A tense day continues in candidate forum for Aspen council, mayor
Aspen mayoral and City Council candidates faced off in the most intense public interaction of the campaign on Wednesday night, capping a long and emotional day.
The atmosphere of the candidate forum at the Mountain Chalet in Aspen was thick with anxiety, relief, and stress. The day’s school district lockdown in the face of what turned out to be a prank threat of violence and guns at schools in Aspen and across the state weighed heavily on the candidates.
“It’s been a bad, bad day,” City Council candidate Bill Guth said and exhaled wearily.
“Today impacted me emotionally and continues to impact me emotionally,” he said. “So I’m sorry if I’m not entirely myself, but I will do my best. But I am super appreciative to all the first responders and educators in our community who do whatever they can to keep our children safe, and I can never express my appreciation deeply enough for all of you and for what you do.”
Councilman Skippy Mesirow reiterated the stresses of the day and thanked the community for their response, as did challenger Sam Rose.
The three candidates are running for two seats on the council.
“And I echo everybody in this room,” mayoral candidate Tracy Sutton said. “I mean, it makes your heart drop just when you hear something like this is going on in your community. And we’re very lucky and we’re very thankful because you always think that it’s going to happen to someone else. And even though we had a scare, I’m very happy that the outcome was what it was, and I’m very thankful to the people that responded to it.”
“I feel emotional about what we went through today and what our kids went through and what our whole community went through,” Mayor Torre said. “And I want to say thank you to our valley responders and the city. We’ll be following up with this — doing an after-event evaluation and bringing our community together to move forward safely for everybody.”
Elevated emotions carried over into the discussion first among the council rivals into visible frustration, miscommunication, and perhaps the most aggressive behavior of the campaign.
Highlights included Rose becoming flustered by questions of his policy by a moderator and an outburst that in his view Mesirow’s idealism over pragmatism is a hindrance to moving forward with council goals. He told Mesirow at one point, “We’re not Vancouver,” in a verbal exchange over Mesirow’s idea for a residential vacancy tax modeled on one carried out in that city.
Mesirow was equally quick to declared Rose wasn’t “holistic” in his approach to community solutions.
It was a threesome of testy exchanges.
At another point, Guth told Mesirow to “listen to my words” in the middle of his answer to a question.
The fiercest and most agreeable response from all three candidates came from a question about what they each thought about city setting limits on commercial rents. The idea didn’t set well with any of the candidates.
“I’m not in support of controlling rents. We need an affordable business zone,” said Mesirow.
“I’m not a communist,” Guth declared. “I don’t think government rent control will work. Communism doesn’t work.”
Rose expressed support for community spaces such as the Taster’s Space and Armory, saying these wouldn’t undercut local businesses.
Mayoral forum testy, too
The evening’s confrontational landscape didn’t end with the council candidate panel. Torre and Sutton butted heads from the get-go. They couldn’t agree on much during the blustery evening — not even how many years each has spent in the town in which they are vying for mayor.
Nearly two-thirds through the moderated discussion, they had to be interrupted and reminded of the educational and informational purpose of the event.
Torre poked at Sutton’s knowledge of city matters and research on topics. “Tracy, I thought you would know more about this,” he commented about the current status of Aspen’s construction.
“I’m done taking a Torre beating,” Sutton said. “I’m tired of seeing things not completed. That is why I ran. I thought this would be much more of a discussion then a debate.”
From name-calling such as “career politician” at Torre to digs at Sutton’s qualifications for the job and available time, the two didn’t find much to agree on or be particularly agreeable about.
“I’m ready for fresh thinkers not in a governmental rut,” Sutton said.
Sutton acknowledged her real estate and development interests and noted she represented many groups of people, specifically those who could not vote due to limited months of residency in Aspen as second-home owners. This was also an explanation of her campaign signs that mention the voice that cannot vote.
At one point Mayor Torre suggested that Sutton was actually endorsing him on the premises of what she wanted done and what he had already accomplished. Downtown construction was the Achilles heel of their panel. He thought he had made progress; she thought there were giant holes that can’t be reprimanded successfully.
In a topic that hasn’t been beaten to a pulp during the campaign — such as The Entrance to Aspen, construction woes, affordable housing — the candidates were asked about their impressions of the resort-town dilemma of too much popularity with visitors. What is an appropriate visitor number? Is there one?
They seemed to agree there isn’t one.
“It’s not a number. We need to use it to our advantage,” said Rose.
“Tourism is not a number,” echoed Guth. “We live and always have in a resort community and must leverage it.”
“We have shifted from marketing to resort management for a reason. We need to find balance,” said Mesirow.
“That’s a loaded question,” said Sutton. “The summer after COVID was not pleasant for anyone. We can’t quantify it with a number.”
Torre said, “We have all felt it. As Tracy said, It’s not about sheer numbers. That fluctuates. It’s about experience.”
The forum was hosted by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, the Young Professionals Network of the Aspen Board of Realtors, and the Aspen Rotary Club.
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