When John Suthers termed out of statewide office in 2015, after one of the longest runs as Colorado attorney general in state history, the powerful Republican did not slide into retirement.
Within six months, he was elected mayor of the second-largest city in the state and quietly began working to jumpstart Colorado Springs’ listless recovery from the Great Recession.
Now, after the sweeping losses for his party in the November elections, Suthers finds himself with an outsized voice in the Colorado GOP and sees a need for change — a change in GOP candidates with messages to match the shifting demographics of the state.
Suthers — who reportedly came close to a top job in the Trump administration — has been paying attention because his own city is becoming younger and moving more toward the political middle as it begins to shine as as an affordable alternative to the northern Front Range.
“While the cost of living is going up, we are still incredibly affordable among the most desirable places in America to live,” said Suthers, who served as Colorado’s attorney general from 2005 to 2015 after a stint as the state’s U.S. Attorney and, before that, district attorney for El Paso County.
The Colorado Sun sat down with Suthers to chat about the future of his city, the future of GOP politics in Colorado, just how close he came to being FBI director and why he’s not going to be seeking higher office:
The following interview was edited for clarity and length.
The Colorado Sun: Colorado Springs has changed so much in recent years. Just walking around downtown, it’s a much more vibrant city, there are more jobs. What do you attribute that to?
John Suthers: There’s a lot of forces. Obviously, we were coming out of a pretty deep recession. We did some things that had to be done. No. 1 was clearly a lack of infrastructure investment. We had a big hole to dig our way out of to get back and show we are making that investment. And we’ve done it. The other thing that needed to happen is we needed to make ourselves more attractive for the workforce that folks need. One of things that amazes people who used to live here is we have the fastest-growing millenial population in the United States. We’ve got the jobs that are bringing folks here. We’ve already got the natural environment. And then the private sector will construct the man-made environment — they’re the ones that build the bars and the other amenities and the places to live, all that kind of stuff. Those things are coming together and making Colorado Springs a very, very attractive place to live right now.
CS: Denver has run into its fair share of problems with growth. Affordable housing, homelessness — these are big things that people are talking about there. Are you preparing for these things in Colorado Springs?
JS: Even though our affordability is much better than Denver, we have people saying we need more affordable housing. I’m a market guy. The city is not going to get into the housing business, but we’ll take advantage of whatever programs are available. In my State of the City (speech), I said we’ve been averaging about 500 units of housing a year. We want to kick that up to at least 1,000 units a year. We’re working very hard to do that. We’re grappling with homelessness, just like every other city in the country. It’s a balancing act. You want to be compassionate, particularly for the situationally homeless, but you also have to be mindful of the health, safety and welfare for the 99.9 percent of the folks that are sheltered. We’re trying to reach that balance every day.
CS: One thing that you and the Colorado Springs City Council have been criticized for is your approach to homelessness. Some, including the ACLU, say you pass policies or ordinances in the city that are making homelessness illegal. What do you say to them?
JS: We’re saying, “You’re wrong.” We’re making it illegal to camp within 100 feet of a riparian waterway because we have too-high levels of E. coli as a result of people camping too close to the waterways. We are making it illegal to panhandle on narrow medians because it’s dangerous for the driving public. We’re making it illegal to obstruct people on sidewalks because it’s detrimental to people just engaging in commerce. We’re not saying it’s illegal to be homeless.
CS: How are you feeling about the future of Colorado Springs given all this growth? Is it going to continue?
JS: I feel very good about the future of Colorado Springs. The near-term, we’ve got a tremendous economy. One of the things I’m excited about, if I can win a second term, is just implementing the things that we’ve put in place. I think you can see massive development at the airport in the next year or two. Downtown — wait until this new U.S. Olympic museum comes up, the downtown stadium. That’s just going to be transformational for that southwest area. You’re going to see hotels, restaurants, everything. Regardless of what the national economy does, I think we are going to be in pretty good shape the next couple of years. Long-term, Colorado Springs has the same challenge it’s had since founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer drove a stake in the ground. You have this incredibly beautiful natural environment — I love to tell my friends in Denver we don’t have to get our binoculars out to see the mountains, they’re right there. Our challenge is to continue to build a city that matches our scenery. It was one thing to do it when you were 40,000 people. It’s another thing to do it when you’re 500,000 people — and it’s going to be another thing when you are the largest city in Colorado, which the state demographer says will happen in 2045.
CS: What does Colorado Springs look like in 2050? Does it look like downtown Denver? Does it look like Boulder?
JS: You know, it doesn’t look like Denver, interestingly enough. You’re not going to see the big skyscrapers occupied by corporate headquarters and things like that. You’ll see lots of companies with a presence here. Some homegrown companies will get big. My guess is it will be 1 million people. We’ve got enough water for that now.
CS: We wrote about how the Colorado GOP is looking back at the 2018 midterms to find out what went wrong and what went right.
JS: How long does that take? Anybody who didn’t see that coming has no political savvy whatsoever.
CS: So what do you chalk the results up to? We’ve heard either it’s the president or that the GOP needs to be more inclusive.
JS: There’s two things going on. No. 1, it is very clear to me — and I saw this as early as 2008 and 2012 — the population that’s moving into the state trends more blue than red. I was the honorary chairman for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in Colorado in 2008 and 2012. I remember after 2012, when Romney lost, our analysis showed that of the unaffiliateds that had moved into the state in those intervening four years, they voted 60-40 for Barack Obama. Then that was totally exacerbated by the anti-Trump vote. Unaffiliateds had no use for Donald Trump whatsoever. We don’t have a population of ex-coal miners or ex-steelworkers that are his built-in base. Unaffiliateds let their opinions be known in a big way. The combination of those two things was a huge blue wave. Now, if I’m in fact I’m right — Colorado is trending blue — then as for the future of GOP candidates: You’re not going to be a far-right GOP candidate and win an election. You’re going to have to have different kinds of candidates for Republicans to win statewide in Colorado.
CS: Will they be successful though?
JS: Can it happen? You bet. Massachusetts just overwhelmingly re-elected a Republican governor.
CS: There was so much talk about you being in the Trump administration, whether it was as former FBI Director James Comey’s replacement or otherwise. How close did you come to being a part of the administration?
JS: I’m not willing to talk, at this point in time, about that. I was under consideration for a couple of jobs. I just don’t want to get into any detail. Nothing was offered to me that I ultimately was interested in choosing — for a variety of reasons for which you’ll have to read my memoirs.
CS: I was at a news conference recently with you and Gov. John Hickenlooper where you made a joke about not running for governor or not running for president.
JS: The joke I made was: ‘I just want you to understand I’m not up here to talk about being his running mate.’
CS: I’m curious what the future holds for John Suthers. Are you counting out running for governor?
JS: Yeah, as far as I’m concerned I am. I’m 67 years old. The time to run for like U.S. Senate or governor was from attorney general. I just liked being attorney general so bad I didn’t want to give it up. I very much enjoy being mayor of Colorado Springs. The time period in which I took the job, and the challenges the city faced, have presented an incredible opportunity for leadership which I’ve very much enjoyed. Ultimately for me — and I don’t want to sound too corny — I settled in a long time ago when I decided my choices in life. My test is what opportunities present the best chance to become a good ancestor. And I think this, what I’m doing right now, has a great opportunity to become a good ancestor.
Updated on Jan. 3, 2019 at 2 p.m.: This story was corrected to reflect that John Suthers was among the longest serving attorneys general in Colorado history.
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