For a high-stakes election in Aurora and in its school districts, it mostly came down to turnout.
The latest Colorado Secretary of State’s office shows that voter turnout, even by odd-numbered year standards, was low. About 1.2 million Coloradans cast votes in mostly local elections. Unaffiliated voters made up the majority of the turnout, followed by Republicans and then Democrats.
That’s echoed in results across the state, most notably in Aurora where conservative candidates have, by results available at press time, won three of five seats on the city council. Ward I incumbent Crystal Murillo was the only progressive candidate to handily win a bid. Democrat Ruben Medina edged ahead of Republican Jono Scott Thursday night for the open Ward III seat as the diminishing uncounted returns were tallied.
Little has changed in any of the faces as of Saturday, None of the results are yet final, and official counts are days if not weeks away.
There are still thousands of ballots to “cure” and count in the two counties that cover the bulk of Aurora as a slate of conservative candidates maintain comfortable leads in the local city council race.
Across East Colfax Avenue in Adams County, as many as 2,000 will remain uncounted until next week to ensure anonymity for military and overseas ballots that continue to trickle in, according to Julie Jackson, spokesperson for the north Aurora county.
There are 500 ballots that will remain uncounted until next week, and another 1,500 cure ballots that could still be added to the totals if the various issues with those votes are remedied.
Officials in Adams County likely won’t update their vote totals until around noon Nov. 11, Jackson said.
Officials in neither Adams County nor Arapahoe County were able to estimate how many outstanding ballots pertained to Aurora-specific races.
A spokesperson for Douglas County, which covers a fraction of southeast Aurora, said there are still about 14,000 outstanding ballots in that jurisdiction as of Thursday afternoon, though only about 400 are believed to be from Aurora.
RESULTS AS OF NOV. 15, 2021
2021 Aurora City Council Election: 2 At Large seats
|Aurora City Council At-Large||Adams County||Arapahoe County||Douglas County||Total|
2021 Aurora City Council Election: Ward I, northwest Aurora
|Aurora City CouncilWard I||Adams County||Arapahoe County||Total|
|Crystal Murillo, Incumbent||864||1538||2402|
2021 Aurora City Council Election: Ward II, northeast Aurora
|Aurora City Council Ward II||Adams County||Arapahoe County||Total|
2021 Aurora City Council Election: Ward III, west-central Aurora
|Aurora City Council Ward III||Arapahoe County|
2021 Cherry Creeks schools Board of Education - District D
|Cherry Creek schools District D director||Arapahoe County|
|Kelly Bates - Incumbent||37227|
2021 Cherry Creek schools Board of Education - District E
|Cherry Creek schools District D director||Arapahoe County|
2021 Aurora Public Schools Board of Education - 4 At-Large Seats
|Aurora Public Schools At-Large Directors||Adams County||Arapahoe County||Total|
In Ward II, Steve Sundberg, a Republican bar and grill manager, apparently beat out Bryan Lindstrom, a Democratic civics teacher, and two other candidates to represent the northeastern district. In the at-large race, two conservatives — Dustin Zvonek, who has deep ties to Colorado Republican politics, and Danielle Jurinsky, a small business owner and political newcomer — emerged from a crowded slate to likely victory.
The results will change the course of the city council, which has steadily moved to the left in recent elections. In 2017, Murillo, at-large member Allison Hiltz, and former member Nicole Johnston, all then self-described progressives, signaled a new era of city politics — one that was more blue and reflective of changing political demographics in the Denver suburbs. In 2019, council members Juan Marcano and Alison Coombs joined the trio to create a solid voting block along with unaffiliated member Angela Lawson.
Now, the pendulum has swung back to conservatives, which state party leadership says “inspired energetic campaigns.”
“Education, public safety, and our alarmingly high cost of living are all issues that Coloradans are dealing with and these are all issues that have gotten worse for our state under one-party, Democrat control,” Colorado GOP chairperson Kristi Burton Brown said in a statement to the Sentinel. “I look forward to more wins in 2022 as we continue to retake the suburbs and elect new leadership that will actually deliver for Coloradans.”
Those campaigns enjoyed good voter turnout and generous funding.
The Aurora City Council election was one of the more expensive in recent history. Many special interest groups and PACs dropped tens of thousands of dollars into propping up candidates they see fit for Aurora’s future.
The Working Families Party — which endorsed left-leaning candidates — spent more than $20,000 leading up the election and collected more than $40,000, according to city campaign finance reports. Conservation Colorado spent over $30,000 on Aurora races.
But the big spending came from conservative political group Colorado Rising State Action, which dumped more than $600,000 into a group called “Aurorans for a Safe and Prosperous Future.” The group is headed up by Micahel Fields, who previously worked at the Colorado arm of Americans For Prosperity, where at-large candidate Dustin Zvonek is also an alum.
On its website, Colorado Rising State Action says it stands for tax reform, opposing Medicare for all and “extreme anti-energy policies” and works to “combat the socialist agenda.”
The group, like others, spent its funds on door-knocking, making calls to voters and advertising for conservative candidates.
Among issues that are likely to see a different direction moving forward is how city leadership interacts with the police department.
“I think that the citizens of Aurora have educated themselves and they’ve voted appropriately and recognized that they need to make a serious changing in this city,” said Marc Sears, head of the department’s primary labor union. “And I’m proud of the community for voting the way they did and getting the result that we got.”
Sears added that the new composition of the council could pave the way for further personnel shakeups among the department’s top brass.
“I would say there is a stronger potential for movement at our command level than I’ve ever seen before, especially after talking to these candidates, or now these selectees.”
Sears’ group, the local branch of the Fraternal Order of Police, endorsed the four candidates poised to win as of Wednesday: Sundberg, Scott, Jurinsky and Zvonek.
“The community performed, and they did the right thing,” Sears said. “They’re recognizing the turmoil that exists in their city and they want their city back. I wasn’t really surprised with the results. I would have been surprised if they lost because they worked their butts off.”
Only one progressive candidate was able to hold off the conservative wave, incumbent Crystal Murillo in Ward I. Murillo was first elected in 2017, the city’s youngest lawmaker and first Latina.
Her campaign focused heavily on housing, which has become increasingly more expensive in the city’s oldest and traditionally most affordable neighborhoods. Murillo also sternly opposed a pitch for an urban camping ban and is supportive of reforms of the Aurora Police Department.
Murillo led conservative opponent Bill Gondrez 2,036 to 1,520 votes Thursday evening. Candidate Scott Liva received 344 votes total.
After months without representation, the city’s northeastern ward will likely elect Steve Sundberg, the Republican bar and grill owner, who was in the running to fill the vacancy created by former progressive member Nicole Johnston this year.
Sundberg, on Thursday evening, leads the race by about 1,100 votes. He ran against Bryan Lindstrom, an APS school teacher who ran as a Democrat, and two other candidates who also vied to fill the vacancy, Jessica Giammalvo and Robert Hamilton.
Sundberg adds another conservative vote to the city council. He’s said he’d approve a proposed camping ban, which Mayor Mike Coffman pitched unsuccessfully earlier this year and said he plans to bring back once city rules allow him to, and go a step further and support an ordinance proposal to ban panhandling in the city.
On the city’s rising crime rate, Sundberg said in a Sentinel survey addressing the problem starts with actively showing the police department more support. He also proposed lobbying the state legislature to reverse some of its own police reform legislation as a means to fight back attrition and keep officers in the department in Aurora.
Jono Scott was leading with votes until Thursday in the city’s most central ward, which encompasses the neighborhoods of Del Mar Park, Towncenter Mall of Aurora and the Aurora Municipal Center.
That changed on Thursday when tallies showed Aurora city parks and recreation employee Ruben Medina, who identified as a Democrat, leading the race.
As of Saturday, the vote stood 4,167 to 4,047, Medina leading. County clerk officials said that should the vote stand, it would not be within the 0.5% margin needed to trigger an automatic recount.
Current representative Marsha Berzins, who was first elected in 2009, is term-limited.
The two ward candidates split on nearly every major issue, but the two agreed that more programs for Aurora’s youth might be helpful in reducing youth violence and that it’s time Aurora invested in a tourist attraction to lure people from across the metroplex to town.
In a crowded at-large race, the top two candidates will represent the entire city. Initial results show Dustin Zvonek, who previously worked as a staffer for Mike Coffman in Congress, and Danielle Jurinsky, a local restaurant owner, will likely fill the seats being vacated by current Council Members Dave Gruber and Allison Hiltz. Both members opted against running for a second term.
The other candidates were: Candice Bailey, John Ronquillo, Hanna Bogale and Becky Hogan.
Bailey, a local activist known by many for her work on police reform, sued the city to be able to run for her seat. A longtime city rule said a person convicted of a felony could not hold local office. That rule was defeated and changed, allowing Bailey to run her campaign.
Hogan, the widow of former Mayor Steve Hogan, earned the support of big names like former Mayor Bob LeGare and Democratic state Sens. Rhonda Fields and Janet Buckner, but it wouldn’t be enough to convince Aurora voters.
Ronquillo, who previously ran for a state House seat, was part of a slate of progressive candidates. Bogale was a political newby, an Ethiopian immigrant and self-described entrepreneur. She received the fewest votes.
The at-large seats add two more conservative voices to the Aurora City Council.
School Board Races veer from the right
In Aurora’s two local school board races voters rejected candidates who campaigned in opposition to pandemic health measures, and in both districts the teachers unions were the biggest winners of the night.
After a contentious election, Kristin Allan and Kelly Bates have large leads to become Cherry Creek’s next school board directors. As of Wednesday morning, both candidates had over 50% of the vote in their respective districts.
Bates is running for a second term as the representative for District D, a role she began in 2017. Allan is running for a seat in district E, which is currently represented by term-limited, outgoing board president Karen Fisher.
Bates has five children who attended Cherry Creek schools and was a longtime district volunteer before she was elected to serve as a school board director. She formerly worked as a childcare director and preschool teacher.
Allan runs a law firm that specializes in insurance coverage, and is chairperson of Cherry Creek’s district accountability committee.
Both Bates and Allan were endorsed by the Cherry Creek Education Association and Fisher endorsed Allan as her successor, along with former superintendent Scott Siegfried and a long list of local Democratic Party politicians. The two spent the most money during the campaign, with Bates receiving $64,000 in contributions and spending $61,000. Allan received $52,000 and spent all but about $500.
Both candidates ran largely on maintaining Cherry Creek’s current trajectory. Bates campaigned on continuing to deliver on many of the goals the district has been working towards, and Allan campaigned on increasing teacher salaries, boosting per-pupil funding and making sure that all students in the district have access to an equitable education.
In both districts, their two competitors — Jennifer Gibbons and Schumé Navarro in district D and Jason Lester and Bill Leach in district E — ran on more conservative platforms.
Issues such as how to address pandemic learning loss and how best to keep students safe from COVID-19 in the classroom were top of mind for all candidates, but national issues such as the ongoing controversy over critical race theory also became flashpoints during the election, along with whether it was appropriate to enforce the Tri-County Health Department’s mask mandate in schools. Navarro campaigned on a platform of opposing CRT and the mask mandate, and the other candidates were also skeptical of the issues to a degree. Navarro ended election night with the lowest vote count, scoring only 14% of District D’s vote.
The conservative “Kids First” slate of candidates in the neighboring Douglas County School District appeared to be victorious Tuesday night, but the message does not appear to have had the same effect in Cherry Creek. Bates and Allan’s strong lead may signal that debates around critical race theory and COVID-19 health measures can gin up engagement in school board races, but may not translate into enough votes to get candidates across the line.
Even if conservative candidates were elected to both seats, it’s unlikely that any of the other three sitting candidates would have sided with them to form a majority (votes at school board meetings are regularly 5-0). An opposing viewpoint would likely have changed the tenor of school board meetings rather than the outcomes.
With Bates and Allan on the board, it’s possible that the public comment section of board meetings will remain lively, but much less likely that dissent will break out among the sitting board members. The new slate of board members will have plenty to discuss, however, as the district works to recover from the aftereffects of the pandemic on students.
Cherry Creek had more in-person learning than any other metro area district last year, sparing its students from the worst of pandemic learning loss. However, state standardized testing from this spring show that there were still declines in performance across the board, with students of color faring worse than their white peers.
The board will also be in charge of monitoring the district’s ongoing diversity work. The district has had a number of campaigns over the years to level the playing field for students, but an achievement gap has persisted, with white students doing better academically than their peers.
The next few years will see the rollout of buildings constructed with funds from the mill levy and bond increase passed by voters in the last election, giving the district $185 million for new construction projects, security upgrades and routine maintenance. The most big-ticket item being constructed is a $7 million inpatient mental health facility, the district’s answer to the burgeoning mental health crisis among Colorado teens.
In Aurora Public Schools, Anne Keke, Debbie Gerkin, Michael Carter and Tramaine Duncan are in the lead to become the next board of education directors, according to Adams and Arapahoe County vote totals from Wednesday morning.
Keke currently has the highest vote count, with Carter in second, Gerkin in third and Duncan in fourth. Christy Cummings is currently in fifth place and Danielle Tomwing in sixth. The top four candidates will be elected.
With only one incumbent in the race and four seats up, the election will change the shape of the seven-member board, which has struggled during the pandemic with how to stick to its policies and has faced criticism for an inability to work together.
The three candidates endorsed by the Aurora Education Association — Gerkin, Carter and Duncan — are all poised to get a spot on the board. Teachers union and charter school backed groups spent big in the race, with charter school affiliated groups spending big on Keke and Tomwing. Keke raised the most in individual contributions, receiving $27,000 in contributions and spending $17,000.
Keke is a teacher with a doctorate in criminal justice. Her campaign website lists reversing pandemic learning loss, recruiting more teachers of color and combating the school-to-prison pipeline as some of her main issues.
Gerkin, the sole incumbent, is a former APS teacher and principal. She has campaigned on equity in the classroom, increasing outreach to parents and community members and more focus on social-emotional learning.
Carter is a criminal defense attorney married to an APS teacher. He told the Sentinel that making sure students from across the district are helped equally is an important priority of his.
Duncan is an eighth grade math teacher at APS and lists equity, building community trust and helping students succeed in and out of the classroom as his top priorities.
Tomwing works in IT operations and is chair of the Vanguard Classical Schools school board, a public charter school in Aurora. Her website lists innovation, improving education opportunities for all students and strengthening the district’s support system as her top priorities.
Cummings has a master’s degree in psychology and has taught at community colleges across the state for over two decades. She has cited academic achievement, school choice and mental health as her main priorities for the district.
Cummings was the only candidate who campaigned in opposition to the mask mandate, and was highly critical of the school board for not having more in-person learning last year, saying in a Q&A that it was “ruled by fear.”
Other candidates were more measured in their assessments of the sitting board, which struggled during the pandemic with how to address the competing frustrations of district students, parents, teachers and administrators when making decisions about whether to keep school open.
Students in APS were hard hit academically by the pandemic, and monitoring the district’s efforts to catch students up in the years to come will be a major task of the new school board. A lack of focus on student performance was a major criticism of the previous board.
The board will also be responsible for overseeing district efforts to bridge the achievement gap for students of color, retain more teachers of color and implement Blueprint APS, its building plan responding to demographic changes in Aurora.
Arapahoe County 1A – Open Space
Arapahoe County voters overwhelmingly agreed to extend a sales tax benefiting open spaces across Aurora.
Early returns show that 75% of residents who cast a ballot decided to extend a tax that charges residents a quarter of a penny on retail purchases made within Aurora’s largest county. First approved by voters in 2003, the tax benefits the maintenance and creation of the county’s 70 miles of trails, 168 parks and 31,000 acres of open space.
The tax has netted about $360 million since it was first levied in 2004. Following a re-authorization by voters in 2011, it was set to expire in 2023.
The new measure approves the tax in perpetuity. It could only be axed following an additional vote of the people.
The referred measure doesn’t increase the current tax, but it rejiggers certain allocations, bumping the percentage of dollars available for maintenance and reducing the pot available for the purchase of new space and trail creation. Half of the tax dollars would remain shared with the county’s various cities and towns.
A similar but unrelated measure in a special district that encompasses a large chunk of Centennial along Aurora’s southern border that asked voters to prolong an existing mill levy for trails and parks also appears poised to pass, polls show. More than two thirds of initial ballots counted approved of the 2.14 mill levy that was originally used to help finance the construction of the Trails Recreation Center and skate park on East Lake Avenue in Centennial.
State Proposition 78
The Colorado electorate has turned its nose at a proposal seeking to alter how local officials can spend money from federal grants, legal settlements and other sources that don’t stem from state taxes.
Results released just before 9 p.m. on Nov. 2 showed that more than 56% of voters rejected Amendment 78, which aimed to create a new pot of funding — dubbed the custodial fund transparency account — that would absorb dollars from private donors and federal benefactors and thrust them under the discretion of the state legislature. To spend the money, state lawmakers would have to allocate the funds through a novel hearing process that would include public input.
Currently, these so-called custodial funds, which include gifts to public universities and the billions afforded to the state through the federal CARES Act last year, are handed straight to various state entities like the governor’s office or the state attorney general. The legislature’s powerful joint budget committee doesn’t typically deal with such monies as officials who sit on the panel only handle funds regularly allocated to various state agencies.
Proponents of the measure, namely proxies of the conservative group Colorado Rising State Action, have for months argued that the amendment would enhance overall transparency by magnetizing more eyeballs to funds that are typically spent at the discretion of a sole governmental agent.
“This ballot initiative will end slush funds for executive branch offices,” Colorado Rising State Action wrote on its Facebook page when the measure was given the green-light for ballot approval in August. “Every dollar Colorado spends should be authorized by your representatives in the state legislature.”
The group shepherded the measure to the ballot via hundreds of thousands of signature petitions earlier this summer.
State Proposition 119
A proposal to increase taxes on retail marijuana sales and create a new panel designed to buoy extracurricular activities for Colorado students got a thumbs down from the state electorate, early returns show.
With about a quarter of eligible voters’ ballots returned Tuesday night, about 54% of residents spurned proposition 119, which aimed to ramp up sales tax on retail marijuana sales in the coming years, eventually bringing the total to 20% in 2024. In turn, the revenue from those increases would fund the so-called Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress program, or LEAP, providing out-of-school help via tutoring, language classes, mental health services and other opportunities for kids ages 5 to 17.
The new program would have been run by a new, nine-member entity that would be appointed by the governor and operate outside of the purview of the state board of education.
Colorado regularly ranks among the states that spend the least on local students, analyses show. This year, the state spent about $10,200 per pupil, which is less than half of what is spent in the highest ranking states, like New York and Connecticut.
A lengthy and bipartisan list of state legislators, including Democratic Aurora Sen. Rhonda Fields, gave a nod of support to the measure.
“The significant gap in achievement between students from wealthy families and their low-income peers has been an unfortunate educational outcome in Colorado for years — and tonight’s results mean it will likely continue to get worse before it gets better,” said Curtis Hubbard, Yes on Prop 119 spokesperson. “Access to affordable, quality after-school education services is not a possibility for many families living in Colorado — and we will work with anyone who has a better idea on how to tackle the problem.”
State Proposition 120
A proposal that sought to reduce property taxes for certain landlords and lift revenue caps to backfill state funds failed on Election Day, initial vote counts reported by the Colorado Secretary of State show.
As of about 9 p.m. Nov. 2, nearly 57% of counted ballots indicated that voters shunned proposition 120, which aimed to lessen taxes on all property assessed in the state.
Under current law, the measure would cut the property tax assessment rate for multi-family dwelling owners from 7.15% to 6.5% starting next year. Similarly, owners of hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts would see their rates dwindle from 29% to 26.4%.
Without the measure, state law stipulates that tax rates will dip for the next two years but rebound by 2024. The proposal before voters this Election Day would keep the rate flat for years to come, and backers have threatened to take legal action to toss the new law that watered down the measure. If successful in court, that would mean vast tax reductions for all property owners in Colorado, and losses of hundreds of millions of dollars for various districts and counties.
At the same time, the measure sought to temporarily lift the seal on up to $25 million in annual TABOR caps for the next five years, freeing up more state funds to hand to counties that offer breaks to vulnerable populations through the so-called homestead exemption.
The relief valve allows people over 65 years old and military veterans disabled during their service to lop off 50% of up to $200,000 of assessed property value from their tax payment.
Right-leaning groups that brought the measure to fruition have argued that the tax breaks would encourage more investment in an air-tight market, ideally leading to more multi-family construction.
The measure marks the second year in a row that residents were tasked with mulling the state’s property tax formulas after long standing scaffolding was nixed when Amendment B killed the Gallagher Amendment in 2020.