Candidates go gonzo
ASPEN ” Aspen’s two mayoral candidates ” one dressed in biking tights, with socks and sandals, and the other in a gonzo Tshirt and a blazer ” shook hands and agreed to have fun.
That was the scene at the start of the final organized mayoral debate before the runoff election June 5. Candidates Mick Ireland and Tim Semrau sat in the kitchen of the late Hunter S. Thompson’s Owl Creek Farm in Woody Creek on Friday night with a dozen or so people looking on. Thompson’s wife, Anita, organized the event after being inspired by the debates in France’s most recent election.
Whether the two political foes had fun is debatable, but the hour-long conversation separated the candidates on a number of issues and ideologies. The political gathering was one of the more lively ones in the estimated seven debates since the mayoral campaign began. That’s most likely because of the questions delivered by moderator George Stranahan and the audience strayed from the status quo.
The two opponents were asked to respond to the perceptions, or misperceptions, the general public has about them: Ireland as an intelligent but arrogant man, and Semrau as a developer who leans toward business interests at the expense of the environment and community.
“I confess at times I have been arrogant; I am a human being,” Ireland said, adding he’s made amends with many people he has disagreed with over the years.
Ireland, who has been a Pitkin County commissioner for more than a decade, and has faced recall attempts, said many of those who tried to oust him from office over development restrictions in the backcountry are now his supporters.
“We did things here that weren’t popular and it stirred things up, but you have to do the right thing instead of what’s most popular,” Ireland said.
Semrau said if becoming a developer of affordable housing ” building homes for 39 families in Pitkin County ” is his worst crime, then so be it.
“I became a developer because I had no place for my kid to sleep,” Semrau said of being a single father and having no where to live in Aspen.
Semrau added that he and his wife, Heidi, own two retail shops in Aspen and are true “mom and pops” in town. Semrau said his interests go far beyond his own, and he hopes people will realize that.
“I wish people would look a little deeper than a label,” Semrau said.
Ireland’s response to how he would like to be remembered both in style and accomplishments was not about himself, but rather those who mobilize around a common cause. “If you are a good leader, people will be empowered and they won’t remember you, they will remember what they did,” Ireland said, adding his personal commitment was that he wouldn’t burn any fossil fuels attending campaign events. (He rode his bicycle from Aspen to Woody Creek on Friday night.) “I want to be remembered as having walked the walk and talked the talk.”
Semrau said he would like to be remembered as someone who took action and brought people together for that cause.
“My entire life I have been a problem solver,” he said, adding that he would be content if the majority of Aspenites could find a comfort level with agreed-upon solutions to the city’s biggest problems of traffic, growth control and the lack of affordable housing.
Other questions the candidates fielded:
Ireland said while it takes an organization many hours to create a concise statement that sums up a mission, he tried his best by saying his vision is for Aspen to be a sustainable resort environmentally and socially where generations of families can live ” not a place for a grandiose lifestyle or a resort full of consumption as it is today.
Semrau said his vision is a bit a more simple.
“The welcome mat is out in front of City Hall,” he said, adding there is too much anger and resentment among residents. “We need to solve problems and move forward . …All are welcome to participate.”
Both candidates said they don’t imbibe in illegal drugs, and, generally, they are not good. Semrau said there is a delicate balance that needs to be found because there are people who come to vacation here that have the mindset of “whoopie times two,” as well as a conservative base who believe drugs shouldn’t tolerated at all, especially with Aspen’s young residents.
“There needs to be a casual approach and know that Aspen is a resort,” he said.
Ireland, who has family members in law enforcement, said leading by example is the best policy, and the police department should enforce with honesty and realism.
“Teaching by example is not just the best way, but the only way to teach,” he said, adding the community at large hasn’t done the greatest job modeling good behavior in terms of drug and alcohol use.
Ireland quoted Michael Kinsley, a former county commissioner: “Growth is not inevitable, growth control is inevitable.”
He pointed to resorts like Atlantic City, which maximized for the short term and let the market do what it wanted. As a result, it is a resort that has died.
Ireland wants no residential built in the commercial core; a 36-foot height limit on buildings downtown; lodge rooms deed restricted so they remain hotel rooms and onsite housing for any development.
Semrau acknowledged that Aspen’s growth control system has worked well, but the constant construction is in the face of residents daily. Therefore, a growth and construction system that encompasses all development must be outlined so it can be better managed.
Ireland responded that the class warfare between the rich and the poor in Aspen is out of place.
“We make enemies of each other,” he said. “But I think we can overcome that …”
Semrau agreed that the community infighting isn’t helpful for solving Aspen’s woes.
“I think in some ways, it’s about maturity, and people are pointing the finger at each other instead of remembering we have the best town,” he said, adding that of all the places he has lived, Aspen is the end all be all. “Everyday I get up and say, ‘Yes, this was a good choice for me.”
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