Get Big Pivots

Massive campaign spending from undisclosed sources was crucial in flipping support for municipalization in 2-month span

by Allen Best

Proponents of municipalized electric services in Colorado’s rust-belt city of Pueblo weren’t blaming the covid-19 pandemic for their lopsided defeat on Tuesday. They instead pointed to the infusion of $1.5 million in dark money that produced what the mayor, Nick Gradisar, called the “dirtiest campaign I have witnessed in my career.”

Fear and uncertainty were the themes of the anti-municipalization advertising. They’re also sideboards of the pandemic. Perhaps the overlap is not coincidental. The messaging was mostly billboard type, a few words. Even the relatively wordy pieces pounded the same themes. One 750-word article—that’s about the length of a newspaper column—used the word “risk” 13 times.

Another theme was mistrust of government, which also happens to be an element in the campaigns of Donald Trump. That, too, was perhaps not just coincidental.

The reversal of public attitudes was stunning. In March, a municipal survey revealed 70% of city residents favoring a public power utility to replace Black Hills Energy, which levies among the highest rates in Colorado for its electricity. On Tuesday, 77% of voters went against the charter amendment that would have delegated authority to the Pueblo Board of Water Works, an institution parallel but independent from the city government, to negotiate purchase of the assets from Black Hills or, if necessary, take the steps to a court-mediated condemnation.

Municipalization supporters emphasized that the water utility, not the city government itself, would be in charge. The city has a less favorable reputation than the water utility. In the campaign against municipalization, though, it was simply a government takeover.

David Cockrell, a co-founder of Bring Power Home 2020, the advocacy group formed to support municipalization, agrees that the anti-municipalization theme grabbed onto the pandemic coattails.

“For those who saw (the municipalization) as risky, the virus probably did enhance their perception of this being a brash and injudicious move,” he said.

Selling the arguments for municipalization was also harder to do, he believes, than attacking the plan.

“Until the bitter end, we did not bring down our campaign message to sound bites,” Cockrell says. “It really wasn’t possible to do so, because you had to take a little deeper look at the advantages of making this transition.”

The anti-municipalization campaign played to a political sensibility that turned Pueblo into a border-line Trump town in 2016. “They care about taxes, about government takeovers, about blank checks and about too much risk,” observed Cockrell in his morning-after post-mortem. The anti-municipalization effort then connected those broad worries to the debate about removing Black Hills.

“It was going to be a government takeover from the private sector, like universal health-care coverage. And it’s just wrong, opposite of what their message was.”

Cockrell, a former city planner and college administrator, became involved in the effort to corral the aggressive rates of Black Hills in 2014, six years after the utility purchased the Pueblo assets from the previous monopoly. Many saw Black Hills as holding Pueblo back even as other cities along the Front Range of Colorado boomed. They still do.

An hour after the vote results had been released, the effect of the vote’s decisive margin was evident on the faces of proponents in a press conference on Facebook. “We lost a great opportunity,” said Dr. Thomas Autobee, president of the board of directors of Pueblo Water Works, shock evident on his face and in his words. “It wasn’t even close.” And then he added: “This was the sleaziest campaign I have ever seen.”

Some had thought municipalizing the electric supply, lowering rates, and keeping dollars at home would help Pueblo turn the corner on too-frequent dysfunction, even put it on the national map. Schools suffer such that some professionals commute 45 minutes to Colorado Springs to make their homes. Crime remains a problem in some areas.

For at least a decade, some in Pueblo have had a vision of Colorado’s most prominent blue-collar, lunch-bucket town becoming a green-collar town. Out beyond the carbon-soaked and rusting steel mill is the Vestas factory, which manufactures 90-meter wind towers. Beyond the trio of smokestacks at the Comanche Generating Station is a solar farm, at least at one time the largest east of the Rocky Mountains. And last September, Evraz, the Russian company that now owns the steel mill, committed to a solar farm on its own property that will allow recycled steel to be manufactured into pipelines and rail almost entirely from renewable energy.

Tuesday’s vote instead revealed a community averse to risk, even if the risk of making no change was greater.  “The city is its own worst enemy, “one correspondent wrote to me. “I’ve never seen a place so hell bent on poverty.”

Municipal supporters were outspent 50-to-1 and were further hindered by covid-19 because they were unable to conduct the house-to-house, face-to-face interactions with voters they had planned.

The primary vehicle for opposition was a new organization called Pueblo CARES. It reported $1.5 million in campaign donations, of which more than $1 million was spent on television advertising. It refused to identify the bulk of its donations, arguing that as an educational committee, it was informational, and did not oppose the municipalization. A majority of the city council—the same majority that opposed municipalization—took no move to force transparency. Court action was an option, but of little value within just weeks remaining before the vote.

Steve Andrews, a co-founder of Bring Power Home 2020, studied documents filed by Black Hills with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday. He found allocations for advertising rose from $14,000 in 2017 to $803,000 last year.

“That was before (Black Hills) likely sent most of $700,000 to their marketing arm – Pueblo CARES — in the current election campaign, he wrote on Bring Home Power’s website on Friday. “Why do they need to advertise and to attack with misleading and false statements. Why don’t they just stand behind their product and their record the way most successful companies do?”

Gradisar, the mayor, pointed to the same campaign efforts when he was asked why the vote wasn’t closer.

“I think it was one-point-five-million bucks worth of money put into the campaign and the scare tactics. If you think about it, there wasn’t a positive things said about Black Hills Energy. It was all a negative campaign” against municipalization.

The campaign, he went on to say, “was obviously effective. That is unfortunate, but the voters have spoken at this point and we have to live with that. whether we agree with them or not.

“I think we had a good message, I think we had a good plan, but we didn’t have a million and a half dollars to get it out here.”

Steve Welchert was the symphony conductor for the anti-municipalization campaign. The website for his company, The Welchert Company, describes a long career of successful political advocacy, almost exclusively on behalf of Democratic politicians, from Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm 40 years ago to Denver Mayor Federico Pena in the 1980s and 1990s to U.S. Senator Mark Udall and U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter in the 21st century. But consultants do have a way of being mercenary.

The irony is this architect of Democratic victories essentially took a page from Trump. The president promised that he would aid ordinary American with their grievances against the so-called elites and the effects of globalization. His most tangible success as president, though, was to give a giant tax break to the economic elites.

That’s the same effect of the vote in Pueblo, and Gradisar, during the campaign, had hit on the point repeatedly. A continuation of the past, he said, would perpetuate a virtual conveyor belt of cash from Pueblo to the headquarters for the investor-owned utility in Rapid City, S.D., some $130 million in profits before the franchise agreement ends in 2030.

After the vote, Gradisar vowed to work with Black Hills, whose local manager, Vance Crocker, remains popular, even with some who have been sharply critical of Black Hills. There is some hope that Black Hills will use a law passed two years ago to offer rate reductions for new businesses that might deliver jobs.

Another proponent of municipalization, Kevin Olsen, a retired minister, was more overt in his hope. “Remember the end is never the end,” he said. “It’s only a new beginning. We may have lost the vote, but we haven’t lost the vision.”

That’s a cheerful note, but one that brings to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s weary search for Eldorado. Cockrell, though, hopes to see a new generation of gallant knights and their female equivalents. The grassroots leaders of the push for municipalization are all in their 70s or late 60s, he pointed out. Others will have to step up.

The more immediate worry may be whether the effect of coronavirus that caused such a somersault in Pueblo may also play out on the national stage. Will Trump overcome his considerable incompetence in responding to the pandemic by mining the fears and uncertainty it has produced to secure another four years in the spotlight that he so desperately craves?

It sounds strange, but no stranger than the landslide vote in Pueblo.

Allen Best
Follow Me

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This