PUEBLO — One of two candidates vying to become this city’s first mayor in about six decades likes to crack a joke to explain why the new role is so important.
It goes like this: A spaceship lands in Pueblo and some aliens get out. “Take me to your leader,” one demands.
“We wouldn’t know where to go,” Nick Gradisar quips.
To fix that, Pueblo is changing the way it governs. Colorado’s ninth-largest city is moving to a so-called strong-mayor form of government from a system where a hired city manager, who answers to a part-time city council, handles day-to-day business.
On Jan. 22 voters will pick their new mayor, a full-time politician accountable only to the electorate. They are choosing between Gradisar, a lawyer and water board member who used to lead the local Democratic Party, and Steve Nawrocki, the former city council president and the long-time leader of a nonprofit benefitting seniors.
Pueblo has been economically stuck in the wake of the Great Recession, unable to spring back in the past decade in the way other Front Range cities have. Many in the once-booming steel town think having a mayor as an advocate-in-chief will help spur an economic renaissance for the city of about 109,000 people.
“We’ve seen major initiatives fail in this community because there’s no clear head, there’s no clear leader,” said former Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, who has tried to shepherd large-scale projects in recent years. “We lost a major Coca-Cola bottling plant, we lost a Walmart distribution center. We saw the Angels (baseball) organization deal with our lack of cohesiveness, and the whole thing collapsed on (plans for) a Single A minor league team. We have a lot of leaders, but when there are different people out there saying different things it makes it impossible to come forward with a unified voice.”
Pueblo is following in the footsteps of Denver and, more recently, Colorado Springs, which have been able to wrangle economic development and rapid growth thanks to their strong mayor figureheads.
But it’s likely to be a complicated transformation.
Most of Colorado’s larger cities — like Lakewood, Boulder and Thornton — have mayors, but the day-to-day municipal operations are overseen by a hired city manager. The mayors in those cities act as the leaders of city council.
Pueblo has been the oddball, one of only two Colorado cities that are led by a city manager-city council form of government with no mayor at all.
The way government in Steamboat Springs and, until now, Pueblo have functioned removes an element of politics from the equation. But doing so also makes it more difficult to get things done. That’s because a city manager answers to an entire city council of people as opposed to making executive decisions on behalf of the entire municipality.
Think of it as having seven people in a restaurant’s kitchen trying to decide on a recipe for the cook to make, as opposed to a chef who just makes the dish. Now translate that to city government.
But the opinions are mixed on whether a strong mayor is really the fix for Pueblo.
Sam Mamet, who leads the Colorado Municipal League representing cities across the state, says the title of the person at the person at the top of the organizational chart doesn’t matter. It’s about the actual person who holds it.
“I said this to Colorado Springs when they were considering the change, I said it publicly in Pueblo as the change was being considered: This is less about an organizational structure and more about personalities,” Mamet said. “It matters less what you call the office and the title that is given, but who serves in the office and what their vision is for the city. That’s what’s critical here. That’s the big picture.”
Colorado Springs has been a model for Pueblo’s government transition. But its switch in 2011 was bumpy as the city manager was shown the door and Steve Bach was elected mayor.
Bach had a tense relationship with the city council, which grabbed local headlines and made for some very public disputes. He had a clear vision for the future, but it was complicated by that infighting.
“I didn’t realize it would be as tumultuous as it was,” said Bach, who served one term and chose not to seek another. “Going from the elected-city-council, appointed-city-manager form to the strong-mayor form is a shock to a lot of people. I was the first person in. If you just Google ‘Steve Bach’ you’ll see at the least the media reported a lot of controversy.”
But a mayor can look down the road and take risks, beholden to no one but their constituents.
“It streamlines operations,” Bach, a businessman, said of a strong-mayor system. “It streamlines decision making. It allows the city council to focus on the big picture — the long-term strategy, for example, on economic development — as opposed to how many trucks you’re going to buy, and so forth.”
Bach’s long view included framing plans for Colorado Springs’ “City of Champions,” including a downtown sports stadium and Olympic museum, that are only now becoming reality.
Bach feels he set a successful course for Colorado Springs’ next mayor, John Suthers, who was elected in 2015. And by all accounts, Suthers — a skilled and experienced politician — has been able to navigate the new system to get a lot done.
“I just can’t believe the progress we’ve made in three and a half years on roads and stormwater,” Suthers said during a recent interview. “We’ve done some things locally that have really enhanced, played into the improving national economy. Job creation has just been off the charts in Colorado Springs.”
Suthers said the role of a strong mayor is to clearly articulate what needs to happen to improve a city. “If the folks aren’t there yet,” he said, “you need to convince them that that’s what they ought to want and show them how they get there.”
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That’s what Pueblo needs, Suthers said.
When Nawrocki and Gradiasar talk about how they want to run Pueblo, they mention Suthers’ and his success. Nawrocki event met with Suthers in trying to learn how to replicate Colorado Springs upswing — a model people point to time and again when discussing Pueblo’s future.
The fact is, however, Pueblo is not Colorado Springs and faces a different set of challenges. It doesn’t yet have the economic diversity of its neighbor to the north, it struggles with poverty and drug abuse, and the city is just far enough from Denver that it doesn’t benefit as much from Interstate 25 trickle-down.
Even without those considerations, the job of Pueblo’s next mayor will be tough, Mamet said.
“The city has challenges with economic development. It’s got a huge public policy discussion going on right now about whether to become a municipal utility, it’s got a huge redevelopment project,” Mamet said. “I can go on and on and on with just the issues facing Pueblo. Will a mayor that’s now going to be the chief administrative officer of the city move the ball forward on these things?”
“It’s going to take a concerted effort,” he said. “Will having this new system accelerate it? I think that’s a fair question and time will tell.”
Whatever change does happen won’t occur overnight, Mamet cautioned.
Rod Slyhoff, president of the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce for 25 years, is skeptical that changing the government will yield big results for the city. He’s not even sure the change was necessary.
Yes, working with the 10 elected officials in the city and county — seven on city council and three county commissioners — has been a challenge. But, Slyhoff said, “I didn’t feel like the system was broke.”
“I wouldn’t say we are excited about it,” he said of the new government. “We’re not afraid of it. We think we will be able to work in the new system.”
There are those who are excited to see Pueblo with a clear figurehead — someone who can field calls from Colorado’s governor about what’s needed in the city and lobby elected officials for assistance.
“What I heard consistently was (people want) someone to carry that flag and be an example and help this community grow,” said Leroy Garcia, a former Pueblo city councilman who is now president of the Colorado Senate. “Really it’s about making sure we are leveraging that capacity, this new mayor, to be a great voice for us.”
Puebloans were first asked to approve a mayoral form of government in 2009 and they balked by a wide margin.
Colorado Springs was seeking the change around the same time, too, and was successful in 2010. But lukewarm support among elected leaders and pockets of opposition killed the initiative in Pueblo.
In 2017, when it returned to the ballot with support from the city council, it squeaked through.
Eventually 16 candidates filed to run for Pueblo’s $150,000-per-year mayor post. When the ballots were counted in November, none of the candidates had more than 50 percent of the vote. The result set up a runoff between Gradisar and Nawrocki, the top two vote-getters.
Ballots have been sent out ahead of the Jan. 22 election and thousands are already streaming back in to be counted, according to The Pueblo Chieftain.
The candidates are similar in a lot of ways. They’re both about 70 years old and have long been involved in Pueblo politics. They’re both Democrats.
But they have very different visions for the city’s future.
“Pueblo hasn’t really gotten its share of the growth Colorado has experienced,” Gradisar said. “When I was growing up 60 years ago, Pueblo was the second-largest city in Colorado.”
He sees an economic revival for the city on the horizon.
“Not that we want to be packed or anything like that, but we need some increased economic activity so that young people who want to stay in Pueblo are able to get careers and good-paying jobs,” Gradisar said. “We’ve got a high rate of poverty here. That’s one of the things we have to address.”
Nawrocki believes that Pueblo is already emerging from its downturn and that rebranding is needed to make the most of the upward trend.
“Pueblo is on the move — in spite of what anyone says,” he said. “Things are really happening. This is a cool place. It’s cooler than Taos or Santa Fe, and we’re going to be able to promote the city as a great place to come to.”
Gradisar and Nawrocki are old friends — they once even were in business together — but they’re not afraid to throw a little shade.
“How come these ideas have not been implemented?” Gradisar asked of Nawrocki’s city council stint. “He’s been on the city council for eight years. If you weren’t able to do it while you were on the city council, what makes you think you’ll be able to do it now?”
Nawrocki says experience on the city council is what makes him right for the job.
“I really have more experience in terms of running a large organization,” said Nawrocki, who has been a longtime leader of the Senior Resource Development Agency Pueblo. “He has a law firm, but we have 12 different departments — we have human resources, we have a finance department. Our operating budget is about $5.5 million, our total budget is about $10 million.”
For Pace, Pueblo County’s former commissioner, the outlook of the candidates matters less than the fact they both want to see progress.
“You might not agree with all the policies of a mayor,” he said, “but at least you will have an agenda you can work around. We don’t have that now.”
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