Richard Skorman's life as a Coloradan began in 1970 as a student — and a budding bookstore owner — at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. A local book shop where he worked while still an undergrad went out of business, so he bought its stock and started his own shop, juggling sales with his classes.
The rest, as he tells us in this week's Q&A, is history. He never left the city and went on to become a mainstay in the downtown business scene; today, he and wife Patricia Seator own and run a restaurant, a toy store, a cafe and wine bar and, of course, a bookstore. He's also a linchpin in downtown Colorado Springs' cultural life.
What's more, Skorman became a force for liberal/progressive politics in the reputedly conservative community. And seemingly defying the odds in a relentlessly Republican stronghold, he became a local elected leader.
He is now in his second stint on the City Council — and serves as council president. He even made a high-stakes and high-profile run for mayor in 2011, rising above the pack of contenders to face the eventual winner, Steve Bach, in a one-on-one runoff.
How did he get so far — in a city many still associate with the tax-limitation movement and a ballot attempt to stop the expansion of gay rights? You'll have to read on for the detailed answer, but here's a hint: It turns out all politics really is local. And most of it isn't about ideology, either. When you serve in local government, it's still about patching potholes.
Colorado Politics: You have been a perennially prominent player in the political and civic life of Republican-red Colorado Springs for decades — while so many other officeholders have had their day and then faded away. Yet, the enduring general perception is you hail from the center-left. Even before holding elected office, you were an activist and a catalyst for community causes, some progressive, ranging from open-space preservation to LGBTQ rights. You’ve gone on to serve two separate stints on the City Council, two of those years as vice mayor, and between them ran for mayor in 2011, making it to the runoff against the eventual victor. And of course you are now council president.
How does a guy like you climb so high on the political totem pole in a place like the Springs? Is the city not as conservative — or are you not as liberal — as conventional wisdom holds? Or, is it that ideology doesn’t matter that much in municipal politics in the first place?
Richard Skorman: When you run for City Council, the elections have to be non-partisan (although in my mayoral runoff against Steve Bach, it did become partisan). And as a small-business owner, I've always considered myself practical, business-friendly and not a fan of government overreach. Yes, I do believe in good government, but not too much. I am a social liberal and a strong environmental advocate. But that also represents a large population in Colorado Springs, many of them Republicans.
We have had loud conservative voices from our city, including Doug Bruce, Charles Duke, Gordon Klingenschmitt, Will Perkins and Jim Dobson. And yes, Amendment 2 originated here as did many of the "think tanks" in the anti-gay movement during the Culture Wars in the '90s. They are mostly gone now and many of those organizations and their leaders never spoke for the majority in Colorado Springs in the first place. One statistic about Colorado Springs in the '90s that most people outside didn't know was that only 39 percent of our population belonged to a congregation and regularly attended church. Denver was 50 percent.
And yes, the local Republican Party (the main game in town) can be influenced by conservative ideology. But none of that matters in our non-partisan municipal elections. I always joke that potholes aren’t Democrat or Republican — they just need to be fixed. Another joke I use whenever I see John Hickenlooper is that "restaurant owners make the best politicians." If you can run a restaurant for 42 years, you have to be pragmatic enough to help run a local government.
We aren’t as conservative (especially these days) as our reputation. We have the distinction of being the city with the most millennials moving to it. We have won awards for being the most fit, the most dog-friendly and the best city for mountain bikers. We have had huge voter support for protecting open spaces and building new trails and parks. Our citizens are passionate about having clean air and water, and we use less water per capita than any Front Range city. Recent polling even shows that the majority in the city want our downtown coal-fired power plant (Drake) decommissioned and replaced with renewable energy. These aren't the stereotypes one hears about Colorado Springs.
- President of the Colorado Springs City Council and representative of council District 3 since 2017. Previously served on the council 1999-2006, including a term as vice mayor in the era when the mayor and vice mayor were council members.
- Owner with wife wife Patricia Seator of Poor Richard's Restaurant, Little Richard's Toy Store, Rico's Cafe and Wine Bar and Poor Richard's Books and Gifts in Downtown Colorado Springs.
- Two-time chair of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments and a former Colorado Springs Park Board member.
- Served as Pikes Peak regional director for then-U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar.
- Founder of the U.S. Environmental Film Festival; was executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.
- A co-founder and past board chair of progressive group Citizens Project.
- Author of "Off-Hollywood Movies: A Film Lover's Guide," published in 1990.
CP: Since 2011, the City Council has served opposite a “strong mayor” — a full-timer who actually runs the executive branch. You’ve been a council member both before and since that voter-enacted change to city government. What are the most notable ways in which this new kind of mayor — previously, only Denver had one — has changed how the council conducts its business? What advice do you have for Pueblo City Council members as their city now becomes the third in Colorado to take on a strong mayor?
Skorman: Funny you ask. I just talked to Dennis Flores, the president of Pueblo's City Council, last week. My advice to him was, "If the mayor is successful, that benefits City Council and visa versa." It behooves both branches to work well together. That's not saying we shouldn't disagree. But let's do it politely, don't get personal and then move on.
Mayor John Suthers (a statewide Republican leader) and I might disagree on some national partisan issues around social issues and the environment, but when it comes to local politics, we agree 90 percent of the time. He has been very collaborative with City Council — giving us a seat at every table and letting us know what he thinks before the media knows. We do the same with him. No surprises makes for good partners. Given what is going on at the national level, I think locals are relieved at how well we get along. And we can get a lot more accomplished that way.
CP: You are among those on the council who advocate letting voters decide whether to lift the city’s moratorium on the retail sale of recreational marijuana, while Mayor John Suthers seems to prefer the status quo. What would you say is the strongest case for letting the Springs join cities including Denver, Pueblo and even neighboring Manitou Springs in allowing recreational pot sales? How do you think the Springs would vote if given a chance?
Skorman: Marijuana is legal to possess and consume in Colorado Springs, and given how large and profitable the state industry has become, and the fact that making it legal is in the state's Constitution (now more difficult to change), it's not going away. But what the previous Colorado Springs City Council did by opting out of recreational sales was to make recreational marijuana use more expensive in Colorado Springs, more dangerous and without the financial benefits to help us manage it.
Each of the two stores in Manitou Springs (a few miles from Colorado Springs) have as many as a 1,000 sales a day. Given that Manitou Springs' population is only 5,000, guess where their customers come from? Having a monopoly, they are some of the most expensive dispensaries in the state. And they are rec mills, driving customers through with virtually no education on the dangers of over-consuming high amounts of THC or edibles. Also if you see the smoke coming from cars in their parking lots, you assume that a good number of their customers test their purchases on their way home. In other words, they are driving while impaired through our city's streets.
That council decision to not permit rec sales has also helped promote a large local "black and gray" market, complete with drug cartels, hundreds of grow houses, no lacing or pesticide control and no childproof packaging. I think that reasonable taxes on marijuana sales to Colorado Springs residents should go to Colorado Springs, where we can do a good job (like we do with our medical dispensaries) controlling seed to sale for safety and distribution of the product. And we can bolster public safety personnel to help us manage the problems associated with legal marijuana — but especially other substance abuse.
We, like every other Front Range City, are plagued with substance abuse, drug overdoses and mental health problems that we don't have the resources to handle. We could sure use any extra money from rec sales to help. I do think the voters will support limited rec sales if they become educated on the issue.
CP: How has local politics evolved amid El Paso County’s explosive growth over the past three decades? Some say our long-purple state is trending more decidedly blue, especially after last November. Do you think historically red Colorado Springs will, similarly, trend more purple in the years to come?
Skorman: We may turn purple if the demographers are right about how fast we are going to grow and who will move here. Right now, we are becoming an even younger city. I would label us a light red heading to purple.
CP: What are the top issues currently facing the city — at least, those issues the council can do something about?
Skorman: On the negative side, we are going through our own version of an affordable housing crisis (25,000 units short) in all categories, including workforce and senior housing. Gentrification and displacement has arrived here, as well. Our homeless and mentally-disabled street population is growing, and citizens feel less safe downtown and in some of our parks.
How we grow is going to be critical, as we are one of the hottest places to move to in the country but are very spread out, so it will be more and more difficult to deliver high quality public safety services. We have an aging infrastructure that needs more attention, particularly our park and transportation infrastructure. And we are the city on the Front Range with the largest wildland-urban interface, i.e., fire risk. We have lived through two fire nightmares in the last six years, and how we prepare and respond to the next ones will be critical to our future.
On the positive side: We have really hot business and job markets (with less government interference); lots of access to some of the most spectacular outdoor recreation in the country; a great quality of life; and thousands of dedicated and experienced local government and utility public employees who make this a safe, efficient and inexpensive city to live in. I feel like I have a big responsibility to help keep it that way.
CP: Tell us a little of your origin story, specifically, what brought you to the Springs and what kept you here since them. Did you at first think you'd wind up staying so long?
Skorman: I came here in 1970 from Akron, Ohio — a place of industry, air and water pollution and cloudy days — to go to Colorado College. I fell in love with the outdoor life, our clean air and water, in Colorado Springs. I worked in a bookstore in college that went out of business my senior year. So, I bought their books and opened up Poor Richard's Used Paperbacks with a sign on the cash box saying "pay here and make your own change" while I was in class. The cash box always had more money in it when I returned. I never left. The rest is history.
CP: Will you ever run for mayor again? Another office?
Skorman: I don't think I could win in a mayoral runoff as long as Colorado Springs has a such a strong local Republican Party. And I am not interested in any other office because they are all partisan. So if I stay healthy, City Council will be my future in politics for at least two more years.
My last joke that I'll leave you with is that I often tell people, "I have a master's degree in City Council, and I am working on my Ph.D." I want that P.hD before I retire.