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Mojo of the mayor

Jeanne McGovern

In 1996, Aspen Mayor John Bennett looked out his window at City Hall to see the news trucks circling. The town was in the midst of a heated debate about lengthening the runway at Sardy Field, and the out-of-town media were hungry for a sound bite; they wanted Bennett to comment.I told them, We dont even own the airport, recalls Bennett. They didnt care; they wanted to quote the mayor. It quite surprised me.In fact, Aspen mayors are often thrust into the spotlight locally, nationally and internationally. And they must be prepared to take on that role.For whatever reason, good or bad, Aspens mayors assume a leadership role beyond what the citys charter mandates, says Bennett, a three-term mayor who has continued to be a voice for Aspen in his post-political life. Quite simply, the mayor is a spokesperson for Aspen.Current Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud echoes the sentiment.I think its a substantial part of the mayors job to be both involved within community, and be an ambassador outside the community, says Klanderud, who is being forced out of office this year by term limits. Id say it can be 50 percent of the job at times.The reasons that Aspens mayor shoulders such responsibility outside City Hall are many. But the fact remains, voters will elect not just a mayor on May 8, but an ambassador.I definitely feel that, acknowledges Klanderud. But it has probably been one of the most rewarding parts of the position. I am an Aspenite, Ive lived here since 1971, and it makes me proud to represent Aspen to the world; I take my responsibility in that regard very seriously.Bennett similarly recognizes the weight of being mayor of Aspen. The mayor has no more power than his fellow council members. But, on the other hand, the mayor has the ability, the subtle ability, to influence people and decisions, he says, admitting it took him a year or two in office to strike a balance in his role as mayor. I began confused by this, and not all that confident. But over time I learned how to merge the two: How to be a leader who could articulate a vision, but at the same time work on the nuts and bolts to get things done.People want their mayor to be a real leader, to have a vision for the community, and to lead them toward that vision. … It is a role open to the mayor, if he or she chooses to step into it.Aspens mayoral candidates Mick Ireland, Tim Semrau, Torre and Bonnie Behrend talked with the Times about the role of Aspens mayor beyond the issues, and why theyre up for the task. (Q-and-A articles with candidates on the issues will be published in the daily edition of The Aspen Times, April 30-May 4.)

As a television journalist, Bonnie Behrend knows the importance of making a good impression. She also knows that looks alone won’t get the job done.”I didn’t get here on my back or on my looks,” says the straight-shooting mayoral candidate. “As an attractive woman, people are always going to ask, ‘Is she smart?’ ‘Is she willing to work?'”Behrend says “yes” on both counts. And though her political experience is, well, nonexistent, she believes she’s long been in training for the mayor’s job.”No matter how small Aspen is, we are a jewel – in the valley, in the U.S. and internationally,” says Behrend. “And the mayor must put a face on that to the world.”It’s a face she’s familiar with. Behrend’s radio and television broadcasting career spans 20 years and several cities. Until March, she was a host on TV Aspen, but her national-level experience includes a 1998-2001 stint at CNBC. “It’s no different from being on national TV,” she says. “As a TV newswoman, you’re in the public’s eye … people are watching everything you do. People consider you a community leader; you speak on behalf of others. As mayor, it’s much the same, only you get to cast a vote.”She’s quick to point out, however, that the mayor’s job is more than just superficial politicking. “There’s no relief from the pressure, as a TV journalist or mayor. Similarly, you have to do your homework … it’s not all about the glamour,” she contends.In fact, Behrend believes the issues being talked about in City Hall are far more important than cocktail party conversations.”The issues are the hardest part … the rest of being mayor looks like fun,” says the chatty Behrend, whose website at http://www.bonniebehrend.com comprises pages and pages of conversational observations and personal anecdotes. “But it is these issues that made me worry, and made me take action by running for mayor.”Taking action has also brought some heat to the one of only two women on this May’s ballot (Toni Kronberg is vying for one of two open City Council seats). Behrend has caught flak for not appearing at local debates and ranting wildly on her blog.”I’m known to get a little ticked and just fire off,” says the feisty Behrend. “But I think that’s a good thing sometimes; you’ve got to stand up for yourself and others.”Thus, when it comes to the representing Aspen on the local, national and world stage, Behrend thinks she has a leg up on the competition.”The Aspen mayor represents the government to the people, and the people to the government, which is a very public job,” says the 52-year-old Behrend, who has served “two tours of duty” in Aspen, the most recent of which brought her to town two years ago. “And it is my blessing, my advantage, and maybe my destiny to have the experience and natural ability to do this.”

Mick Ireland is no American Idol, and he’s pretty sure Aspen voters aren’t looking for one in their next mayor.”I go door to door, I talk to people, and I have never heard someone come out and say, ‘You are a symbol of Aspen,'” notes Ireland. “Voters don’t care who would look better on TV. “I don’t think people think they’re electing the next American Idol.”But the 28-year Aspen resident and former Pitkin County commissioner acknowledges the role Aspen – and thus its mayor – plays both within and outside the Roaring Fork Valley.”There’s no question that the mayor of Aspen gets a disproportionate share of media attention for such a small town. There no doubt about that,” admits Ireland, whose résumé includes plenty of civic appointments and activist roles in Aspen, Pitkin County and across Colorado. “Because, yes, you are representing Aspen to the outside world.” But Ireland has made it clear – at local debates, in media interviews and on his website – that he would use his influence outside of Aspen in a not-so flashy fashion.”For better or worse, we command a small part of the World Stage,” writes Ireland, at http://www.mickformayor.com. “We can choose to allow others to stereotype us as self-centered and short-sighted, as some have, or we can set an example of personal and community responsibility for protecting the environment and building an economy that respects the environment.”As residents and elected officials of Aspen, we have an ethical duty to ensure that our decisions are grounded in our love of the natural environment and a sense that local community character matters.”Still, it takes a certain amount of hand-shaking and elbow-rubbing to be the mayor of Aspen. And even Ireland, whose attire can best be described as casual (he’s likely attended more public meetings in Lycra bike shorts and helmet-head than khakis and a button-down shirt), knows it.”I have to admit, I’m not a big socializer,” says Ireland, adding that working two to three jobs at a time doesn’t leave much time for partying. “You haven’t seen me in Mary Hayes’ column with a drink in my hand; Helen Klanderud thinks this is a very important part of the job and I agree with her. And though I don’t have a lot of practice, I have no hesitation about taking up that role.”But again, for Ireland, the social side of politics in Aspen takes a back seat to the issues of the day – and the candidates’ abilities to recognize and act on those issues.”I don’t think people elect a mayor solely for their social skills,” concludes the intelligent but slightly awkward Ireland. “There are very serious things that need to be addressed here – things that will take a person with integrity, past experience, and good reputation and a wealth of knowledge.”Voters will be happy if they elect me because of this.”

Tim Semrau describes himself as “just a regular person, a regular guy with a job and kids.”Of course “regular” is a subjective term. In Semrau’s case, it means a man who’s lived in places across the globe, from Tehran to Hawaii to Chicago; it’s a man who’s held myriad jobs, from logger to landscaper to developer; it’s a man who raised two children on his own in Aspen and has twice traveled around the world.And that’s just his point: Aspen is not an ordinary town, so its leader must be, to a certain degree, extraordinary.”Aspen is an incredible place,” says the 21-year resident, ticking off the attributes he thinks the town’s mayor should possess: “worldly, self-made, sophisticated, energetic …” “It is also an diverse place, and, ideally, the mayor would be able to represent that diversity … to be able talk to and empathize with all the people we have in Aspen, from lift ops to second-home owners, as well as the people who visit Aspen, from tourists to dignitaries.”To Semrau, though, the type of person who fills the mayor’s seat takes a backseat to the type of things he or she can accomplish while in the post.”Obviously the mayor of Aspen is the town’s symbolic head, the person who actually represents Aspen to the public,” says Semrau, who has long been involved in Aspen politics, including stints on the housing board, Planning & Zoning Commission and a four-year term on City Council in the early 2000s. “But while that’s important, it’s not the most important thing. “No. 1, the mayor needs to be someone who can solve some of Aspen’s problems.”But again, solving some of these problems – from the Entrance to Aspen to affordable housing to growth management – takes a certain amount of finesse.”I have the skill set to simply solve some problems,” says the relaxed but confident candidate. “What we have are problems of prosperity. And these are problems that can be solved easily – well, maybe not easily in Aspen.”Yet Semrau continues to argue that because of Aspen’s unique attributes – and its citizens’ and leaders’ ability to balance engaged debate with intelligent decision-making – there is no reason its problems can’t be solved. “Aspen has more resources in people and funding than any city of its size anywhere in the world. Why can’t we solve our problems?” asks Semrau, at http://www.timforaspen and on a promotional DVD, for which the candidate caught some slack for being a bit too slick. “Why have we spent 27 years talking about what to do about traffic? What will it take to engage more of our extraordinarily talented citizens in solutions?”Semrau thinks he has the answer, and he thinks the mayor’s pulpit is the perfect place from which to steer change.”I truly believe leadership should say little, honor the people, and get the work done,” he says. “We live in an exceptional community and there is no reason we can’t have an exceptional local government.”

When it comes to being mayor of Aspen, Torre wonders: “Who do you want to see in a parade: Mick, Tim or Torre?”And while the question might seem narcissistic on first blush, Torre is quick to point out it’s quite the opposite.”Being a symbol of Aspen is a big part of the mayor’s job” says the two-time mayoral candidate (Torre was defeated by current Mayor Helen Klanderud in 2005). “But there is a ceremonial role to the job and an administrative role, and the funny thing is, they go hand in hand.”In Torre’s opinion, to serve as Aspen’s ambassador – both within and outside the Roaring Fork Valley – a person must be “approachable, accessible and diplomatic.” To guide the City Council on heated issues, he believes a person must possess similar skills; to effect change, you must be able to nurture and maintain relationships.This is particularly true in a town like Aspen, he contends.”I’m sure it’s the same for all mayors,” says Torre, in his trademark easygoing manner. “But I would imagine in some smaller towns, being able to really communicate with your fellow council members, the community and world is less important than it is in Aspen.”There are a lot of eyes on what’s goes on here, who’s here, what we stand for … we’ve always been a progressive community and people know that. They want to learn from us.”Torre speaks from experience. At just 37 years old, the 15-year Aspenite considers himself seasoned in the town’s political and social circles. He’s been on the City Council for four years, and mayor pro tem for two; he’s also worked in the town’s service industry – as a concierge (“detail-oriented people person”) and a tennis pro (“teach people, get a message across”) – and is widely known to enjoy the town’s nightlife.”I believe being an ambassador for Aspen and a decision-maker on the issues goes together,” he says. “I can do both of these things naturally, and I have already been acting in this role, so I don’t see a challenge in balancing them as mayor.”It is perhaps this enthusiastic, confident side that makes people wonder if Torre is “for real” – and this bothers the mayoral candidate.”People say or I read in a letter to the editor, ‘How can I vote for a one-named tennis pro?'” he says, clearly concerned but still affable. “They sell me out before they know me. They sell me out before they know what I stand for, before they know what I have – and can – accomplish.” And that, he argues, is unfair – to him, and to Aspen’s future.”I know that some voters express reluctance to believe my excellent ability to lead in the many responsibilities of Mayor,” writes the candidate, at http://www.torreformayor.com. “I have demonstrated through my commitment and experience that I am the right person for this job. … I am very aware of where we’ve been, where we are, and most importantly what we can be.”Jeanne McGoverns e-mail address is jmcgovern@aspentimes.com


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