishment, selected Skorman as council president and Gaebler the mayor pro tem. By working together, the citizen uprising in the Springs has, indeed, moved mountains, shifting power from The Broadmoor’s backrooms out to the grassroots.
Gone to the dogs
Big political change is sometimes symbolized by small alterations in routine. When Yolanda Avila became not only the first Latina on the council, but also its first legally blind member, lobbyists backed off on trying to dazzle members with slick power-point visuals. In addition, when Councilwoman Avila took her place on the dais, she was accompanied by her guide dog, Puma, the council’s first canine. Well, thought a few members, why not bring my fido? Thus, Colorado Springs’s council meetings are now graced by the presence of up to four dogs, reducing the pomposity of the pro.ceedings and giving them a bit more common-people’s feel.
Symbolism aside, change is as changees do, and this council is not hesitating to put its new clout to work for such needed policy changes as:
- No more giveaways of the people’s resources to corporate interests. (A lawsuit challenging the city council’s vote to swap away Strawberry Fields to The Broadmoor is wending its way through the courts, with a decision expected in 2018.)
- Welcoming the LGBTQ community into city government
- Working to close the city’s antiquated coal-burning power plant and transitioning to renewable energy sources
- Public funding of the arts
- Better disclosure of campaign donations
- Promoting in-fill and restraining gluttonous sprawl
- Investing in more open space for all residents to use
- Expanding people’s access to high-speed internet service
Resisting Donald Trump’s freak show in Washington is essen-tial, but no more so than building democratic politics where we live. If the everyday people of Colorado Springs–a supposedly rock-solid bastion of plutocracy and theocracy–can come together and take charge, so can the rest of us. As Skorman, the Springs’ new council president put it: People “are frustrated with national politics, but they can get involved locally. …[They] aren’t going to let these local elections slide like they have in the past.”
Local offices have formidable power, and winning them creates real opportunities to make bold progressive advances. The Together group threw another party in May–this one to celebrate their remarkable April victories. But while everyone felt great about the election, the real joy at the event was knowing that they are on the brink of making significant positive differences in their city. As T4CS co-chair Dawn Haliburton-Rudy put it to the crowd: “Now our real work begins.”