I saw in a 7-Eleven what lawmakers in Aurora — and everywhere else — desperately need: some generosity.
Standing in line to pay for my carton of milk Tuesday night, I moved along the “Simon Says” pandemic-6-feet place markers on the floor toward the register. The store was made busy by neighbors there after a day of real blue collar work. It’s the kind that requires thick gloves, hard hats or day-glo vests to keep from being run over on the job.
In front of me, a man in worn boots lugged soda pop, bread and a bag of chips. In front of him, two little kids stepped up to the register, most likely an older brother of about 7 and his younger sister, who looked 5-ish.
The boy pushed a bottle of chocolate milk and some brown-coated pastries under the plastic COVID guard and toward the clerk. His sister clutched some kind of toy in a small box that she kept nudging her brother with. He showed her the palm of his hand and shook his head.
After paying for the snacks with an EBT card, he gave her a more stern look, and she resigned to lay the toy on racks of impulse buy candy at the register. Dejected, she followed her brother toward the door.
Suddenly, the man in front of me picked up the box. It had some colorful plastic snap-together parts and in big print, “$3.”
“Hey,” he told the kids. “I can get this for her.”
And he did.
Everybody in line smiled at the reaction of panic in the little boy’s face, taking a gift from a stranger in a store when he was clearly responsible for his little sister. Her expression was that of embarrassed joy and gratitude for winning something that looked like it had all the entertainment value of about 30 minutes.
Even the dour clerk turned one corner of his mouth up in what was the first smile I’d ever seen him crack since the pandemic began, and maybe ever.
It was nothing but pure kindness and generosity. It was an act of kindness that didn’t make any sense.
There’s a different, dire lack of sense on the Aurora City Council dais, at the state Capitol and especially in both houses of Congress.
Instead, the interactions there are governed by spite and cruelty. Over the last few weeks, Aurora lawmakers became saddled with filling a council vacancy. I’ve watched this process here and across every level of government for decades.
It’s never pretty, but it’s never been like this.
Even on boards or chambers where one side has a clear and irreversible advantage over the other, greed, pettiness, payola and irresistible control issues almost always cloud appointments.
As now-former Councilmember Nicole Johnston moved on for a new life in Colorado Springs, everyone expected remaining members of ultra-polarized Aurora City Council to dig in and growl. What I never imagined is that 10 elected people — all who should share the same goal of safeguarding the city — would instead refuse to follow the law in favor of protecting or grabbing political power.
The city’s charter is unequivocal: Replace the vacancy. Despite interesting arguments about what a lame idea appointing vacancies is, especially now, the discussions were irrelevant because the law is the law, and until the last few years, we were a nation built on the rule of law.
We’re a nation that allows residents and leaders to change laws we don’t like or that don’t work, but we can’t ignore them.
Aurora City Council did. Rather than find a way to fill the vacancy, council members just decided it was too hard.
There’s no arguing this was hard and ugly.
The city council is divided among a spectrum of liberals and a narrower spectrum of conservatives, pretty much along Democratic and Republican party lines. Among a handful of applicants, two finalists for the Ward II seat surfaced: Democrat Ryan Ross, a regional college exec, and Republican Steve Sundberg, a long-time Aurora tavern owner.
The “left” side of council made it perfectly clear why they refused to back Sundberg for the seat held by Johnston, a solid political progressive. Sundberg donated $175 to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign Oct. 31, 2016, according to federal campaign records. Sundberg, during interviews for the Ward II post, said he would back a dubious, proposed homeless camping ban, pitched by Mayor Mike Coffman, and he has professed his staunch opposition for Aurora to raise the local minimum wage.
Without an apology for the Trump donation or even a “what was I thinking” explanation, supporting who Trump was even before he became president easily sets off alarms of poor judgment or worse in pretty much the vast majority of Americans, and certainly Aurora residents.
The rift on city council on the mushrooming problem surrounding people without homes, camping seemingly everywhere, is more semantic than concrete. There’s no real opposition to hoping that somebody deals with this mess by getting people into homes. But the clear message from the politically right side of city council is, get these campers out of the streets, parks, parking lots and sidewalks now and hope it all works out. The left’s view is: Been there. Done that. It doesn’t work.
They’re right. Sweeps, bans and flushes simply herds the region’s unwanted problems around the metro area somewhere else they’re unwanted. The one thing that’s undeniable when it comes to managing the problem of homelessness is that it does not just go away by chasing it into a jail cell or just anyplace else.
It’s a big deal for everyone in Aurora and the metro area and certainly warrants discussion, but there was none.
Republican council members refused to engage and explain, after hours of immutable tie voting, why they would not be moved to support Ross. In fact, at one point, one council member indignantly said it was wrong that she and others should be expected to identify what prevented them from ending the tie votes and following Aurora’s law.
Despite the mind-numbing, puerile marathon, no one pushed to bring the two finalists back for more questions. No one offered to simply scrap the current applicants and start over. No one offered to roll the dice and break the tie like other stymied governments have done over the centuries.
Instead, they’ve now baked in the same level of angst, distrust and cruelty that fouls Congress.
We’re all on the same side. Nobody doesn’t want everyone to have a home, a police force that treats everyone compassionately and equitably, streets and homes that are safe, and programs and laws that offer a hand up to people who need it.
How we get all that done is certainly debatable, but ignoring the law is not. There is no substitute for being honest and forthright. Sulking dogma never wins the day, and it certainly didn’t win a council vacancy. If you’re reluctant to be frank and honest about your political views in public, you have a serious problem as an elected official.
It’s time to stop watching Congress and the state Capitol for political cues. Just watch the people around you, quick to offer up a hard-earned three dollars for no good reason.
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