Municipal elections are supposed to be quiet, nonpartisan events that revolve around things like city council seats, libraries, and maybe the tile in the locker rooms at the local recreation center. In fact, municipal elections are perceived by many to be so uninteresting that many registered voters can’t be bothered to put a stamp on their mail-in ballot. Typically, we save our votes and our vitriol for general elections, when there are more interesting things to fight about.
Not so this year in Longmont.
This year, Longmont’s municipal election is a decidedly divisive, uncivil and partisan affair, pitting a total of 10 candidates against one another in three races for a total of four City Council seats mayor, two at-large seats and the Ward II seat. Everyone knows who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican. Rather than robust debate about issues, one is likely to encounter heated allegations, buzzwords and conspiracy theories. Online it gets even more heated with angry blogs, profanity-laced comments and violent imagery.
So what’s going on in Longmont to turn what might have been a snoozer of a municipal election into a virtual brawl? Like everything having to do with city politics in Longmont these days, the answer depends on whom you ask.
Some say the conflict is fallout from the controversy surrounding the failed annexation of property owned by LifeBridge Christian Church. Others say it’s a power struggle between a moneyed and conservative “old guard” and those who want change in the city. Still others say it’s about growth vs. no growth, pro-business vs. anti-business.
Regardless, it’s clear that today’s discord starts with LifeBridge’s proposed development of about 340 acres in Weld County east of Longmont.
LifeBridge Christian Church is not your average church. Located off Highway 66 in Longmont, it offers its members not only worship services, but classes and a gym offering weights and personal trainers and classes like “Express Pilates” and “Fit Chick Express Workout.” The church includes so many members that the average Sunday service requires the presence of law enforcement to direct traffic out of the parking lot.
In 2006, the Corporation for Community Christian Connection, the business arm of the church, known as 4C, approached the Longmont City Council, asking that the council annex Project LifeBridge, the church’s proposed development of about 313 acres of land located on the northeast corner of the intersection of Highway 119 and Weld County Road 3. In a letter dated April 18, 2006, 4C described Project LifeBridge as including: 175 single-family dwelling units on 93.7 acres; 67 single-family and attached residential dwelling units on 20 acres; 75 mixed-use residential dwelling units (to include single-family homes, attached homes, townhomes and apartments) on 28.1 acres; 57.4 acres for future civic and religious uses; 39.6 acres for future mixed use (to include commercial on the ground floor and commercial, residential and religious uses on second and third floors); 43 acres of open space; and 31.3 acres of right-of-way.
At build-out, anticipated in about 2026, the fiscal analysis provided by 4C indicated that Longmont would enjoy about $1.2 million in fiscal surplus from the annexation that is, surplus income generated in taxes and fees after city expenditures in supporting the development.
The proposal received a positive response from then-Mayor Julia Pirnack and City Council but widespread opposition from members of the Longmont community, who objected to the scope of the project. They saw not a church expansion but a church subdivision, one that might result in a net loss to the city of Longmont. Because Colorado law is very liberal in what it permits churches to declare as tax-exempt, some residents feared that the city would spend more setting up and maintaining services for Project LifeBridge water, electricity, sewer, a fire station, law enforcement than it would get in city taxes and fees. Many were also leery of having what was tantamount to a small town and a religious one at that springing up on their eastern border near Union Reservoir, an area many had hoped to set aside as open space. They questioned why a church needed to build million-dollar homes, retail shops or a sports complex.
These objections were viewed by those who favored the development as being fundamentally anti-religious in nature, and an ordinance accepting the annexation was passed and adopted by the Longmont City Council on Aug. 14, 2007, on a 6-to-1 vote.
The dissenting vote was Karen Benker, who’d been appointed to council to fill a vacancy in the Ward II seat in 2005, then re-elected later that year.
Whether most Longmont residents realized it or not, Project LifeBridge immediately became the hot-button issue going into the November 2007 election. Benker was joined on City Council by three others who had similar points of view Sarah Levison (at-large), Sean McCoy (Ward III) and Brian Hansen (Ward I). For the first time, Longmont City Council, known for being conservative, was dominated by a progressive element.
And that, say some, is when the real conflict began.
A shift to the left
Stephanie Baum, whose husband Bryan is running for mayor, says there was a time when she wasn’t interested in city politics, sometimes not even casting her vote. But the November 2007 election changed that.
The progressive candidates received money from the Democratic Party and were mentored by a progressive organization that tries to get its agenda in on the local level, she alleges.
“That really upset me,” she says. “I don’t want my local government being dictated by Republicans or Democrats. I want it run by people who care about what is affecting Longmont.”
Chris Rodriguez, a blogger who frequently writes about Longmont City Council issues and whose blogs list Baum as a contributor, agrees that the turning point in Longmont politics was the 2007 municipal election.
“There was a sea change here in 2007 with a new group of council members that came in,” he says.
Some people were shocked by that change, he says.
“What happened,” says Kaye Fissinger, one of five candidates vying for the two at-large seats, “is that those who had held power in Longmont for a very long, long period of time expected to be able to continue to hold power and were flabbergasted when the election went the way it did. They’ve been getting more and more angry.”
Some observers say the election of Benker, Levison, Hansen and McCoy was in part the result of changing demographics in Longmont. Because Longmont has remained open to residential growth, homes and apartments are much more affordable than they are in neighboring cities, especially Boulder. As a result, thousands of Boulder residents have migrated eastward, often bringing with them a progressive Boulder ideology. The election simply foreshadowed the statewide shift from red to blue that happened at the polls the following year during the general election, some say.
“Longmont is on the cusp right now,” Fissinger says. “It’s changing. We have grown very rapidly in the past 30 years. We’ve had people move here from Boulder. We’ve had people move here from other parts of the country. And with that, thinking has changed.
Longmont isn’t now what it used to be. We’re kind of at pivotal point right now.”
According to the Boulder County Clerk’s office, Democrats now outnumber Republicans in Longmont, though the largest single block of voters are unaffiliated with either party.
But conservative Longmont residents say that voters who opposed the LifeBridge development were motivated to get to the polls that year, while those who supported it and who tend to vote conservatively weren’t paying attention and didn’t vote.
“I know people try and say it’s shifting,” Stephanie Baum says. “Yes, there has been a small shift, but I think what happened was that the conservatives the vast majority of independents here tend to be more conservative and all of those people were just complacent.”
In January 2008, those who didn’t like the election results had their chance to take action or as some say, to take revenge. “Don’t Boulderize Longmont” became a rallying cry for those, like Baum, who were unhappy with the election.
Because Councilman Roger Lange had been elected mayor, his at-large seat needed to be filled by special election. Richard Juday ran against Gabe Santos, who had lost a bid for council the previous November.
Rodriguez describes that election as “pretty heated and involved.”
Rodriguez, who has blogged about city politics for years, says that until that election, no one really paid attention to what he had to say.
After that election, however, he drew in scores of readers and found himself being quoted in and writing guest columns for the Longmont Times-Call and Yellow Scene.
Baum launched her own blog at takebacklongmont.blogspot.com, where she criticized the new council members and campaigned vigorously for Santos, warning her readers that the Boulderization of Longmont was underway. Though some found the tone of Baum’s blogs to be partisan and bitter Juday says he was personally hurt by some of the accusations and rhetoric aimed his way Baum says she feels she conducted herself well.
“As far as I’m concerned, I conducted myself civilly in that when I stated something incorrect, I admitted it and said, ‘I messed up,'” she says. “There have been bloggers on the opposing side who have put out absolute lies, I will say, and when confronted won’t admit it. It’s hard. I myself am trying to conduct myself civilly.”
Though her blog remains online, Baum no longer posts because her husband is running for office.
“Anything I say is going to be turned around by the other side to vilify me,” she says. “Rather than putting myself in that position, I’m just not writing anything.”
Bryan Baum says that if the tone of his wife’s blog was objectionable, it was only in reaction to the incivility of others.
“It seems that there’s a sector of the community that wishes to pursue this negativity,” he says. “The people who are now wanting to be civil are the ones who started this.”
Juday’s blog from that period of time is no longer online.
But Juday says he was attacked personally and unfairly, including a mailing of postcards that included “misquotes.” The mailing was funded by a 527 group out of Denver, he says, just one example of the “big money” that came to bear in that election.
“I just didn’t think that had any place in Longmont politics,” Juday says. “This is a nice little town. I would like for the campaigns to stay local. I don’t think the Denver folks have a place in a local election.”
But the at-large seat wasn’t the only issue on the January 2008 ballot. Those who opposed the LifeBridge annexation began gathering signatures to have the matter placed on the special election ballot. They quickly gathered more than 6,000 signatures, prompting LifeBridge to withdraw its request for annexation, putting an apparent end to the matter.
In the end, Santos won with more than 60 percent of the vote, proof, conservatives say, that Longmont hasn’t changed that much. But that still left Longmont with a progressive majority on its council and a well-financed development project waiting to break ground on its eastern flank. And as the months went by it became clear that the conflict in this “All America” city had only begun.
Lawsuits and more lawsuits
As some are eager to point out, a lot of money is tied up in LifeBridge’s development plans, not only in terms of investments made by 4C and church members, but also in construction materials, retail earnings, taxes and fees and all of the other modes of profit associated with development. It’s not surprising that LifeBridge turned elsewhere for annexation.
As it turned out, Firestone was eager for the development that Longmont residents turned away. In order to annex the property,
Firestone has attempted a couple of “flagpole” annexations, claiming land along Highway 119 on the south side of the LifeBridge property and along Weld County Road 26 to the north.
The city of Longmont has attempted to block Firestone’s annexations to keep LifeBridge from breaking ground, but it the effort hasn’t been fruitful. According to Jay Rourke, deputy city attorney for Longmont, there are currently six lawsuits revolving around the LifeBridge issue currently residing with the Court of Appeals.
“The Weld District Court has ruled that Longmont’s annexation of its property just south of 119 was done illegally, and that would affect our ability to annex a portion of 119,” Rourke says. “That one the city has appealed. On the north side, the district court ruled that Firestone’s annexation of the Union parcel, which includes a portion of Weld County Road 26, is valid. The court also ruled that Longmont’s annexation of this same property up there, including the same portion of Weld County Road 26, is also valid. And that case now has been appealed by Firestone.”
Longmont is also appealing the court’s decision that the city pay Firestone’s legal fees, a ruling that could cost Longmont taxpayers almost $200,000 in the end.
The City Council’s handling of the LifeBridge issue is one thing that continues to inflame conservatives, who believe the suits should be dropped and development allowed to proceed.
“That is just mean-spirited,” Bryan Baum says. “There’s just no place for that. That’s not Longmont.”
But Benker defends the council’s actions, pointing to the multi-million-dollar investment that the city has already made in property near Union Reservoir with the intention of creating an open-space buffer between Longmont and its Weld County neighbors. She believes City Council is being a responsible caretaker of those lands and of Longmont’s status as a “stand-alone” community with buffers between it and neighboring towns.
“I don’t want to be the City Council that loses our stand-alone status,” she says.
If allowed to proceed, the LifeBridge development would press against the city’s eastern border, creating what many opposed in the first place a subdivision on the edge of the city.
But arguing about LifeBridge doesn’t stop with debating the issue. Conservatives accuse progressives and council members of being anti-religion.
“I’ve been called everything anti-Christian, anti-religion, pagan, accused of doing voodoo and, you know, eating children,” says community activist and blogger Doug Wray. “Some of the stuff that was said was just ridiculous. To be completely blunt, I’m a Methodist.”
Progressives, on the other hand, hint to a web of friendships and monetary relationships between those who want the lawsuits dropped and power brokers within 4C and LifeBridge.
Bryan Baum shakes that aside. “I have nothing to do with LifeBridge Church. I’m not connected with it in any way shape or form. I’m an outsider looking in.”
But LifeBridge’s development plans aren’t the only areas in which the City Council’s four liberal members continue to take a drubbing.
The Longmont Times-Call is suing the city over council members’ use of executive session to discuss the Firestone lawsuits, while others, including blogger Rodriguez, are suing the city over revisions made to the city’s campaign finance law, which they say is too restrictive of free speech.
But over the course of the past year, and in gearing up for next month’s election, the conflict over these issues and others has escalated to a level that observers say they’ve never seen before.
Longmont’s identity crisis
In the year and a half that has followed the special election, those involved with city politics, including bloggers and community activists, have polarized more or less along party lines. During any given month, City Council will take an action with Benker, Levison, Hansen and McCoy often, but not always, voting together and immediately those who oppose them will disparage that action through online commentary, letters to the editor and video footage of council meetings uploaded to YouTube.
Although the words “Republican” and “Democrat” are eschewed, a new political terminology filled with buzzwords has emerged. To those on the right, Benker, Levison, Hansen and McCoy are the “gang of four” or the “bloc of four” or the “fringe.” They’re “anti-business” and “anti-religious” and bring a “Boulderized” point of view to the city.
Progressives, on the other hand, use phrases like “old guard” and “The Powers that Were” to describe conservative elements in town, accusing them of never seeing an annexation or development they didn’t like.
It’s akin to a culture war or an identity crisis with two sides of Longmont vying for expression.
“I think there really is vast, vast difference now between those of us who’ve been here that they’re calling the ‘old guard’ and those that are newer to the community,” says Leona Stoecker, former Longmont mayor. “I know it’s nave to say this, but I always considered myself a servant of the people. I sense there’s a desire for power or something I don’t know what it is. But it horrifies me to think that people lack that much civility.”
While bloggers and others who support the current City Council have lobbed verbal barbs at former mayors, including Stoecker, and other prominent citizens, much of the vitriol coming from the right is aimed at Benker.
Last month, a company from Virginia apparently launched a push poll against Benker. “They asked questions like, ‘If you knew that Karen Benker was in favor of welfare for illegal immigrants, would you be more likely or less likely to vote for her?'” she says.
She learned of the poll from several residents who called her to warn her about it. The poll harms her credibility by raising non-existent issues and making implications about her stance on those issues with voters who might not know anything about her, she says.
In addition, someone hired Greg Burt, a journalist who used to work for Marilyn Musgrave, to investigate her, she says. Where the
money is coming from for these endeavors, she says, makes her wonder if another 527 group is involved.
By far the worst edge of hostility in this race can be found on the Internet. Though Rodriguez’s blog posts are viewed as hostile by many progressives, who decry their FOX News-like quality, he polices them and deletes comments that resort to profanity. However, profanity-laced anonymous comments abound elsewhere.
But by far the worst online site is FrontRangeChickens.com, an anonymous blog which features banner art depicting Benker, McCoy, Hansen, Levison, Fissinger, Wray and Juday as chickens about to be decapitated by a Braveheart-esque figure bearing an ax. Benker, who’s being held by the neck, is shown as being the first to go.
“They all work together, and Karen Benker’s part of that,” Bryan Baum says. “She’s kind of the ring leader. To me, that’s what that said. You know, Braveheart. She seems to be the ringleader of the whole bunch. It’s hard to connect the dots, but that’s what overwhelmingly it seems as though.”
But to observers on the other side, including those depicted in it, the artwork seems like a not-so-subtle incitement to violence.
The problem has become so pronounced that Juday has joined together with another progressive, two prominent conservatives and a moderate to form the Longmont Civil Campaign Committee, which is self-tasked with keeping the campaigns civil.
“We haven’t entirely formalized everything that we do, but we are examining some current issues,” Juday says. “We are united in the purpose that this campaign shall work to present Longmont as the friendly city that we know it to be.”
If the members of the committee see behavior they believe to be out of bounds, they’ll first contact that person privately and ask them to consider whether “getting ugly” is truly in their interests and in the interest of Longmont. If that doesn’t work, a public denouncement may follow.
But the committee itself, despite its balanced makeup, has drawn sharp criticism from the right.
“I’ve got real issues with the committee, because I personally don’t think they’re so unbiased,” Rodriguez says. “I do think they have an ax to grind, and I do think they have an agenda. People are people. I don’t care if they’re conservatives or not They’re not an elected body. They’re not an official body. They’re nothing really.”
Rodriguez says if he’s publicly denounced for exercising his right to free speech on his blog, he’ll take issue with it.
Stoecker says she’s appalled that the situation has devolved to this point.
“I just cringed when I saw that Mr. Juday felt there was a need for a commission on civility,” she says. “That’s just beyond anything I could ever imagine would happen in this community. It really hurts me to see this kind of a thing. There’s just no reason for it. We should be dealing with issues.”