Aurora election: Conservative city council results a “gut punch”

After two election cycles that moved the Aurora City Council increasingly to the left, voters last week decidedly turned the political dial back in the opposite direction in Colorado’s third-largest city.

Voters on Tuesday put into office conservative or moderate candidates in three open seats, delivering what Juan Marcano, one of the more outspoken progressive members of Aurora’s 11-member council, called a “gut punch” to those hoping city leadership was on an inexorable leftward tack.

Gone — at least for the next two years — are any meaningful police reform efforts, legal defense measures for immigrants or ordinances allowing on-site consumption of marijuana, he said. In their place, Marcano said, Mayor Mike Coffman’s proposal to ban urban camping will likely re-emerge and prevail in 2022.

“Our middle class is disappearing, housing is unattainable for far too many people, and wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living,” said Marcano, who was swept into office in 2019 amid social justice and immigrant rights protests at city hall. “I know a majority of our residents want to see a change, and our progressive candidates had the will to enact that change, but unfortunately the minority that showed up to vote elected a majority body of the same mindset that created those problems to begin with.”

Aurora has been dominated by conservatives for at least a half-century and unfortunately, that will continue for at least another two years.”

Councilman Curtis Gardner, who was not on the ballot this year, said the reason for the electorate’s mood change was more straightforward.

“I think the message from voters on Tuesday was that they want City Council to stick to municipal issues — land use, roads, public safety, things like that,” he said. “In the last few years, we’ve spent more time on national issues and I think our residents want us to focus on what impacts them every day.”

And at the top of the list of concerns for residents is Aurora’s spiking crime numbers over the last two years, especially when it comes to gun violence, Gardner said. More people were injured in shootings in the first half of this year than in all of 2019, Aurora police data show.

The crime surge has come at a time during which Aurora found itself at the forefront of social justice demonstrations nationally, with protests over police treatment of Elijah McClain — a Black man who died after police apprehended him and paramedics injected him with a sedative — erupting into violence and a shooting that injured a man.

“Public safety is a core function of government at all levels so I’m not surprised to see voters elect candidates that placed a high emphasis on public safety,” Gardner said.

The two victorious at-large candidates on Tuesday, Air Force vet Danielle Jurinsky and business owner Dustin Zvonek, both highlighted in their campaigns the importance of public safety, while featuring endorsements from the city’s police and fire department unions on their websites and in their mailers.

“They had a very clear message about public safety,” said JulieMarie Shepherd Macklin, a political science instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a lifelong Aurora resident who keeps a close eye on city politics. “I think Tuesday night was a vote saying we want to get back to issues that are important to us in our everyday lives.”

But the election results weren’t just about voters strategically attempting to re-set the political complexion of the council, Shepherd Macklin said. There were larger historical trends in play too, as was evident in the poor showing by Democrats nationwide last week.

“An off-year election, after a presidential election, tends to favor the out party,” she said.

All was not lost for the progressive wing of Aurora’s council. Ruben Medina, who was backed by labor unions, conservation groups and an immigrant rights organization in Ward III, declared victory Friday over opponent Jono Scott, after taking a late 104-vote lead out of more than 8,000 ballots cast.

And no sitting liberal council member actually lost a seat on Tuesday. Crystal Murillo, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was re-elected to her Ward I seat after voters first put her on the council with two other progressive candidates in 2017.

Murillo told The Denver Post she was still processing the election results and wasn’t prepared to talk about her next term. Shepherd Macklin said Murillo was likely helped by her incumbency, especially in an election with such low voter turnout.

“These are relatively low information races — name identification goes a long way,” she said.

So what comes next for the Aurora City Council as the new council members prepare to take their seats?

For the mayor, whose term expires in 2023, Tuesday’s results were a “repudiation of the ‘defund the police’ mentality” that swept through the country following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year.

“The election result means that I will be able to put forward an agenda that will continue the necessary reforms for our police department while supporting a law enforcement strategy that addresses our rising crime rate,” Coffman said.

The mayor also plans to tackle Aurora’s transportation challenges and resurrect a proposal to “provide safe alternative locations for those living in encampments that are away from our schools, neighborhoods and our businesses.” The council in August turned down a measure to ban urban camping via the slimmest of margins — a 5-5 tie.

But Marcano, who calls Coffman’s camping ban idea “ill-conceived,” hasn’t given up hope that the city council has moved past its decades-long conservative makeup to eventually give Aurora the “progressive majority it deserves.” In Colorado’s most ethnically diverse city where one in five residents is foreign born, the “days are numbered” for those unwilling to recognize the profound shifts happening in the city, Marcano said.

“I believe that tipping point will be upon us soon as the inequity in our city continues to grow as a result of a continuation of their policies,” he said.

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