A photo of food stalls and visitors at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, Colorado.
Fairgoers walk the grounds of the Colorado State Fair and Rodeo, which is held annually in Pueblo. Jason Plautz

Switching to a strong-mayor system was a way to shake things up and put one person in charge of boosting the town’s fortunes.

PUEBLO, COLORADO—Earlier this month, it was Nick Gradisar’s first week as mayor of this 109,000-person city, and he didn’t exactly hit the ground running. Instead of filling out his team, he had to work with the city council to authorize the position of chief of staff. With the city’s finance-director position vacant, it fell to Gradisar to approve expense reports in between meetings.

“Signing off on a $79 credit-card bill—I think that can be done at a different level than the mayor,” he said in an interview. “But until we can get things in order, that’s how it goes.”

The start of any administration gets bogged down in logistics, but Gradisar’s is a special case: He is the first mayor Pueblo has had in more than six decades, and the first elected mayor since 1911. For a period in the early 20th century, Pueblo’s mayor was the president of the city council (that is, not a “strong mayor”), and in 1954, the city changed to the council-manager system of government. Residents voted in 2017 to have an elected mayor again.

So anything new for Gradisar is new for the city, and what would ordinarily be simple steps—like hiring a chief of staff or public information officer—might necessitate amending the city charter.

Mayor Nick Gradisar. (Courtesy of Nick Gradisar)

Gradisar, a 69-year-old lawyer who once led the local Democratic Party, defeated former city-council president Steve Nawrocki in a January 22 runoff election, giving Pueblo its first “strong mayor” after decades of rule by a seven-member city council and a city manager. (The new mayor position is non-partisan; Gradisar will serve for five years, and subsequent terms will be for four years.) The old system, residents complained, made it too easy to pass the buck and left complex policy matters unresolved. Arguably, it also left the town stagnant.

When Pueblo was last controlled by a mayor, it was the second-largest city in Colorado, housing a massive Colorado Fuel and Iron Company steel mill that attracted workers from around the world (according to the Denver Post, at one point Pueblo had two dozen foreign-language newspapers). But the steel crash at the end of the 20th century crushed the local economy, and its recovery from the Great Recession was slow. The city’s jobless rate peaked at more than 12 percent in 2013. It has dropped to around 4 percent now, but that’s still the highest of any major Colorado city. And Pueblo has fallen from the second-largest to the ninth-largest city in the state.

The mayoral vote was a way to shake things up and put one person in charge of turning the town around. Ed Brown, a city-council member since 2013, said in an email that even in the best financial year the city had seen recently, “we don’t have enough to meet all the needs.”

“The mayor has run a campaign on the things he wants to achieve and the citizens can hold him accountable,” Brown added.

Pueblo City Hall/Memorial Hall. A bull-riding statue is at right, in front of the Professional Bull Riders headquarters. (Jason Plautz)

Pueblo found a useful model in Colorado Springs, a conservative city 45 miles to the north that adopted a strong-mayor system in 2010. After a rocky start with an unpopular and combative first mayor, that city has seen a resurgence under Mayor John Suthers, including the construction of the U.S. Olympic Museum and passage of a controversial but much-needed stormwater fee.

Denver, too, has given significant power to its mayor since the early 20th century, and has been a model for many cities and counties that have moved to their own strong-executive system.  

Bob Loevy, a political scientist who advised Colorado Springs on its transition, said that the similar demographics of Colorado Springs and Pueblo made them good candidates for a strong-mayor system. Both cities contain upwards of 50 percent of their county populations (metro Pueblo covers the entirety of Pueblo County), and both are becoming more ethnically diverse, which can mean a more divided city council.

“When you’re getting big, you have the kinds of economic and labor and policing problems where a strong mayor may be more relevant,” Loevy said. “One person elected at large to be responsible for the whole community is better at brokering problems than a city council.”

Still, Pueblo was initially reticent, voting against the plan in 2009. A major talking point has been that the switch would bog down city governance in politics. Lew Quigley, a former city manager, told the Pueblo Chieftain in 2017 that in “a community where one political party dominates elections,” he was worried “the mayor’s office will become an extension of that party.”

Research has shown that different government structures are equally effective in responding to citizens. A 2014 paper from researchers at UCLA and MIT “cast doubt on the hypothesis that simple institutional reforms enhance responsiveness in municipal governments.”

In Pueblo, though, residents say a shake-up was overdue. After voters approved a street-repair fee in 2017—a top priority—it took the city more than a year to develop a rate structure, let alone levy it. When three homeless shelters shut down in the span of a few years, the city dithered on a solution, eventually landing on a temporary, bare-bones warehouse that opened in December.

“That’s the kind of thing where there needs to be action, and if seven city council members aren’t getting anything done, maybe we just need one person to do it,” said Lexi Swearingen, who owns a gun range outside of Pueblo.

Swearingen and her husband moved to Pueblo, where he grew up, three years ago, and she immediately thrust herself into the effort to get a mayor back in town. A veteran of TV news and Republican campaigns, she teamed up with Gradisar on what amounted to a city-wide civics lesson to get voters to approve the new position.

A 2017 vote created the $150,000 job (the salary was set to be competitive with other civic offices), and ultimately 16 candidates filed paperwork to run last November. The January runoff was designed to ensure that any mayor had a clear majority victory, the better to declare a mandate.

Now Gradisar is eager to put Pueblo back on the road to economic sustainability, which he illustrated by pointing out of the window of his second-floor office at the convention center, which is being expanded to include a training facility for the Professional Bull Riders organization. Pointing to his left, Gradisar said he’ll expand the city’s commercial riverwalk. Further south, he wants to help the steel mill secure an expansion to build parts for high-speed trains, and hopes to recruit businesses from drought-ridden states like Arizona to relocate near the Arkansas River.

“My vision,” he said, “is that every young person who wants to stay here can stay here to earn a living.” After his five-year term, he said the proof will be in the “hard economic numbers” such as sales-tax revenue and new housing starts.

And now, for better or worse, it will all fall on his shoulders. “You’ve only got a certain amount of credibility with the voters when you’re the mayor,” Gradisar said. “In the end, you can’t point the finger if something goes wrong.”

Then, after a pause, he chuckled, adding: “Well, I guess I can always blame it on the city council.”

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