There are few things as exciting in politics than when a good person creates good trouble. For residents in Colorado Springs, that good trouble was Yemi Mobolade winning as mayor-elect.
If you haven’t yet heard of Mobolade’s historic win, now is the time. A newcomer to politics, Mobolade is a West African immigrant, pastor, business owner, father and husband who was elected as mayor of Colorado Springs last week. This makes him the city’s first elected Black mayor and the first non-Republican mayor in decades.
As with all David and Goliath stories, Mobolade’s win was anything but certain. He was a first-time candidate. He was running against a seasoned Republican politician in a traditionally conservative stronghold. Dark money groups attacked him relentlessly. Money was harder to come by.
None of this deterred Mobolade, and he won. Not by a little. By a lot.
To suggest there aren’t some grumpy Republicans in Colorado Springs is moot. The race was theirs to lose, and lose they did.. It’s yet one more sign that the state’s GOP has entered the Bermuda Triangle of political irrelevance.
Still, at least in this race, that didn’t automatically mean the Democrats won, either. Even with a nudge to the left, Mobolade is unabashedly unaffiliated, self-identifiying as someone more focused on objective solutions to local problems than labels he suggests serve to divide. He could have affiliated with a party. He didn’t. Instead, like the majority of active voters in the state, he chose neither.
For all of the historic aspects of Mobolade’s win, that he ran and won as an independent is perhaps the most important part. In a state overwhelmingly described as blue, an independent’s ability to win in Colorado’s second largest city speaks volumes — especially when that voter sentiment is more largely reflected statewide.
According to the Secretary of State, nearly half of all Colorado’s active voters are now registered as unaffiliated, totaling 46.5%. This is a notable increase from 40% just a few years ago. The remaining voters are primarily split between Democrats and Republicans with 27.4% and 24.2% respectively, a slight drop for both parties since 2019, with Republicans losing roughly double the number of voters of Democrats.
Looking more closely at El Paso County where Mobolade won, a similar trend unfolds at the top. Unaffiliated voters in the county now make up 54% more in registered voters than Republicans, the second largest affiliation in the traditionally conservative region. Democrats continue to trail notably, and have only slightly gained overall.
Nationwide, unaffiliated voter majorities are less common. There are only a handful of states with more independents than Colorado, and all things considered, we’re still new to the table. States with greater rankings of independents include Alaska, Arkansas and Massachusetts. A few others have a majority unaffiliated, but in lesser percentages than here.
From a data interpretation perspective, this ought to put a firm stop to the notion that Colorado is a Democratic state. It is not. Yes, we currently have Democrats in full control. But voter registration data is exceptionally clear that Colorado remains first and foremost an unaffiliated state, and so far, that is only growing larger. It’s only when voters are given the limited options of voting for today’s Democrats or today’s Republicans that they trend so blue.
Saying unaffiliated voters pick blue with limited options is fundamentally not the same as saying that voters in Colorado are a majority Democrat. They’re not. If voters in Colorado wanted to be identified as Democrats, more would register with the party as they do in other actual Democratic states such as New York and California.
Why voters don’t affiliate as Democrats in Colorado while trending blue is an important question, and one that both parties should reflect on heavily. But especially if the number of unaffiliated voters continues to increase, the most important takeaway is that a new door might be opening for unaffiliated candidates statewide, and Mobolade’s win is proof.
Some critics might suggest that a Democrat could not have won in Colorado Springs, and the move to run as unaffiliated was purely tactical. Perhaps. But cynicism for Mobolade’s motives feels unwarranted given the temperament and issues he chose to campaign on. He didn’t parrot talking points from either side or give subtle winks. For the most part he opted to speak to everyone in a voice entirely his own. It was neither left, right, nor middle. It was simply him.
Take for example Mobolade’s clear commitments to increase the number of police officers, to reduce taxes and to streamline paperwork for local businesses. To some, this might feel more conservative. At the same time, he suggested that police recruitment and business development ought to come with more of a focus on underserved communities, values more frequently associated with today’s left. He referenced Reagan and religion. He talked about the importance of cultural richness and inclusivity. All the while, he stayed positive and downright refused to muck around in the mud, even as his opponents attempted to drag him in repeatedly.
That there is no perfect political label for Mobolade is exactly what sets him apart. After years of lies, fights and general toxicity from all directions in Colorado politics, Mobolade’s unique approach is not only immensely welcome, it’s a novelty. He speaks to those of us frustrated with the politics de jour, and if Colorado voter registrations are any indication, that’s most of us.
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Which brings us back to Colorado as a primarily unaffiliated state. If unaffiliated candidates such as Mobolade can flip such heavily laden partisan centers, are we starting to reach a tipping point where unaffiliated candidates could win more and bigger races? If so, could electing more unaffiliated candidates be Colorado’s ticket out of partisan politics?
Candidates who truly inspire are rare, and certainly, it remains to be seen what the first-time politician will make of his tenure. But for any future successes or failures Mobolade might have, his win has already accomplished at least one Big Thing by meeting the growing demand for leaders who can tamp down the anger that has too long plagued us all. Now one can only hope more might follow his lead.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio
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