Council-elect breaks records, brings new diversity in high-turnout Boulder election

i voted sticker lot
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Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019

Author’s note: All vote totals in this story are based on unofficial results posted Wednesday, Nov. 6 at 7:52 p.m.

One returning and two newly elected city council candidates shattered records for vote totals as incumbents will be joined by relative newcomers to Boulder’s political scene, including the sole renter and CU student to sit behind the dais. Despite gains for more housing-friendly factions, a slow-growth majority still holds the majority of seats in a town where development issues have been divisive for decades.

Keeping their posts were councilmen Bob Yates and Aaron Brockett. Winning four-year terms alongside them were fellow Coalition candidates Junie Joseph, a newcomer with an impressive resume, and Rachel Friend, who made her name as an activist on issues such as gun control and flood mitigation. PLAN-endorsed Mark Wallach won a two-year term, as did fellow endorsee Adam Swetlik. Both are relatively new to the slow-growth set.

Wallach has never run for office or held a position on a city board or commission, though his name was somewhat known due to a a number of op-eds he penned in the Daily Camera in recent years. Swetlik mounted an attempt at city council in 2017 as an independent, his first foray into local government. Since last year he has served on the city’s nascent Housing Advisory Board.

“Boulder is in good hands,” Swetlik said Tuesday night of his fellow victors. Moving forward, “the most important thing is to focus on things we agree on” as a council.

2019 Boulder City council vote totals (descending order)

Bob Yates: 17,125 (four-year term)

Junie Joseph: 16,953 (four-year term)

Rachel Friend: 16,859 (four-year term)

Aaron Brockett: 15,443 (four-year term)

Adam Swetlik: 14,128 (two-year term)

Mark Wallach: 13,872 (two-year term)

Mark McIntyre: 13,213

Susan Peterson: 12,670

Benita Duran: 11,314

Corina Julca: 10,791

Brian Dolan: 10,607

Nikki McCord: 4,094

Paul Cure: 3,941

Andy Celani: 2,372

Gala Orba: 1,782

The sheer number of votes received by most candidates was novel. Yates, also the top vote-getter in 2015, may have set a new record for most ballots cast for a single candidate, with 17,125 — potentially more than half of all ballots counted thus far. (This won’t be confirmed until official results are in. But 33,498 ballots were cast for City of Boulder Issue 2H, putting Yates above 50%.)

Yates was pleased with early results Tuesday showing him atop the candidates, but almost immediately switched from celebratory comments to ones elucidating the tall task ahead of the next council. Housing, transportation, homelessness, budget challenges — all confront the new group.

“We’ve got so much work ahead of us,” he said. The important thing will be to keep listening to the community and to continue his commitment to being “open, accessible and transparent.”

In a followup text exchange, Yates wrote that he was “honored by the confidence people have expressed, but …. humbled by the responsibility it carries.”

Yates was joined in his record-setting by Friend and Joseph, both of whom beat incumbent Brockett in votes received. All four of the candidates actually broke the record for ballots, set by Mary Young in 2013 when she received 15,170 votes. That was the most for a single candidate in any election dating back to 2005, according to an analysis of online records by Boulder Beat.

Joseph, who will be the only renter, the only CU student and the only black resident on city council when sworn in, was excited by the results Tuesday night. She wasn’t surprised by her victory, she said, “because I am a hopeful person.”

“If you’re an optimistic person, there’s some naivety,” Joseph said. “You decide you’re not going to look at the reality of the world: You’re going to create something better.”

Friend took a similarly upbeat tone about the evening’s results. “I’m not surprised Boulder leaned into hope instead of fear,” she said.

Altogether, the five candidates endorsed by PLAN and Together4Boulder drew 62,068 votes. Five Progressive candidates earned 73,782. Coalition candidates (five Progressive endorsees plus Yates) received 90,907 votes.

Lumping in more slow-growth, non-endorsed candidates (Andy Celani and Gala Orba), slow-growth voters were eclipsed by votes for more pro-housing candidates (when including Paul Cure and Nikki McCord, who did not receive endorsements), 98,942 to 66,222.

“There was a craving for a more positive view of our future,” said Coalition leader Matt Benjamin, who himself ran in 2017. “I think with the new faces, people are saying we need change. (Many candidates) were well-positioned for a community appetite for change and a fresh, younger perspective.”

Younger is certainly correct. There will soon be three 30-somethings on city council: Swetlik, Joseph and current councilwoman Mirabai Nagle, making the group one of the youngest overall in recent years.

The desire for fresh faces explains the stellar performances of Joseph and Friend, Benjamin said, and even Swetlik and Wallach on the slow-growth side. Both are relatively new when compared with Susan Peterson, who ran in 2007 and co-founded slow-growth site Boulder Blue Line (though more well-known than candidates Brian Dolan or Corina Julca).

It also could help explain why Coalition candidates Mark McIntyre and Benita Duran didn’t gain more ground, despite resumes stacked with government experience and service. McIntyre serves on the Transportation Advisory Board and ran once before, in 2017. Duran has served at the local and state level of government as well as for Denver Public Schools, even working as assistant city manager for Boulder in the ’90s — experience Benjamin believes may have predisposed voters against her in a town that has a history of being highly critical of city staff.

“People don’t trust the people within to make the change,” he said. “People expect an outsider to be the change.”

The recent focus on racial equity and social justice issues may have played a role in the race as well. Friend, an attorney who has represented asylum seekers, and Joseph, a former U.N. and USAID worker and lifelong public servant, are particularly strong in this area. Swetlik was by far the most comfortable among PLAN candidates at speaking to issues of homelessness and racial inequality, and the only one to participate in the Rally for Police Oversight and city council special listening session on racism.

Aside from a possible distrust of entrenched candidates, “positive vision absolutely reigned supreme,” Benjamin said. “The top four vote-getters, every single one of them (believes) Boulder is going to be better tomorrow than it is today.”

PLAN co-chair Peter Mayer has a different take on Tuesday’s results. He saw them as a reaffirmation of Boulder’s values, particularly the overwhelming support of a sales tax extension to fund open space. Issue 2H passed with 85.87% of voters supporting, as of Wednesday night.

“That is the most lopsided win for an open space measure in Boulder history,” Mayer said. (The only comparison for which online election records are available is a 2013 sales tax extension, which passed with 75.39% support.) “I can’t recall any tax measure, maybe any measure, passing by that margin.

“That is a really powerful signal of I think the core values of Boulder and where the town really sits.”

Boulder voters have never voted down an open space funding measure, and generally have strong history of passing and extending taxes. Though the statewide Proposition CC failed, 67% of Boulder County residents supported it.

As for candidates, Mayer said a “highly competent” group got elected, irrespective of ideology. Continued engagement can only help those who fell short, he said, pointing to Swetlik, who in 2017 — sans endorsements — garnered fewer than 2,000 votes.

“What he did in those two years was be involved, learn as much as he could, get to know the community,” Mayer said. “I think that’s a successful recipe for the council.”

Together with current members Nagle, Mary Young and Sam Weaver, Boulder’s slow-growth faction retains a 5-4 majority on city council. But the fifth- and sixth-place finishes for both PLAN endorsees this time around — and the two-year terms that go with them — means all PLAN members will be up for re-election at the same time in 2021.

Countywide, overall turnout has already proven to be higher than any off-year election in the past 14 years. Estimates of total ballots was revised upward early Wednesday. So far, 112,411 ballots have been counted in Boulder County, of a now-estimated 114,000.

If that many are eventually received, it would represent a 51.8% turnout of active, registered voters in the county.

Boulder County voter turnout, odd years, 2005-2019

2019: 112,411*

2017: 94,729

2015: 86,690

2013: 105,117

2011: 83,573

2009: 63,320

2007: 58,263**

2005: 86,658

*Unofficial results

**This election did not include a city council race. That was held during a special election on July 7, 2007, in which 10,676 ballots were received.

Source: Boulder County Elections Division

Official results — including a breakout of city of Boulder ballots — will not be available until later this month. City council typically receives a breakdown of official results (by precinct, age, etc.) in early December. The next batch of unofficial results will be released Wednesday, Nov. 13.

Councilman-elect Wallach said he thinks the new council members will work well together, a sentiment numerous candidates echoed. They’ve already demonstrated collegiality, he said, by going out for a friendly drink together the night before the election and coordinating to pick up campaign signs after.

“It was a good step toward creating a good atmosphere,” Wallach said. “It’s going to be good people dealing with serious issues. I’m hopeful.”

Author’s note: This article has been updated to include perspectives on the role social and racial justice issues may have played in the election.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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