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Editorial: Final Days and 16 Mayors

Back when Pueblo decided it wanted to have a Mayor run city government, few expected that 16 people would run for office. Now that Pueblo is in the final month of the campaign, I can officially say, 16 people are 10 people too many to run for office.

With a month to go, Puebloans do have choices however, there are the safe choices, candidates who could be mayor tomorrow and keep Pueblo moving along. If Puebloans want a stark contrast with the way things have been going, they too have options. If Pueblo’s minorities feel left out and what a fighter they have choices. And if Pueblo thinks there are no promising politicians from different walks of life, this race has shown that a few candidates are could turn into the next class of Pueblo leaders.

The Safe Statesmen

If Pueblo was looking for a mayor that is an elder statesman – someone who lived a life in civic service then Nick Gradisar, Steve Nawrocki and Dennis Flores would fit that choice.

In their first day in office, all three would be considered an equal to Mayor John Suthers in Colorado Springs and to a lesser extent Mayor Michael Hancock of Denver. They are safe, predictable but also give Pueblo respectability.

Some may criticize these three are merely an incremental change in Pueblo politics, but with a shift in political leadership, having a cooler head lead the city may steady Pueblo political life for a half decade.

Nick Gradisar – the elder statesman: Gradisar has been around Pueblo politics for so long, it feels as if he has already been mayor for a term back in the 1980s. What Gradisar gives Pueblo is a knowledgeable hand in how government works. Voters want a visionary war leader, but city management is more like a march to war, fought with memos, second readings, and updates on rule number 10.1.4-B. Gradisar gives Pueblo that statesman who knows the issues and understands the slog of city government.

Steve Nawrocki – the experienced councilor: With years of experience as the head of the Senior Development Resource Development Agency in Pueblo and serving on Pueblo City Council, Nawrocki has all the boxes checked to understand Pueblo. Water. Yes. Aging issues. Check. Budget and finance. Check. Public Safety. Check. Nawrocki ticks most, if not all, of the experience boxes a Pueblo mayor would need.

Dennis Flores – the Colorado COO: From two stints on council, a time on Pueblo City School Board, serving on the Board of Governors for the Colorado State University System and running his own insurance business, his CV has the hefty mix of business and community involvement. Flores seems to have more of the temperament and mindset of a United States Senator than just another Pueblo politician and that could serve Pueblo well.

If there is a downside to these three is that they aren’t the future of Pueblo, but they represent a transition to one. All three are older but Pueblo is older. Where these three could struggle is addressing the needs of the arts and culture community, youthfulness.

However where these three stand out is over their collective experience should Pueblo ever be faced with a national emergency or a statewide crisis. All three could seemingly withstand the stress to lead Pueblo through difficult stretches should we face a disaster or crisis.

It’s mocked in the current political climate but someone having the skills to navigate the halls of city-county bureaucracy, engage with the Governor, or converse with a U.S. Senator is just what Pueblo has lacked.

The “outside” councilors

With years of experience on council, Chris Nicoll, Lori Winner, and Randy Thurston represent a break in traditional city politics but their challenge will be convincing voters see them as coalition builders.

I think all three would acknowledge they can at times be polarizing leaders with a reputation for being thorns in the “way things are just done in Pueblo.” And depending on which side of the fight you were on, that means some baggage. But all three would also tell you, that’s what Pueblo needs – a shakeup and that’s what they are offering.

Chris Nicoll in his time in Pueblo City Council has been at the center of the most contentious issues. From the recall effort of three council members, the rancor over the Pueblo Animal Shelter and the debacle over the baseball stadium – Chris Nicoll has been the barb in Pueblo government.

Nicoll for all his thorniness understands that Pueblo needs to adapt to a new century of industry. The question for him is can he get along to move the city along? Or has he burned one too many bridges?

Lori Winner and Randy Thurston present Pueblo with a vision of Pueblo that would be an immediate and clear shift in direction. Both openly say that Pueblo isn’t held back because of some deep dysfunctional issue but rather there are a few people who simply kill good ideas in Pueblo.

Lori Winner at her core believes that if Pueblo looks better, it can be better. It’s consistent with how she rose to the council by leveraging the Pueblo House of Shame to get things done and by pushing for a tax increase to fund law enforcement at a time when voters didn’t want approve a tax.

Randy Thurston, on the other hand, believes that Pueblo needs a wholesale brand renovation. He believes that Pueblo isn’t broken but rather, here again, there’s just too much dead weight in city politics that wants to keep Pueblo small. He wants to focus on the good Pueblo has to offer.

To shake things up, all three would have to work with and face every day, the very people they believe, and much of it is justified, is out to hold Pueblo back. The question for all three is can they convince voters on this direction.

The Forgotten Pueblo

Ted Lopez and Larry Atencio represent the best options for the East Side, west side (around the State Hospital area) and Bessemer – three areas that need the most attention by the city.

The city has always had a misguided bureaucratic belief that by building parks and roads you build up lives. With no real job growth, or housing boom, or tech push and without a comprehensive preservation effort, Bessemer along with the east and west sides of Pueblo has been left to wither and die. This will be the single greatest challenge for any new mayor.

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In their time on council both Lopez and Atencio have a history of delivering to their districts. And now that Pueblo is majority Hispanic, the needs of this community will be front of a center of a new Pueblo. Politically Ted Lopez has an accountant caught in an engineer’s mind. He’s methodical and a details guy in a city better known for just winging things.

Larry Atencio is the smiling, approachable and likable Pueblo-focused politician. Both have to answer the question: Beyond east side supermarkets and bullet points how would you help Pueblo Hispanics and still keep the better areas of Pueblo humming along?

Their biggest strength in office would also be their biggest weakness. Pueblo needs hyper-local solutions, and it needs one-on-one focus, but there has to be a bigger, specific vision for Pueblo. Should Atencio or Lopez get to the final round, they will need to tell voters how they will balance the needs of forgotten Puebloans and still think big for Pueblo.

Beyond personal styles, there’s still the question whether Pueblo is ready for a Hispanic leader — someone that isn’t just Hispanic in name only but a leader that may ruffle establishment feathers by addressing a city that has a spotty civil rights record.

The “Need-To’s”

Jody Voss, Janet Wilson, and Tom Croshal are three candidates that should remain around Pueblo politics but probably need to make a stop on city council or on a school board first.

The two have good ideas ruminating about, but it’s almost as if they are a bit unrefined to execute them.

Voss, Wilson, and Croshal are the “need to’s” candidates. So far they have said a lot that Pueblo needs to be safe, or it needs to solve its education problem or it needs to…, you get the picture. There isn’t anyone that would argue with their “need to’s” but they need a few years of government experience to turn the “We need to do this…” into we are going to do this and here’s how.

Croshal has a platform and a laid out plan but the question for him in October still is, all that’s great but how are you going to do the things you say. For example, Croshall says he wants to use PEDCO funds to spur local business. Sounds nice, but it’s actually half-cent funds that the city already controls. It’s a little detail like that where public service can focus Croshal

Janet Wilson can best be described as a barnstorming community activist. After finding Pueblo around the Occupy Wall Street Movement and setting up the non-profit “The Pueblo House” on the east side Wilson’s community leadership is evident and her ability to continually build micro-communities is a skill set sorely lacking in Pueblo.

Voss isn’t a politician and she’s a little politically rough around the edges. And the mayor’s office will nothing more than managing the political balance and needs of a hundred-thousand Puebloans. Though, her years leading the Pueblo Boys and Girls Club provides her a completely different but welcoming skill set, one focused on community development for Pueblo’s youth.

All three represent a professional class of leaders that can breathe life into the city but they need to focus their ideas into something tangible. Do this and they would be formidable city leaders.

The Outsiders

For all the jokes and consternation with the number of candidates – running for office is a grueling, humbling process. These true outsiders did put their name in the running, and they should be commended for doing so.

Larry Fancher is an interesting candidate. For whatever reason, he believes the best route in politics is just launch personal attacks that conflate his valid criticism of city government.

Gary Lee Clark, Z. Marie Martinez Charlotte Perez and Alexander Lucero-Mugatu are the four out of the entire list that put themselves into the fray even though they are the three Pueblo seemingly looked side-eyed the most. What is missing from all three are concrete specifics on what they want to do.

Take Charlotte Perez for example, I think of all the candidates, her background gives her the ability to raise issues and force other candidates to look beyond a safe adobe-washed Pueblo. With a month left, maybe these four can wake up and push the campaign hard on a few specific issues instead of platitudes. They may not win, but that doesn’t mean they can’t force this campaign to be more.

What does it all mean?

For such a momentous occasion, the campaign has been uneventful. It wasn’t nasty, and it hasn’t been contentious but that’s because this campaign hasn’t really been about anything, yet. We’ve had an airing of Pueblo’s problems. We’ve seen the blame game of which obscure, old guy is holding Pueblo back. And they all have played the “hey-hey look at me, over here!” debate game.

With a month left, there’s a real chance for a few candidates to push this mayoral race to be about something meaningful and to focus Pueblo on a few key issues in the first term. From social issues, poverty, tourism, and economic development, arts and culture, building a youthful, promising city –  in the final days, Pueblo mayoral candidates have to be about something more than a resume.

This race doesn’t quite yet have the seriousness that someone out this group will represent 100,000 Puebloans come early next year, only because no one candidate has been able to drive the conversation, yet.

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