Aurora mayoral candidates run gamut at first debate

The Colorado Statesman

Should Aurora aggressively court major developments, or have city officials devoted too much energy to hitting elusive jackpots at the expense of smaller retailers and other businesses?

Is it the mayor’s job to bring together potential employers and institutions to train workers, or would the next mayor more effectively help create jobs by getting out of the way?

Do voters want someone who shows up for the first candidates’ debate in an expensive suit and well-shined shoes, or do they prefer a more casual approach, down to a comfy pair of Crocs on their next mayor’s feet?

City Councilman Ryan Frazier, standing, talks about his plans to stimulate job growth in Aurora during a mayoral debate sponsored by the Aurora Association of Realtors on Aug. 26. Fellow candidates, from left, are Sheilah Davis, Steve Hogan, Jude Sandvall, Debbie Stafford and Barbara Yamrick. The election is Nov. 1.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Candidates for mayor of Aurora portrayed sometimes starkly different visions of the city — Colorado’s third largest — and their potential roles at its helm during a friendly debate over breakfast on Aug. 26 in front of the Aurora Association of Realtors.

Compared with this year’s Denver mayoral contest, which hinged mostly on the candidates’ personalities and a few finely shaded issues, the Aurora race finds mayoral candidates inhabiting nearly every imaginable ideological slot and wearing a range of leadership styles — from Tea Party conservative to bleeding heart liberal, from establishment fixture to inexperienced rookie — for an election early polling has shown could be entirely up for grabs.

The six candidates — three Republicans, two Democrats and a Libertarian are on the ballot for the November election, which is officially nonpartisan — agreed at last week’s forum that Aurora is a great place to raise a family but differed sharply on particulars as the city prepares to elect its first mayor not named Tauer in nearly a quarter of a century. (Former Mayor Paul Tauer served for 16 years and was followed in office by his son, Ed, who is term-limited after eight years in office.)

Aurora mayoral candidates Steve Hogan, left, and Jude Sandvall keep the discussion going following a debate on Aug. 26 before a group of real estate professionals.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“It’s time Aurora took on its place in our region and our state as an economic driver,” declared City Councilman Ryan Frazier, a Republican who ran for Congress last year following a short-lived campaign for the U.S. Senate.

He pointed to what he termed the city’s “opportunity triangle,” defined by the approach to Denver International Airport, the bioscience and hospital hub growing at Fitzsimons and the high-tech corridors surrounding a bustling Buckley Air Force Base.

“I’d like to see Aurora do more to leverage those centers of economic growth to create the kind of jobs we want right here in our backyard,” he said.

Aurora City Councilwoman Marsha Berzins, right, talks politics with Sally Mounier, who ran last year for the state House seat held by state Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, after a mayoral debate on Aug. 26 at the Aurora Association of Realtors headquarters.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Noting that Aurora’s slogan depicts a city that aspires to be “the best place to live, work and play,” former City Councilman Steve Hogan said the city has dropped the ball.

“The problem is, the city doesn’t do anything to help people work in Aurora,” he said. “We’re happy to talk to developers, we’re happy to talk to shopping center developers — people who will develop more than 500,000 square feet at a time — but we won’t talk to the small business person, we won’t talk to the retailer, until after they’ve somehow figured out how to get their business started and decided to relocate to Aurora. I think that’s wrong. I think that’s got to change.”

Hogan, a Republican, has logged two dozen years at city hall but began his political career as a young state legislator elected in the wake of Watergate as a Democrat. He also ran for Congress in the early 1980s as the nominee of his former party. This is his second run for mayor.

Former state Rep. Debbie Stafford, D-Aurora, right, a candidate for mayor, visits with former Aurora City Councilman Bob LeGare, who is running for his old at-large seat in this fall’s election, following a mayoral debate on Aug. 26 before the Aurora Association of Realtors.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Although he acknowledged his decades on the Aurora City Council — spread out over several nonconsecutive terms — gave him “some ownership” of the city’s direction, Hogan faulted city officials for slighting bread-and-butter businesses while chasing after big prizes.

“Small business and retail has not been a priority of past administrations, whether it was the past city manager or past mayors,” he said, adding that “big developers, big businesses can take care of themselves.” After calling the city’s unemployment rate “absolutely unacceptable,” Hogan went on to say, “The city doesn’t create jobs, but the city attitude can help get jobs created, and the attitude’s been wrong.”

He wasn’t the only candidate to take shots at city policies, with particular criticism aimed at a pending $300 million deal to land a massive Gaylord Entertainment hotel and convention center on the approach to DIA.
Former state Rep. Debbie Stafford — a Democrat, she was elected to the Legislature four times as a Republican but switched parties four years ago near the end of her last term — said she was skeptical whether the city was paying too much for a risky return on the Gaylord project.

“I think the concept is wonderful, but I’m very concerned, have we put all our eggs in one big basket, and if that basket topples over, what have we really done to strengthen other small businesses, to strengthen other opportunities in Aurora?” Stafford said.

She added that other cities have proposed spending far less to land Gaylord complexes and wondered whether significantly smaller incentives could yield more jobs at other Aurora employers, such as defense contractor Raytheon.

A few days before the debate, the city council — including Frazier — voted unanimously to declare an expanse of undeveloped prairie land within Aurora city limits near DIA “blighted,” a crucial step in the city’s plans to give the resort’s developers up to $300 million in tax incentives over the next three decades. It’s part of a package of government financing assembled to lure the $800 million complex, which also includes nearly $100 million in state funds and money that might be approved by Denver voters to relocate the National Western Stock Show near the site.

The third Republican in the race has been unequivocal in his opposition to the Gaylord deal, calling it “a bad deal … a bad business decision for the city.” Real estate agent and mortgage broker Jude Sandvall — he kept an eye on the clock throughout the debate because he had a closing scheduled that morning — said that Aurora’s practice of competing with other cities to offer the biggest incentives to large employers is the wrong approach. Instead, he said, the city needs to foster a friendlier environment for businesses of all sizes.

“By cutting bureaucratic red tape and peeling back the layers of regulation,” he said, the city can start to “helping businesses to start, not hindering them. He added, “This is going to create a broad tax base that will allow us to reopen libraries, reopen pools, and rebuild our city. It will also bring back businesses that will be attracted to our city and help existing businesses to thrive.”

Sandvall touted a plan he’s devised to slim down Aurora government based on tracking performance and points to savings achieved in Arapahoe County and in other jurisdictions nationwide using the approach.
“We’ve had to learn to live within our means,” he said. “Our city government has not.”

Libertarian candidate and novice politician Sheilah Davis, a practicing hypnotherapist and member of the taxpayer watchdog group Citizens for Responsible Aurora Government, sought to dispel preconceptions about her approach to government.

“For a Libertarian,” she said, “it’s about making a personal choice, trying to decide how much government control you want over your life. It’s a constant struggle for balance between personal liberty and security we get from the government.” She added that she agrees with voters who have told her they don’t want to eliminate government. Instead, she said, “They want transparency, want to see where their money is going, want to know if they’re getting a good value for their taxes and want accountability. Above all, people want to be heard.”

The race’s other Democrat, former RTD and Aurora Public Schools board member Barbara Yamrick — she’s the one who wore the Crocs — said her campaign is “all about building community rather than expansionism.”

Speaking directly to the real estate agents in the room, she made a plea to keep the broader economy in focus.

“Without the development of the middle class, most of us would not have the economic stability we have today. Unless you have the workers and unless you pay them the prevailing wage, they can’t afford the sales tax because they can’t buy anything, and they can’t afford your houses because they can’t afford to live in them, or to pay Public Service for their energy and their electricity,” Yamrick said.

According to initial campaign finance reports filed at the beginning of last month, Hogan and Frazier should have the race to themselves, with each posting roughly $125,000 in contributions during the reporting period. (Hogan had about $25,000 more in the bank from earlier donations.) They outpaced their nearest competitors, Sandvall and Stafford, by six figures, and Yamrick and Davis brought up the rear with nominal fundraising during the period.

But since the election culminates in a single, winner-take-all vote, unlike Denver’s runoff arrangement, and every candidate has the potential to split votes with other candidates, observers contend the outcome is far from predictable.

The only publicly released polling so far shows Frazier with a comfortable lead over Hogan, with Stafford and Sandvall also registering, but the survey also showed nearly 40 percent of likely voters are still undecided.

The Frazier campaign last month released results of an automated telephone survey conducted by Louisville-based Magellan Data and Mapping Strategies. Frazier had 27 percent support, followed by Hogan at 14 percent and Stafford with 11 percent. At 4 percent support, Sandvall polled just above the survey’s margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.84 percent. Yamrick registered 3 percent and Davis had 2 percent in the survey.

After the debate, Hogan discounted his opponent’s lead in the poll and said the results only show that voters haven’t made up their minds and that Frazier was likely benefiting from getting his name out there during last fall’s run for Congress. (The survey showed Frazier has the highest name recognition, at 71 percent, followed by Hogan’s 57 percent and Stafford’s 28 percent.)

“I think it’s accurate showing Ryan has larger name recognition, undoubtedly. He just ran a congressional campaign,” Hogan said. “But when a poll shows 40 percent undecided, that’s a meaningless poll to me. What ever poll have you ever heard of that someone touted that showed 40 percent undecided?” he asked, though he added that he thinks that’s probably an accurate measure.

“It’s early,” Hogan said. “This is literally the first event where all six candidates showed up, and there isn’t another one until after Labor Day. Things haven’t heated up yet, the traditional things haven’t started yet.”

The Nov. 1 election will be conducted entirely by mail ballots for the portions of Aurora within Adams and Douglas counties. The city’s neighborhoods within Arapahoe County will also have the opportunity to cast ballots at vote centers during October. Candidates are required to file additional fundraising reports before the election on Oct. 11 and 28. Aurora has an ordinance that prohibits political yard signs from going up before Sept. 16 and requires candidates to take them down within a week after the election.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com