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Who Will Lead Aurora, Colorado's Most Interesting City?
Jay Vollmar

Who Will Lead Aurora, Colorado's Most Interesting City?

In 1985, Dennis Champine, then the mayor of Aurora, penned a foreword to the book Aurora: Gateway to the Rockies.

“The city’s motto, ‘We Look to the Future,’ is as apt today as it was years ago. The challenges Aurora faces today and tomorrow — water, planned growth, a stable economy, adequate city services, and an enviable quality of life — are the same as those faced by the city’s founders. In short, Aurora strives to be the best city in the country.”

In the 34 years since the book’s release, the city’s challenges have gone from small-town woes like “adequate city services” to big-league problems.

No longer just a military suburb of Denver, today Aurora boasts a population of 380,000 and is still growing. And it’s attracted big businesses and residents from across the globe. The shiny new venue for conventions in the metro region, the Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center, is in Aurora, not Denver. Companies like Amazon and a number of aerospace corporations all have operations in Denver’s neighbor to the east.

Aurora is Colorado’s most diverse city, with about 20 percent of its population coming from outside of the United States. It might not have a traditional downtown, but Aurora has a vibrant array of immigrant-owned grocery stores, restaurants and cultural centers that give the city its trademark multicultural feel. Homes are more affordable in Aurora than they are in Denver, making it an attractive location for new families looking to establish roots.

But all that growing has brought on the inevitable pains. The next mayor of Aurora, whom voters will elect in November, is facing a number of issues affecting residents, such as decreasing rental affordability, as well as some challenges that Champine couldn’t have foreseen, including a controversial immigrant detention facility, increased oil and gas drilling, and law enforcement’s strained relationship with communities of color.

Even though the city manager, not the mayor, controls the executive branch of government, the mayor coordinates with the city manager and other key government officials and leads city council meetings. He or she also serves as the public face of Aurora.

The new mayor will lead Aurora through a critical transformation in city government. Two years ago, Democratic candidates Crystal Murillo, Allison Hiltz and Nicole Johnston won seats on Aurora City Council, becoming the first-ever progressive voting bloc on the historically right-leaning legislative body. The divide between right and left has become painfully apparent during council meetings.

At a meeting on July 15, just three days after a large protest outside the immigrant detention facility, Councilman Dave Gruber chastised Murillo, Hiltz and Johnston for being at the gathering, during which the American flag flying above the facility was replaced by a Mexican one and two anti-police flags.

“They did not simply show up,” Gruber said. “Our councilmembers were complicit in these acts, and we, the veterans, hold you accountable.”

Who will navigate these murky political waters come November? Six candidates are in the mayoral race, but Marsha Berzins, Mike Coffman, Ryan Frazier and Omar Montgomery are undoubtedly the frontrunners. (Renie Peterson hasn’t done much fundraising because of an injury she suffered in March, and Tiffany Grays, who declared her candidacy just days before the deadline to get on the ballot, failed to submit the requisite 100 signatures to make the ballot.)

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Marsha Berzins has lived in Aurora since 1979 and has served on various city boards and commissions. She won a seat on city council in 2009 and has held it ever since. Berzins also filled in as temporary mayor in 2018 when then-mayor Steve Hogan got sick; Hogan died on May 13, 2018, from complications related to cancer.

Berzins is a Republican and votes accordingly on council. She’s often at odds with Murillo, Hiltz and Johnston, but she doesn’t clash with them as dramatically as some other councilmembers. According to the most recent figures available, as of September 30, Berzins had raised over $181,000.

Mike Coffman served in Congress until 2018, when he was ousted by Democrat Jason Crow. He wants to finish his political career as mayor of Aurora.EXPAND
Mike Coffman served in Congress until 2018, when he was ousted by Democrat Jason Crow. He wants to finish his political career as mayor of Aurora.
Courtesy of Mike Coffman

Mike Coffman was once a rock star in the Republican congressional caucus. A military veteran and a near-lifelong resident of Aurora, Coffman seemed to have the perfect credentials to stay on as the city’s congressional representative for years to come. But after redistricting in 2010, Congressional District 6 shifted from safe Republican to more competitive. Coffman’s first strong challenge came in 2012, from Democratic candidate Joe Miklosi. Coffman won, and fended off opponents a bit more easily in 2014 and 2016 before losing his seat in 2018 to Democrat Jason Crow. As of September 30, Coffman had raised over $542,000, making him by far the strongest fundraiser in the mayoral race.

Ryan Frazier is a Navy veteran and former member of Aurora City Council. He’s sought office in the past, but has been mostly unsuccessful. He lost a 2010 congressional race against Democrat Ed Perlmutter; the last contested Aurora mayoral election, in 2011; and the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 2016. Frazier says he’s proud of his work on city council, where he helped lead the charge to recruit the massive Gaylord.

Frazier started his political life as a Republican but now calls himself an independent. As of September 30, he had raised a little under $227,000, contributing more than $100,000 of his own money.

Omar Montgomery is the only Democrat of the four top contenders. Originally from Los Angeles, the president of the Aurora chapter of the NAACP and professor at the University of Colorado Denver has been praised by progressives across the state and the U.S., collecting endorsements from Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, former Arizona representative Gabby Giffords, and all four members of Colorado’s Democratic congressional delegation. The mayoral race is Montgomery’s first foray into politics, and his fundraising numbers are the weakest among the top four candidates, totaling $128,000 as of September 30.

They may differ politically, but the four candidates agree that city council is divided. Five incumbents on the council, all of whom identify as either centrists or Republicans, are facing strong challenges from left-leaning candidates in the November election. If just three of these seats were to flip, the progressive contingent would be in the majority for the first time in city history.

“We are, unfortunately, a divided country and a divided city,” Coffman said at a mayoral debate at the Aurora Municipal Center on October 8.

Here are some of the issues the new mayor will face:

IMMIGRATION DETENTION


Aurora is home to a large immigrant detention facility, which can house more than 1,400 detainees. The center is run by private prison company GEO Group through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

For the past decade or so, activists have been holding vigils outside of the facility to show solidarity with those detained for immigration violations. But it’s only in the last year that the facility has become a major wedge in Aurora politics. In January, the facility opened a long-dormant annex, expanding its capacity by 432 beds. The move caught elected officials, including Hiltz and Crow, by surprise; GEO hadn’t notified Aurora about its plans beforehand. Shortly after the annex opened, news of infectious-disease quarantines in the facility surfaced.

There have also been complaints of alleged severe medical neglect suffered by detainees seeking routine medical treatment and those with more serious medical issues. In December 2017, Iranian national and longtime U.S. resident Kamyar Samimi died while in ICE custody in Aurora. An internal review by ICE found that medical staff at the detention facility had made over a dozen mistakes in treating him for the opioid withdrawal he was suffering from before his death.

The months that followed have been marked by large protests at the facility and even outside of the warden’s home. The public comment period during city council meetings routinely includes testimony about the detention center.

Current mayor Bob LeGare, who will not run for re-election, says the facility isn’t in the city’s purview. “It’s not the role of the Aurora municipal government to deal with federal holding facilities,” LeGare said earlier this year.
But not all residents or councilmembers agree.

Papa Dia, founder of the African Leadership Group in Aurora and a prominent figure in the African community there, says that African immigrants in Aurora — a population of 10,000, according to the Census — would like to see the next mayor clearly voice to federal leaders his or her “position when it comes to the treatment of detainees in the facility.”

“We cannot wash our hands and say it’s federal and it’s not for us to deal with,” Dia says. “We need to make sure that the norm of human rights are followed and respected.”

Marsha Berzins has been on Aurora City Council since 2009; the registered Republican served as a fill-in mayor after Steve Hogan died in 2018.
Marsha Berzins has been on Aurora City Council since 2009; the registered Republican served as a fill-in mayor after Steve Hogan died in 2018.
Courtesy of Marsha Berzins

Berzins says she generally agrees with LeGare’s take on Aurora’s involvement in the facility. “It’s not a contract with Aurora,” she says. “The feds need to deal with this problem.” But she also joined the progressive bloc on council in voting in favor of requiring the facility to notify the Aurora Fire Department of any infectious-disease outbreaks so that firefighters know of health hazards in the event of an emergency.

Coffman favors the move to include a city emergency service in the detention facility’s protocol. “Any institution, whether it’s a hospital or a detention facility, ought to have a responsibility, whether it’s federal or not, to report any infectious diseases to its authorities,” he explains. But he characterizes the criticism of the facility as a whole as overblown: “I think the energy toward GEO is misdirected. I just visited Arapahoe County Jail, and it didn’t look too good to me, either.”

Frazier has toured the facility and says it is clean, that the staff is professional, and that detainees are treated well. But if elected mayor, he says, he would seek more information about the facility by soliciting updates from staff and visiting regularly to “glean firsthand information.”

Montgomery says he opposes the privatization of immigration detention. “I’m just not a fan of private prisons,” he explains. He’d like to see the facility repurposed into an opioid-abuse treatment facility.

OIL AND GAS


The vast majority of oil and gas drilling in Aurora occurs in the eastern edge of the city, and there are plans to increase drilling. The city last updated its policy for approving oil and gas proposals in 2015, which brought it in line with state regulations for that year. Around that time, Aurora also formed an oil and gas advisory committee, which is able to offer opinions on oil and gas matters when requested by council.

In 2018, the city began working on operator agreements with ConocoPhillips and Axis Exploration for their plans to drill hundreds of new wells in Aurora. The initiative had buy-in from the city council, including from members of the progressive bloc.

But following that year’s midterm elections, the state’s position on oil and gas regulations began to shift, and in April 2019, the legislature passed Senate Bill 181, a landmark law that allows local municipalities to more heavily regulate oil and gas industry operations within their jurisdictions.

In the months that followed, some members of Aurora City Council worked to quickly push through the operator agreements, which lay out certain requirements related to noise, visuals of rigs and drilling, and groundwater and air-quality protection. Councilwoman Johnston, meanwhile, began to oppose them, arguing that the city should have more sweeping and substantial regulations. She says that oil and gas stakeholders lobbied to get the operator agreements through council quickly because they were worried about a moratorium on drilling and a possible ideological shift among the members of city council.

“Sometimes entities want to work with a more friendly ally that they have than deal with the risk of more perspectives and positions of people that might be elected,” Johnston notes.

Omar Montgomery, the only registered Democrat with a shot at winning the mayoral race, has been hailed by progressives across the state.
Omar Montgomery, the only registered Democrat with a shot at winning the mayoral race, has been hailed by progressives across the state.
Courtesy of Omar Montgomery

Of all the candidates, Montgomery is the most outspoken supporter of regulating the oil and gas industry, even suggesting a temporary pause in approving new wells. “One of the major reasons I would consider a moratorium going forward is because Aurora needs to be better about including community input in these agreements and looking at each one more specifically for its impacts on health and safety,” he says.

Coffman says he wants the city’s oil and gas advisory committee, which comprises citizens, industry stakeholders and owners of surfaces where drilling could take place, to ensure that “industry practices comport with the operator agreements.” (This would come in the form of opinions offered to city council, since the committee doesn’t actually have any authority.) During the run-up to the 2018 congressional election, Coffman received over $142,000 from oil and gas industry stakeholders, according to OpenSecrets.

“To some extent, but not entirely, the oil and gas drilling will occur in the northeast part of the city,” says Coffman, adding that much of that area is undeveloped, so wells don’t encroach on neighborhoods. “Aurora is not Weld County. What I don’t want is a visual of somebody barbecuing in their back yard with an oil rig right behind them. That’s not the image we want for Aurora.”

Frazier’s approach to oil and gas drilling would balance the needs of residents and the industry. “[I want to] protect the health and welfare of our neighborhoods” while considering the “lawful right that these folks in the state of Colorado and the industry have,” he says.

“We can establish a model for how our community and industry can work together to take advantage of the oil and gas development in our city to the benefit of our schools and our city as well,” Frazier said during the October 8 debate.

Berzins says that the city already has good regulations in place. “Our permitting process for one well is well over 700 pages. Just the permit. So they do have to go through a rigorous process,” she says.

HOUSING AND AFFORDABILITY


Aurora used to be considered an affordable alternative to Denver. And while home prices are still cheaper, renting is not.

According to Zillow, the median home value in Aurora is $327,800, which is almost $100,000 less than the median home value in Denver. But a one-bedroom rental in Aurora is about $200 higher, on average, than in Denver. “The run-of-the-mill developer isn’t proposing affordability right off the bat,” says Councilwoman Murillo.

The relatively high cost of housing has forced some residents out of Aurora. When she was knocking on doors during campaign season back in 2017, Murillo says, she met residents in rapidly gentrifying west Aurora, which falls in her district.

“A handful of constituents literally said, ‘Hey, we’d love to support you, but we’re actually moving at the end of the month,’” Murillo says.

Some residents don’t have the option of moving. During the City of Aurora’s point-in-time survey of its homeless population in January 2019, it counted 389 individuals who were homeless, 285 of whom were staying in the city’s sole emergency shelter. (There were 357 people experiencing homelessness counted in 2018, and 459 in 2017.)

“There is no question that the need is greater than our resources right now,” Coffman said about emergency shelter access during the October 8 debate.

As mayor, Coffman says, he’d continue the city’s support for organizations that run shelters and resource centers for those living on the streets. To help people find more permanent housing, he says he would advocate for more high-density, low-cost apartment complexes to be built in the city, and more condominiums that could accommodate families.

“We should do all we can to promote home ownership,” he says. “There are people, in my view, that ought to be homeowners that are relegated to renting and are just at the mercy of increasing rents.”

For those receiving financial assistance or government subsidies, Coffman believes that “there ought to be a requirement that [they]...do something affirmative, whether it’s participating in a substance-abuse program or participating in a work-training program in order to try and move themselves out of where they’re at.

“I would like to see our resources prioritized to help those who are participating in programs that will help move them away from dependency and into a stable situation with housing,” he adds.

For his part, Montgomery says he would require housing developers to dedicate 10 percent of a project to affordable housing. (Aurora currently doesn’t require developers to dedicate any new housing to lower-income residents.)

He’d consider adopting community land trusts, which involve either a city or an organization purchasing land, developing housing and owning the land in perpetuity to make the home more affordable. Montgomery also says he’d consider a citywide minimum-wage increase. Like Coffman, he wants to see more affordable condos and apartments being built.

Ryan Frazier, a former member of Aurora City Council, says his values and beliefs align with those of “a great majority of people.”
Ryan Frazier, a former member of Aurora City Council, says his values and beliefs align with those of “a great majority of people.”
Courtesy of Ryan Frazier

Frazier would include faith communities, nonprofits and the three counties that touch Aurora in discussions to combat homelessness and add more housing. He’s also a proponent of land trusts. “One of the single biggest costs associated with housing is the cost of the land,” he notes.

He would push for more training programs for “middle-skills jobs,” which he defines as occupations that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree, so that people can achieve “upward mobility.”

During the October 8 mayoral debate, Berzins suggested tiny homes as a possible solution for finding housing for people experiencing homelessness. She would also rely more heavily on the nonprofit community to provide services: “[I don’t] think it’s the city’s job to provide everything, because there are so many wonderful 501(c)(3)s out there.”

PUBLIC SAFETY


The next mayor will have to address ongoing issues related to public safety, including the Aurora Police Department’s relationship with communities of color, crime and gun violence.

The APD is currently embroiled in a death investigation involving Elijah McClain, who died in August after an interaction with police left him with a serious brain injury. Ketamine was used to sedate McClain, who went into cardiac arrest while in an ambulance, according to his family’s lawyer. The police investigation into the death, which has drawn protests from communities of color, is likely to continue into the next mayoral administration.

To improve relations between communities of color and police in Aurora, Coffman says he’d continue the current tradition of police leaders meeting with key figures in the community. If a police investigation into an officer-involved shooting doesn’t determine culpability, Coffman says he’d ask the district attorney to weigh in.

Cofffman’s campaign has prioritized crime reduction. “Aurora’s crime rate is too high,” his campaign website reads. “I want to make public safety our top priority, so that we can protect our schools, keep our neighborhoods safe, and make Aurora one of the safest cities in America. Everyone, regardless of where they live in Aurora, has the right to live without fear of violence.”

Montgomery says he would encourage the police department to meet more frequently with community members, as they do at events where the public and the police sit down together for coffee. He plans to hold town halls in each ward so that constituents can discuss the qualities they want in Aurora’s next police chief. (In September, Chief Nick Metz, who had been head of the department since 2015, announced that he would be stepping down at the end of the year.)

Montgomery wants to change how the APD gang units interact with the community. “I don’t want a gang unit that is extremely punitive. I want to deal with the reason why people are in gangs: poverty and lack of family infrastructure,” he says. “I believe bringing in allies like the Street Fraternity, Crowley Foundation and Aurora’s Gang Reduction Impact Program has been vital and can be expanded. I also want the city to work with our school districts on our gang-reduction efforts, so at-risk youth see other alternatives for their future in their schools.”

Berzins says that Aurora gets a bad rap for crime, even though it wins “awards for having less crime than other cities.”

Indeed, Aurora is frequently ranked in surveys as a safe large city. In 2018, it had a lower overall crime rate than both Denver and Colorado Springs.

“It seems anything negative gets more attention than the positive,” Berzins says. “Yes, crime happens in Aurora and in every city, and we need to do more to educate our residents and be more transparent. Sometimes the problem is we cannot get the facts out until the investigation is finished.”

Berzins, who says her top priority is public safety, has been endorsed by the Aurora Police Association. She would aim to increase the number of patrol units.

“I asked for an additional six police officers in the 2020 budget, but that request was rejected by the majority of council,” she explains. “It takes about one and a half years to fully train a police officer, so I do not want to be behind. Our officers are spread throughout the entire city, with many of them being on special task forces.”

Frazier, who says he’s been racially profiled by law enforcement in the past, wants to increase conversations between minority communities and law enforcement. “It’s my feeling that that’s where the problems exist. We don’t understand the point of view where the others come from,” he says.

He would create a city commission on gun violence that comprised representatives from law enforcement, the mental health field, members of the public and nonprofits like Moms Demand Action to explore possible solutions on the local level.

“I would ask this group to work closely with an urban-based research university to ensure that solutions are factually sound,” Frazier says. “Gathering a broad range of viewpoints and honestly discussing this issue is how we can bring real-world solutions to this epidemic.”

Ballots are due on election day, November 5.

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