Expect a hot summer — in Aurora politics.
A new mayor will emerge from a handful of contenders this fall and a host of incumbent council members are hoping to hold on to their seats.
Add in two local school board races, a possible state House recall vote and two controversial statewide ballot questions and it’s clear that this year’s “off” election cycle is definitely on in Aurora.
Ballots will go out to voters in mid-October, but until then it’s campaign time. Candidates have already been hitting the streets, knocking on doors and holding campaign events across town, hoping to persuade voters they’re the right person to lead Aurora on its journey to more growth and the issues that come along with it. Pitches so far are focusing on affordable housing, transportation woes and public safety.
The mayor’s race has attracted heavy hitters this year. Former Congressman Mike Coffman, who represented Aurora and the 6th Congressional District for a decade, after years of serving in elected state jobs, was hinting at a run for the seat long before he announced. He told The Sentinel he would focus on affordable housing, transportation and public safety.
Ryan Frazier, a former Aurora City Council member from the early 2000s and failed candidate for the 7th Congressional District and U.S. Senate, has been promising his campaign slogan “Aurora Rising” since the beginning of the year. He says on his campaign website he wants to focus on safety, education and jobs. Likewise, Ward III Councilwoman Marsha Berzins already has a significant endorsement and yard signs popping up around town, she announced her candidacy with a platform on public safety and creating better opportunity for businesses in the city.
NAACP president Omar Montgomery put his name in the race early on. He serves on the city’s citizens’ budget advisory committee and the golf course advisory committee. He’s also a member of the Community Police Advisory Team, which Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz formed. He’s put affordable housing and growth at the top of the list for issues he wants to tackle if elected.
Former Ward II Councilwoman Renie Peterson has also announced.
Mayor Bob LeGare, who formerly served as an at-large city council member, won’t be joining the handful of contenders for the top position. He said when he was appointed to be mayor last year, after the death of former Mayor Steve Hogan, that it was his goal to carry the city through a transitional period. He told council members he had no intention of remaining on the city council after 2019.
Wards IV, V, VI and two at-large seats are up for election. Incumbents for each of those seats have already filed their intention to run for re-election. In Ward IV, Councilman Charlie Richardson, a longtime Aurora city attorney until he was elected in 2015, will face Juan Marcano. He’s an architectural designer and community advocate. Next door in Ward V, Councilman Bob Roth will face Alison Coombs. She’s also a community advocate, and works in disability services.
Southeast Aurora’s ward representative Francoise Bergan has attracted challenger Bryan Lindstrom, a teacher at Hinkley High School. Like Marcano and Coombs, he’s been a recent regular at city council meetings.
At-large council members Angela Lawson and Johnny Watson are among a throng of candidates for those two seats. Contenders include Air Force veteran Leanne Wheeler, former probation officer and council candidate Martha Lugo, Thomas Mayes and Curtis Gardner.
Party of one, sort of
City council seats are non-partisan, so neither a “D” nor an “R” accompany candidates’ names on the ballot. But that doesn’t keep partisan politics out of the race.
In 2017, three progressive members were elected to the council: Nicole Johnston, Allison Hiltz and Crystal Murillo are all graduates of Emerge Colorado, which grooms Democratic women for elected office. Other former candidates have received partisan political training from Republican groups, too.
This year, some members are already aligning themselves with their respective parties. Others are shunning their affiliation, like Frazier who published an op-ed in the Denver Post explaining why after 20 years he’s no longer a Republican.
“I became an independent because I feel it’s where I need to be to do my part to help move our community forward,” he said. “Being independent allows me greater freedom to bridge the divides between race, socio-economics, and ideologies to work to solve problems facing our people from all walks of life.”
Others have leaned into their parties. The Arapahoe County Republican Party sent an email on behalf of Francoise Bergan. “Here is (a) note from Francoise Bergan Candidate for Aurora City Council who happens to be an ‘R’ for this non-partisan race,” the email said.
Others such as Marcano and Lugo have described their policies stances as “progressive.”
Partisanship is typically present in the races, even if it doesn’t make a big public appearance, but so far this year it’s already raised eyebrows and left some questioning election practices.
Aurora’s municipal election is a coordinated mail ballot election, but some city council members — some of which are candidates this cycle — voiced concerns this year that the Arapahoe County Clerk, an elected Democrat, may use her seat to give friendly candidates a boost.
Joan Lopez, who beat out former Arapahoe County Clerk Matt Crane in November, endorsed Marcano on a Facebook post.
“I think it’s important to say it’s hard enough to run for public office today with all the work that goes into it, all of the campaign rules and finance,” Richardson said after discovering the social media post. “I just don’t need the office that’s responsible for conducting the election to support, endorse and donate to my opponent.”
Lopez told the Sentinel her endorsement of a fellow Democrat has no bearing on running fair and accountable elections. But Richardson and others are still uneasy, even leaving them to ask the question if Aurora should run its own election or write provisions into an agreement with the counties ensuring certain standards are met when it comes to transparency and fairness. City staff admitted they wouldn’t know where to start when implementing that into a contract, but would study it.
Richardson told the Sentinel this week he would not follow up on the issue after bring it forward in March. While he said some may want to use it for ends, he just doesn’t think it’s a good idea for that office to be making endorsements.
The city has always participated in coordinated elections, letting the counties to the lifting. Staff said it would be costly for Aurora to handle its own election.
School Board races
It’s common for educators to condemn partisan tilts in education policy, but candidates will vie to make big changes for schools come November, with heated elections slated for both Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District.
While school district superintendents direct big decisions on everything from budgets to contracts with cafeteria services and negotiations with teacher unions, school board members create overall policy and are the ultimate check on the superintendent’s leadership.
In Cherry Creek schools, three of the board’s five seats are up for grabs in its November elections, which will determine the course of the district for the years to come. Cherry Creek is one of the higher-performing school districts in the metro area, but test score gaps between race groups still plague educators.
Eric Parish, representing District A, is seeking re-election to serve another four years on the board, as is District B representative Janice McDonald. Former board President Dave Willman, of District C, would have been term-limited and unable to serve more than his eight years on the board had he not resigned his seat this month for using a self-described “racist term” at a teacher award banquet. His seat could be filled through several avenues before the November election, but a person possibly filling the vacancy would have to run as well come November.
This year’s election is the first in Cherry Creek schools since 2015, when Eric Parish ran unopposed for outgoing President Jim O’Brien’s seat and Willman ran unopposed for re-election. McDonald won her current seat from a crowded field.
In 2017, the school board canceled elections after Kelly Bates and Karen Fisher ran unopposed for their current seats.
The Cherry Creek Education Association did not respond to a request for comment, and it is unclear whether the teacher union will field candidates for school board seats.
The Aurora Public Schools Board of Education could also see a shake-up come November with the departure of the board’s two longest-serving members.
The district has made strides with improving student growth, but lagging test scores, a growing charter school contingent and some external management of schools remain a thorn in its side.
Dan Jorgensen and Cathy Wildman will leave the board after serving the maximum two terms since election in 2011, opening up two seats. They are the two longest-serving members of the board.
A third seat is up for grabs as board member Monica Colbert’s first term ends. Colbert said she does not currently plan to run for re-election, citing family responsibilities.
“With my own children entering middle school, I need to make sure I am available for all of the school, athletic and extracurricular opportunities they will be embarking on,” Colbert told Sentinel Colorado. She added that she intends to remain active in the district community.
That leaves the four voting members most recently elected in 2017, including three members that were backed by the Aurora Education Association teachers union.
AEA President Bruce Wilcox said the union will endorse candidates and campaign with them earlier than previous years, but he said no union-backed candidates have announced they will run.
Candidates can begin filing their paperwork in August but can not officially declare their intent to run before then, according to APS Communications Director Corey Christiansen.
Former board member Barbara Yamrick said she is considering running for a seat once again. She served for two terms from 1997 to 2005 and then another term from 2013 to 2017.
Colorado voters this November are slated to consider a pair of statewide ballot questions with more than half a dozen others waiting in the wings.
State lawmakers earlier this year voted to pose two ballot questions to Coloradans this Election Day. The first, currently deemed Proposition CC, asks voters to allow the state to hold onto excess revenues officials are currently required to refund residents under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. If passed, the new funds injected into state coffers would be earmarked for education and transportation initiatives. Spun out of the state Legislature, the measure received broad Democratic support, including from Gov. Jared Polis, and Republican scorn.
The second measure set to appear on voters’ ballots concerns the authorization and taxation of sports betting in the state. Currently known as Proposition DD, the measure would impose a 10 percent tax on entities operating sports betting in Colorado. Experts have estimated the new tax would net about $10 million next year, growing to $15 million the following year. The majority of the new money would be given to the a cash fund benefitting a bevy of water projects in the state pertaining to storage, conservation and river preservation.
State lawmakers also approved a third ballot measure during the 2019 session, but they decided to move it to the 2020 ballot. That forthcoming question asks voters to allow the state to issue some $2.3 billion in specialized transportation bonds.
A slew of other questions related to both statutes and constitutional amendments have been filed with the Secretary of State’s office, but none have yet been finalized for the 2019 ballot. The questions pertain to topics ranging from eliminating daylight savings time to reintroducing gray wolves to public land to tinkering with TABOR. Backers have until Aug. 5 to file 124,632 valid signatures with the Secretary of State’s office to get their questions on this year’s ballot.
Mike Coffman: Mike Coffman is a life-long Auroran, who most recently served as the Republican Sixth Congressional District congressman for a decade. He fell to Democrat Jason Crow in 2018. Prior to being a federal lawmaker, Coffman was continuously elected at the state level for two decades. He served in the state legislature from 1989 until 1999, as the state treasurer from 1999 to 2006 and as the secretary of state from 2007 to 2009.Throughout his career, Coffman has served in both the Marines and Army. He joined the Army as a teenager and earned a high school diploma through the military.
Omar Montgomery: Omar Montgomery is the current president of the Aurora chapter of the NAACP. He’s been an Auroran resident since 2002. Currently Montgomery is an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado Denver and director for the Center for Identity and Inclusion at the university. Outside of higher education, the candidate sits on various city boards and commissions. He serves on the city’s citizens’ budget advisory committee and the golf course advisory committee. He’s also a member of the Community Police Advisory Team, which Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz formed.
Renie Peterson: Renie Peterson served three consecutive terms as the Aurora City Council representative for the city’s northeastern Ward II from 2005 through 2017. In 2016, Peterson ran as an unaffiliated candidate in an unsuccessful bid to represent district five as an Adams County Commissioner. Prior to working in city government, Peterson, who’s now running as a Democrat according to information on the Arapahoe County Democrats website, worked for Aurora Public Schools as a family advocate. A third-generation Coloradoan and graduate of Hinkley High School, she also previously worked as a community networker for the Crawford Family Resource Center.
Marsha Berzins: Marsha Berzins has been a resident of Ward III since she moved there in 1979. A short time later she was married and started a family. She currently serves as the Ward III council member and served as mayor pro tem in 2018, serving as the city’s top lawmaker after former Mayor Steve Hogan announced a cancer diagnosis and later died. Berzins, who attended the University of Alabama and Park College, has worked in a number of industries, including airline, retail and property management. She also helps run a family business in Ward III. Berzins was first elected to the Aurora City Council in 2009.
Ryan Frazier: Former Aurora City Council member Ryan Frazier is hoping to return to the local lawmaking body, but this time as mayor. Frazier, a Navy veteran, served two terms on the city council, beginning in 2003. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the 7th Congressional District and the U.S. Senate. Frazier also appeared periodically on 9News as a political commentator. The Aurora politico owns and operates his own management consulting company, Frazier Global.
Juan Marcano: Juan Marcano is no stranger to Aurora City Council meetings, though this is his first time running for a seat on the dais. The community activist who works in architecture regularly speaks at city meetings on issues such as affordable housing, transportation and other topics relating to city growth. According to his campaign website, Marcano is the son of Puerto Rican immigrants.
Charlie Richardson: Charlie Richardson is the former Aurora city attorney-turned Ward IV council representative. He retired from the city in 2014 after 38 years and then took to the dais in 2015 when he was elected. He beat longtime resident Joe Lewis. Richardson said prior to his previous election he’d focus on resident input on development plans, such as the new projects along the R Line and Regatta Plaza in his own district. Richardson has served on several local and state boards and commissions. He’s been married to his wife Sue for 24 years.
Alison Coombs: Allison Coombs is a first-time Aurora City Council candidate, but no stranger to city hall. Coombs regularly attends and speaks at meetings. She is a Denver native, who attended graduate school in New York and later moved to Aurora in 2015. For more than 15 years Coombs has worked in disability services with people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Bob Roth: Incumbent Bob Roth was appointed to his seat on the Aurora City Council in 2009. He then won the seat in 2015, when he said he would use his term to ensure more diverse housing was built in Aurora and would urge the Public Works department to complete a traffic mobility study of the Heather Gardens neighborhood. Roth was elected mayor pro tem by his colleagues this year. He runs his own construction consulting business and sits on a variety of local and regional boards.
Bryan Lindstrom: Bryan Lindstrom is a teacher at Hinkley High School in Aurora and serves on the Board of Directors for the Aurora Education Association teachers union. Lindstrom has worked in education for more than eight years, half of those as a teacher. Outside of school, he referees volleyball and spends time at city council meetings. He is a lifelong Auroran but says on his campaign website a few years ago he considered leaving because of the rising cost of living.
Francoise Bergan: Ward VI incumbent Francoise Bergan was first elected in 2015 and is hoping for a second term representing the rapidly growing southeastern edge of the city. In 2016, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and underwent treatment while continuing to serve on the city council. Prior to winning her seat, Bergan worked in sales and management. She has also served on a bevy of local boards and commissions.
Martha Lugo: Martha Lugo has been an Aurora resident since 2000, when she moved to Colorado for a job as a probation officer. From 2000 to 2010 she was a sworn officer in the 18th Judicial District Probation Department. Now, the self-described progressive candidate is finishing a Ph.D. in organizational development and leadership. She unsuccessfully ran for the Ward III council seat in 2017.
Leanne Wheeler: Leanne Wheeler, an Air Force veteran and 20-year Aurora resident, wants to serve as an at-large member. Wheeler last served at the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force station in Colorado Springs before relocating to Aurora. She launched a consulting business in 2010 and has served on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee, Aurora Youth Commission and is a Leadership Aurora alumna.
Johnny Watson: Johnny Watson was appointed to an at-large seat in August to fill a vacancy left behind by Bob LeGare, who was appointed to be mayor after the death of former mayor Steve Hogan. Watson isn’t an Aurora native, but he’s served on plenty of local boards and commissions. Just before being appointed to city council he sat on the city’s planning commission. The Army veteran and former Kodak salesman has also served on his metro district board in southeast Aurora.
Angela Lawson: Angela Lawson, who has lived in Aurora for nearly two decades, is vying for another term on the Aurora City Council as an at-large member. She ran unsuccessfully in 2013 but was elected two years later. Prior to joining the council she was on the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee. On council she’s served as mayor pro tem and started the Aurora Civic Engagement Academy, which gives participants an overview of city programs, departments and duties. Lawson works at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office as a Lobbyist Program Manager.
Thomas Mayes: Thomas Mayes has worked in various clerical roles at Aurora’s Living Water Christian Center Church for nearly 30 years. A native Coloradan, Mayes is a graduate of East High School in Denver and has been married for 40 years. He holds degrees in biblical studies, business administration and urban ministries. Mayes currently serves on the city’s Victims Witness Advisory Board and the Independent Review Board, which reviews incidents concerning the Aurora Police Department. Mayes served in the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War.
Curtis Gardner: Curtis Gardner has lived in Aurora for most of his life and was enrolled in both Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District. He lives in the Briarcliff at Seven Hills neighborhood, where he currently serves as president of the local homeowners association, in east Aurora, for the past four years. He’s currently vice president of the Aurora Federal Credit Union, and serves as chairman of the city’s Citizens Advisory Budget Committee.