Colorado Springs is at a crossroads. Soon to select its first mayor under a new system of city governance, its citizens have tough choices ahead about what kind of leadership they want to take them into the future. During last week’s debate between the candidates, I was struck by the valuable role nonprofits can play in a time like this.
Quick backstory: in November, Springs citizens voted to switch to a “strong mayor” form of government. That means the mayor position will be a full-time job, which (the theory goes) will increase effectiveness and accountability. It’s the way most big cities run their governments, and all the recently-revitalized big cities like New York and Denver have prospered under the system. The catch: the kind of person in the mayor’s office matters. A lot.
As director of El Pomar’s Forum for Civic Advancement program, I regularly help plan events that expose current and aspiring leaders to pressing issues, to cutting-edge solutions, and perhaps most importantly, to each other. The principle behind the Forum is that good leaders need both good ideas and relationships with other good leaders. My staff and I felt strongly that if people had a chance to meet the mayoral candidates on those terms, they could learn things no TV commercial or website would tell them.
So we got to work. Led by event organizer Brandon Rattiner, we crafted an evening that featured unprecedented access to the candidates. It was free and open to the public, it included open-mic questions, and it boasted a reception afterward that gave people a chance to talk to all the candidates individually. We wanted anyone to be able to find out what kind of leader the next mayor was going to be, and talk to him personally.
Citizens responded to the opportunity in droves. Over 300 packed The Broadmoor’s Colorado Hall, and nearly all stayed for the reception at El Pomar’s Carriage Museum.
The debate itself never strayed far from its focus. Guest Katie Lally of the Colorado Springs Leadership Institute put this question directly to the candidates: “How would you describe your leadership style?” she asked. “Who are your heroes, and why do you admire them?” Answers ranged from Ronald Reagan (Steve Bach) to John Hickenlooper (Richard Skorman), and were often more illuminating than knowing that all the candidates supported a change in city council structure.
We did get to talk policy too, of course. Candidates particularly tussled over the issue of raising taxes. Steve Bach, Brian Bahr, Mitch Christiansen, Tom Gallagher, Buddy Gilmore, and Phil McDonald pledged not to support tax increases. Ken Duncan, Richard Skorman, and Dave Munger contended that was an irresponsible commitment to make.
But some of the most telling conversations didn’t happen onstage. They happened afterward at the reception. Nothing combats civic apathy so much as the interplay of the face to face. So as I stood amongst the hundreds of people in the Carriage Museum, I was unsurprised to hear even tougher questions—and even better answers—flying around the room than we had heard back at the debate.
I found this tremendously encouraging. Ultimately, the future of a city will depend on more than who we elect. It will also depend on the people who ask those tough questions—people who don’t hold elected office, but who nonetheless want to have a role in the future of their community. The Forum, as a nonpartisan nonprofit program, doesn’t provide action; only introductions (to both people and ideas). But as this evening reminded me, sometimes introductions go a long way.