Pueblo native son Nick Gradisar says his family's history reads a lot like the history of the city itself: blue-collar; Democratic; proud of its immigrant heritage — and made of steel.
"No other city can claim that they built the American West," Gradisar says. "People immigrated from all over the world to make the steel that built the American West."
His grandparents came from Austria and Yugoslavia in the early 1900s so his grandfather could work in Pueblo's renowned CF&I steel mill. His father worked there, too, and so did Nick himself during summers while he pursued a higher education at what was then known as Southern Colorado State College.
The 69-year-old Gradisar has come a long way since his grandfather's time — rising to local prominence as a lawyer and founder of one of the city's best-known law practices; as a civic and local Democratic Party leader; and, since a municipal runoff election in January, as Pueblo's first mayor in generations. Yet, he's never far from his roots or his extended family, which gathers at his house annually to assist in a revered ritual — baking potica.
Baking what? Read on to find out what it is. Gradisar also elaborates on the city's future as a producer and purveyor of recreational pot as well as the role he sees renewable energy playing in the local economy. And he tells us what it means to be a "strong mayor"; Pueblo is now the third Colorado city to have one.
Colorado Politics: Earlier this year you were sworn in as Pueblo’s first mayor since 1954. That’s almost your entire life that your hometown went without that pivotal elected post, and it seems all the more unusual given Pueblo’s substantial size and its significance in state history. Before we get to why the mayor’s office was finally restored, tell us how the city fared without one for so long and why it was eliminated in the first place.
Nick Gradisar: In 1954 Pueblo adopted a charter which created a city manager/council form of government. At that time, Pueblo was the second-largest city in Colorado. Since that time, the population of Colorado has tripled and Pueblo’s has gone up about 10 percent. That failure to share in Colorado’s growth has been very expensive for Pueblo. The city manager/council form of government had a full-time city manager and part-time City Council. The manager was appointed by the City Council but did not have a political base which could be used to rally support for initiatives. The charter amendment in 2017 provides for a full-time elected leader in the form of a mayor.
- Pueblo's first mayor since 1954; elected in a municipal runoff in January.
- Attorney for 40 years, founding partner in the Pueblo law firm Gradisar, Trechter, Ripperger and Roth.
- Was president of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and is a past president of the Action 22 Board of Directors.
- Served as a member of the Pueblo Board of Water Works for 14 years and was its president for six years.
- Former chair, Pueblo County Democratic Party.
- Graduated from Southern Colorado State College (now Colorado State University-Pueblo) and Drake University Law School in Des Moines.
CP: Your office is that of a “strong mayor,” in which the mayor serves as the city’s chief executive and replaces the city manager. Pueblo is now the third Colorado city to adopt that approach to municipal government. Denver has long had a strong mayor; Colorado Springs voters made the change fairly recently, in 2010, eliminating their city manager in favor of a CEO-style mayor. Why did Pueblo voters take that same path a couple of years ago, culminating in your election in January? How is this new office intended to help the city? Were you a supporter of the change even before you decided to throw your hat in the ring?
Gradisar: I was a strong proponent of changing our system of government. In 2016, I began working with a citizens committee to rewrite the charter for Pueblo to include a strong-mayor system of government. We were able to convince City Council to submit the issue to the voters in November of 2017. Pueblo voters were able to see the advantages of a strong mayor after John Suthers was elected in Colorado Springs.
I believe that Pueblo voters decided to change the system to combat the stagnation that Pueblo has experienced. They decided that a full-time elected leader with a political base had a better chance of moving the city forward than the status quo. In a very real sense, the decision of the voters to change to a strong mayor system was to change the status quo.
CP: What are the most pressing challenges facing Pueblo, and how do you plan to address them from your powerful new post?
Gradisar: The most pressing challenge is increasing the economic activity in Pueblo. We intend to redouble our economic development efforts to attract new employers and intend to support our local entrepreneurs in growing their businesses. Our streets are a constant source of concern for our citizens and we are implementing the Street Repair Utility Enterprise that voters approved in 2017.
Ensuring that we have a well-trained and educated workforce is critical to our economic development efforts and we will work with our educational systems to make sure that prospective employers have a skilled workforce. Immediately, establishing a cooperative collaborative relationship with city council is critical to establishing this new form of government.
CP: Pueblo’s political establishment, for the most part, has embraced legal retail marijuana. There seems to be an inclination to view the industry as a cornerstone of Pueblo’s new economy — and last year it generated over $1 million in revenue for the city. How does that jibe with your own sensibilities? What, if any, challenges as well as benefits do you see in legal retail pot sales in your community?
Gradisar: I support regulated marijuana. We have had marijuana in Pueblo for at least the last 50 years but only recently have we begun to regulate it. I believe that this is a step forward.
Pueblo County has embraced legal marijuana and we are now one of the largest producers and processors of marijuana. Pueblo’s climate is ideal for growing marijuana, and the plants thrive outdoors here. Pueblo County has the largest outdoor marijuana grow in the country. The construction jobs associated with the marijuana industry have been a boon to our economy as we recovered from the most recent housing crises.
The city of Pueblo has limited the number of retail stores in the city limits to eight. In addition to the retail stores, Pueblo has licensed manufacturers, and grows. The marijuana industry has contributed to the general increase in jobs and economic activity in Pueblo.
As for challenges, it is always a challenge to make sure licensed marijuana is not being diverted to the black market, and some have suggested that the increase in homelessness in Pueblo is related to the marijuana industry.
We have recently attracted hemp processors to Pueblo, and we expect that this will be a growth industry in Pueblo as hemp thrives in the Pueblo climate and more and more farmers are adding hemp as a crop.
CP: Renewable energy is touted as another next-generation industry for Pueblo; there’s a Vestas wind turbine manufacturing plant in your city and of course wind- and solar-generation facilities in proximity. What role do you think renewables will play in Pueblo’s future — especially if your stated hopes of establishing a municipally owned local power utility come to fruition?
Gradisar: The City Council has resolved that Pueblo’s energy supply will be 100 percent renewable by 2035. That is an ambitious goal, but given the climate in Pueblo, where we have 300 days of sunshine a year, we believe it is attainable. As renewables become more and more competitive and as battery storage technology improves, renewables will play a larger and larger role in Pueblo’s energy future.
As we continue to explore municipalization of our electric supply and distribution system, renewables will play a significant role. Obtaining a power plant is not as critical as it once was, and it may be cheaper to acquire a distribution system and supply that system from renewable energy sources.
CP: Your mayoral campaign website included a photo of something near and dear to the many Puebloans of Slavic heritage — a countertop of freshly baked potica. For our many readers who probably never have heard of it, what is potica? And tell us a little about your heritage as well as your upbringing in Colorado’s renowned Steel City in the 1950s and ‘60s as the son of a steel worker and a nurse. How did that influence you and especially your politics later in life?
Gradisar: Potica is a Slovenian sweet bread that is a staple at holiday meals and weddings. It is a labor-intensive endeavor, and every fall, my brothers, sisters, children, nephews, nieces and grandchildren gather at my house on four or five weekends to replenish the freezer for the holidays.
The history of Pueblo is the history of my family. No other city can claim that they built the American west. People immigrated from all over the world to make the steel that built the American west. My grandparents came from Austria and Yugoslavia in the early 1900s so my grandfather could work at the mill. My dad worked at the mill, and summers during college I worked at the mill making steel. In its heyday, the mill was the largest employer in Colorado, and the fortunes of Pueblo rose and fell with the fortunes of the mill.
We have successfully diversified our economy, but the steel mill is still an important part of our community. We are hopeful they will build a new long-rail mill that will supply rail for the entire country.
CP: Pueblo’s political orientation is predominantly, and historically, inclined toward the Democratic Party — but not in the way Boulder or Denver are. After all, Pueblo is also where a Democratic state legislator was recalled for her stance on guns several years ago and replaced with a Republican. How would you say Pueblo’s politics differs from Colorado’s other Democratic climes? What distinguishes Pueblo politically from the rest of the state in general?
Gradisar: I was privileged to serve as the chairman of the Democratic Party in Pueblo in the 1990s. Pueblo Democrats are pragmatic. To a large extent we have a live-and-let-live mentality. Generally, as a result of the many cultures that immigrated to Pueblo, we are very tolerant. I believe that Pueblo Democrats are more conservative than one would ordinarily expect them to be on a lot of issues. Politicos who expect Puebloans to vote on a party-line basis are inevitably disappointed.