It’s often taken as gospel around Aurora City Hall that you need six votes to get anything done. Those six votes, which signify the majority, may be noticeably more “blue” beginning in December when two new progressive members join the dais and swing the majority left.
The local governing body is technically non-partisan, but partisan politics has increasingly played a role. Since the election of three progressive council women in 2017 — Nicole Johnston, Allison Hiltz and Crystal Murillo — the city council has typically seen a 6-4 split vote, with progressives in the minority on partisan issues.
Councilwoman Angela Lawson, who was re-elected to an at-large seat this month, typically joins the trio’s dissenting votes.
That vote may flip come Dec. 2 when two new council members officially join the city council.
Juan Marcano, elected to represent Ward IV, and Alison Coombs, in Ward V, ran on progressive platforms and were endorsed by a bevy of organizations that lean politically left. Their election means a progressive member of city council looking for six votes on a friendly cause has a good chance at finding them.
Coombs’ and Marcano’s elections were celebrated among left-leaning politicos. Mayoral candidate Omar Montgomery, who trailed Mayor-elect Mike Coffman by just 215 votes, congratulated the duo on their election when he finally called an end to his campaign nearly two weeks after ballots were due.
At a watch party held by the Arapahoe County Democrats on Election Night, conversations centered around whether progressives would get the coveted six votes. When it became apparent Curtis Gardner, a Republican, would be the top-vote getter in the at-large race, followed by Angela Lawson, one supporter turned to another with a half-sigh of relief that Lawson had at least been voting with the progressives so far.
“I’m just going to vote according to what comes in front of me,” said Lawson, who is an independent voter. She said she’s found allies in progressive members of council on some issues so far, like transparency, but said there may be times in the future she breaks with them.
On other votes, like oil and gas, Lawson said she’s evolved as she has learned new information, and has voted against some oil and gas developments.
“I don’t want to continue with a divide,” she said. “I don’t think it’s doing any good.”
A New Frontier
Aurora is no stranger to Democratic lawmakers. The state House delegation is made up almost entirely of Democrats and has been for years. But off-year elections have favored conservative candidates, particularly at the city level.
“It’s been a Democratic city for quite a while, but the challenge has always been to get the progressives to turn out in city elections,” said former council member Lawrence Beer, a Democrat who served from 2005 through 2009. “That was always a challenge when I was serving, but it seems like activists have found the secret sauce.”
Beer said, like many have, that the dais’ evolution toward partisanship is a response to a national trend of stark division, but that hasn’t always been the case.
“I could probably tell you the affiliation of everybody I served with,” said Molly Markert, who represented Ward IV as a Democrat for a decade.
“But partisanship isn’t effective,” she added. “All you have to do is look at Congress to see that.”
Markert and Beer were often outvoted on measures, they said. But it wasn’t necessarily because of their party affiliation. Neither could point to any time in office when a vote came down party lines.
Beer pointed to his successful effort to allow benefits for all domestic partners of city employees. That passed on a 7-3 vote. He recalls those who voted against the measure cited budgetary concerns more than any political or philosophical argument.
Politics became most notable when the council had to decide whether to offer support on state or federal proposals, the two both said. Council rules dictate that lending a letter of support in those instances required unanimous approval. It rarely ever happens.
“I just think local government exists to get things done and not to be a stage for ranting and yelling at each other and stomping out,” Markert said. “It’s hard for me to watch when that (civility) dissipates… there’s no place for rudeness.”
While partisanship now sometimes takes center stage, there’s a lot that happens at the city-level that escapes politics. The progressive group could swing votes on oil and gas deals, affordable housing efforts and police accountability. But overall, most votes tend to garner support from across the political spectrum. Economic development deals, spending contracts and tedious metropolitan district service plans typically pass unanimously.
What’s to Come
At the center of many political jabs has been Emerge Colorado, an organization that aims to train women Democrats to run for office. Hiltz, Johnston and Murillo are all grads, as is Coombs.
The group became a point of attack during election season.
“A liberal front group called Emerge is quietly working to stack city council,” one mailer sent by a dark money group to Aurora voters said. “Aurora is the tip of the spear…Emerge backed liberals, helped drive the mob that desecrated the American flag. Now they want control of Aurora’s City Hall.”
Hiltz, Murillo and Johnston did attend a protest directed at the immigration detention center in Aurora where a smaller group of protestors desecrated the American flag, but the trio say they weren’t apart of planning the event. They, too, renounced the flag burning.
What will the agenda of this new city council look like? Members of the new majority coalition have pointed to a short list of common goals: a hard look at some form of oversight of controversial police cases, more and regimented oversight of oil-and-gas development, a more supportive role backing city immigrants and lawmakers taking a hard look at a bevy of social issues.
Everyone points out, however, that most of the city council agenda will look much like it always has. Aurora lawmakers will continue to approve developments, businesses, spending and agreements among other governments. No matter whether the city council is red or blue, left or right, listening to stop-light controversies and weighing in on snow-plow routes is still predominantly what city council members do.
For Emerge Colorado Director Michal Rosenor, Coombs’ election is another example of a shifting political demographic in Aurora.
“Alison’s win is another in a string of wins for young, diverse, Democratic candidates on the Aurora City Council in the last few cycles. It’s clear that Aurora — one of the most diverse cities in the state — wants city councilors that reflect the working class and environmental values of the city at large and who will work hard for their constituents,” Rosenor said.
Outgoing Mayor Bob LeGare, who was appointed to the seat after the death of former Mayor Steve Hogan, anticipates more discourse in the chamber. He told the Sentinel Mayor-elect Mike Coffman will have to first gain control of meetings. That may mean ordering disruptors to be arrested, though LeGare chose deliberately not to do that at a meeting that erupted in chants earlier this month.
Instead, he chose to move the meeting to another room.
Coffman says he will govern meetings with “a really big gavel.” He said he searched the internet for “really big gavel,” and he paid for it himself. He likens the gavel to what the Speaker of the House uses in Congress.
“When the gavel comes down, it will come down repeatedly until the commotion stops,” he said. “I will regain control of the meeting.”
Likewise, LeGare pointed to a divided council as a priority he thinks the mayor should work to deal with.
“If there’s one thing I wish I could have done better with it would have been bringing council members together,” LeGare said. “That’s going to be the job of the new mayor, is to try and work with all council members to find some common ground.”
Coffman, a former Republican congressman who touted his work in a bipartisan caucus in previous campaigns, said he’s already started scheduling individual meetings with council members.
Even if he doesn’t agree with an issue or proposal, Coffman said he still wants to work with council members to get stuff done.
“I really want to be proactive to work with everybody,” he said.