8 autumnal truths about Boulder politics

| Oct 11, 2009


I’ve just spent too much time conducting interviews and reviewing media accounts about Boulder city politics. Now you won’t have to, lucky you. My conclusions follow, in another of my now-infamous lists:

1. We’re not all that divided. Now that a law was finally passed by the Boulder City Council Oct. 6 — and despite 18 months of stormy Council meetings and highly entertaining public comments on the Daily Camera’s website — Boulder will survive its battle over “compatible development,” aka “pops and scrapes,” aka limiting giant houses on small lots. The debate took too long, but the final law’s restrictions, which take effect Jan. 4, will probably work pretty well. As in so many cases in the past, Boulderites debated fiercely, then settled on a compromise.

2. The big-houses issue is subtle. Those on both sides of the 4-3 Council vote to enact the law were responding to legitimate concerns from citizens. Both sides have pretty compelling concerns — from the one side about greedy speculators building “McMansions,” from the other side about middle-class families being prevented from adding on a few rooms, either because their lots are too small or because they can’t afford the added fees of lawyers and architects that the complex new law may entail.

3. Conspiracy theories flopped. Yes, some developers probably did give financial assistance to the two groups that led the charge against the law (FairFAR and Leave My Home Alone). And, yes, the Daily Camera was a little off calling either opponent group a “grassroots” effort. But it’s an overstatement to call the groups “proxies for the real estate mafia masquerading as actual outraged citizens” (to quote one Camera website commenter). On the other side, the law’s critics now realize it isn’t communism driving the critics of the McMansions; rather, that it represents a long-observed strain of egalitarianism in liberal Boulder. One Camera commenter caricatured the thoughts of poor Mr. Richie Rich deprived of his McMansion: “Where will I put the 12-seat home theater with full bar and jumbo gumball machine?”

4. It’s yesterday’s issue anyway. A drive around the Newlands neighborhood in North Boulder, where spec-home builders have been busy bees, reveals that a lot of the most out-of-scale McMansions are empty and for sale. It may well be that, given America’s economic crisis, we may never revisit the mood of opulence that the speculators were catering to. Rich people will still favor Boulder, but most aren’t show-offs.

5. The Council election looks good for incumbents. Mayor Matt Appelbaum may have mad-professor white hair, and he may be Clinton-like (Bill) with his long-winded hyper-analyzing of the issues as Council sessions drone on toward midnight. But he’s also incredibly smart, has huge institutional memory, and obviously relishes his work. Suzy Ageton, though a bit officious at times, also has huge experience, poise and intellectual acumen. Macon Cowles can be a bit stern and moralistic, leading to his being caricatured by developers as Boulder’s Robespierre (in truth, he’s been supportive of the business community at many turns while still standing tall for the environment). All three will probably be reelected Nov. 3 (ballots for the mail-only election go out next week). Whether the Council will reelect Appelbaum as mayor is less clear.

6. New candidates as weather vanes. The viable non-incumbent candidates divide fairly cleanly into pro-business folks (KC Becker, Fenno Hoffman, George Karakehian, Barry Siff) versus more of those famous Boulder Progressives (Valerie Mitchell, Tim Plass, Jyotsna Raj). The election results will be a strong indicator of where Boulder voters stand — in particular, after enduring the somewhat polarizing debate over house sizes.

7. And the winner is… Though Boulder’s electorate can surprise, my prediction is that the three incumbents will join the attractive, liberal retired lawyer Tim Plass in the winner’s circle, with the fifth contested seat hard to call. That result will put progressives in control, with newcomer Plass joining Appelbaum, Cowles, and three liberal incumbents not up for reelection (Lisa Morzel, Crystal Gray and Susan Osborne) to form a solid progressive majority on the nine-member council. This will leave Ageton, incumbent Ken Wilson and either Barry Siff (who’s not only a businessman but is also a celeb in Boulder’s endurance-athlete crowd) or KC Becker (who has focused her campaign on fellow-parents) to be the business-lovin’ minority on the Council.

8. This all may look a bit silly. As one Daily Camera commenter put it bitingly, “Only when the wealthy argue amongst themselves do you get these kinds of discussions [like “compatible development”]. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world grapples with issues like clean drinking water and reliable food sources. The Boulder Experiment continues.” Well! I guess that puts our little Camelot and its squabbles into perspective.

(This article also appeared on Huffington Post.)