The race for Fort Collins mayor hasn’t been this competitive in more than two decades.
Fort Collins voters have three choices, representing disparate political backgrounds, policy approaches and personalities: Jeni Arndt, the state lawmaker who’s represented Fort Collins in the Colorado House of Representatives since 2015; Gerry Horak, a former Fort Collins mayor and City Council member with a cumulative 21 years of experience in city government, and Molly Skold, who works in Omaha real estate development from her hometown of Fort Collins and is involved with the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, Visit Fort Collins and other local groups.
With no large-scale polling efforts completed, it’s hard to tell who, if anyone, is a front-runner. Arndt, however, is the fundraising front-runner, with about $40,000 raised as of March 2 to Horak’s $20,000 and Skold’s $12,000.
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The wide-open field is emblematic of the broader 2021 election, which will bring at least four — possibly five — new faces to the seven-member Fort Collins City Council. Four seats are up for election every two years, but this election is unusual because of the seat vacated by Kristin Stephens, now a Larimer County commissioner; two term-limited council members; and one council member who chose not to run for reelection (District 3’s Ken Summers). There’s only one incumbent, District 1 council member Susan Gutowsky, among a field of 14 candidates.
The Coloradoan will feature previews of each City Council race in the coming days, along with candidate Q&As, information on endorsements and campaign finance updates. Let’s get started by meeting the three candidates vying for the mayoral seat.
Jeni Arndt: A ‘progressive, practical person’
It isn’t especially common for a state legislator to run for City Council — the more common path leads from the Colorado General Assembly to a run for a higher state or federal office.
But Jeni Arndt isn’t big on hierarchies.
“I don’t think any service is inherently more important than the other, and I don’t just mean elected, either,” Arndt said. “If you are a conscientious employee and a wonderful parent and a great partner, or a daughter or son or auntie or uncle, that’s service and being part of your community, right? It’s all part of creating the community that we want for ourselves.”
That mindset is reminiscent of Arndt’s campaign platform, which focuses on connectivity — building more connections in the community, connecting housing and health, and connecting people to mental health resources, education, employment and the environment.
“It’s kind of a lofty thing to think a mayor can do, but you really do get to set the tone as mayor,” Arndt said. “You’re the front door.”
Arndt, who builds alliances easily and gives out her cellphone number freely, is a Peace Corps volunteer and special education teacher turned school principal turned state legislator. She sees Fort Collins as a city “with pragmatic application of progressive policies.” The prospect of governing for such a community is appealing for Arndt, who’s never quite felt comfortable in a partisan box.
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She’s a Democrat who’s been named legislator of the year by groups ranging from the Colorado Livestock Association to the Fraternal Order of Police, purposely sits next to Loveland Republican Minority Leader Hugh McKean at the statehouse and shares clothes with former State Rep. Perry Buck, who was one of the legislature’s more conservative members. She’s never run for House leadership positions because “in my heart of hearts, I can’t sit down and try to devise a strategy or scenario where one team wins and the other team loses.”
“I am a registered Democrat, but I really fundamentally believe in people, and that translates into some bills that lighten regulation and give people more leeway,” she said.
For example, she’s sponsored legislation that makes it easier to reuse water for crops, car-washing and toilet-flushing. Two of her highest-profile pieces of legislation repealed the death penalty and enacted the National Popular Vote Compact in Colorado. But she’s typically gravitated toward detail-oriented legislation in the world of water and agriculture.
Other enacted legislation she’s sponsored includes a bill to facilitate the Poudre Flows project, a collaborative effort to bolster in-stream flows on the Poudre River through a complex series of water agreements; the “Farm Stand Bill,” which allows farm stands to operate in areas without agricultural operations zoning; a bill that gave credentialed Fort Collins school psychologists access to the same stipends available to teachers and other education professionals; a bill requiring local governments to include water conservation policies in their water supply plans; and a bill allowing members of the state’s restorative justice coordinating council to be reimbursed for their expenses.
“I think what I reflect that’s very Fort Collins-y — that’s what my kids call me — is being this progressive, practical person, but with an eye toward trusting in people and believing that we function the most with the fewest amount of rules and regulations that still keep us safe and provide consumer protection,” Arndt said.
On council, she would call on her relationships and knowledge gained from the state legislature and apply that background to more local priorities. She struggles to narrow those down to just a handful. She said she wants to focus on enacting the city’s climate action plan, broadening the transit network and bike infrastructure in the community, expanding affordable housing opportunities, creating more integrated neighborhoods with access to resources within walking or biking distance, boosting access to mental health services, working with Poudre School District to support the students who were most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and working with big and small businesses to help them reemerge from the pandemic — among a lot of other things.
She likes to quote former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank: “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”
“What are we going to choose to do together here? I’m listening,” she said. “I hear loud and clearly, housing. I heard loud and clearly, environment, open space, mental health and addiction services, good schools and good jobs. And then, a sense of community.”
“I have a personality style that is very positive, and I think people need that now,” she added. “I think people are looking for a positive, connecting person who’s able to build collaborative relationships in kind of an ocean of political strife and personal upheaval.”
For more about Arndt, visit her website: jeniarndt4mayor.com. See her answers to the Coloradoan’s candidate questionnaire here.
Among Arndt’s endorsements are U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, Larimer County commissioners Jody Shadduck-McNally and Kristin Stephens, Fort Collins City Council member Julie Pignataro and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. Note: The Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce didn’t endorse a mayoral candidate this year, noting that “any one of the three candidates can serve our community well.”
Gerry Horak: ‘I’m shovel-ready’
Two years off City Council was more than enough for Gerry Horak.
Horak wrapped up his last term as District 6 council member and mayor pro-tem in 2019, when he reached eight consecutive years and 21 cumulative years on council. In a field of new-to-council faces on the ballot, Horak’s is familiar.
He sees that as an asset, not a liability.
“I’m shovel ready,” he said. “I’m the right person for this time … somebody who could hit the ground on day one. I know how city government works, what’s the role of the mayor, and how I can help people, businesses and the environment.”
Horak said he’s spent the last year talking with upwards of 60 community members and groups to get an understanding of the challenges Fort Collins is facing and how City Council can best address them. His platform, a lengthy list of specific policy proposals, was born from those conversations.
The theme: Fort Collins is hurting. Families and individuals have lost loved ones and livelihood due to the pandemic. Small businesses are suffering. The environment, already degraded due to climate change and other human impacts, faces the aftermath of historic wildfires and their toll on the watershed.
Horak has ideas for dealing with each challenge. For families and individuals, Fort Collins could expand participation in the city’s low-income rebate program and develop an implementation plan with annual goals for affordable housing. For business, Fort Collins could lead by example by ensuring that all city supplies are purchased from local businesses and reduce some business regulations with an eye toward facilitating local commerce. For the environment, Fort Collins can participate in regional collaborations targeting watershed and air quality restoration and focus on an implementation plan to achieve the city’s climate goals.
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He sees the mayoral office as one that is largely focused on process rather than outcome. With that perspective in mind, he has a slew of ideas about council process: Start conversations about funding, public engagement and tradeoffs earlier in the process of setting council priorities. Take a more active role as mayor in summarizing council feedback and pushing council priorities forward. Turn “TBDs” into real dates on council’s six-month planning calendar.
He’s not saying he has all the answers, but he sees his ideas as “a start for discussion among council.”
“I’m trying to be more specific,” he said, before offering a joke about vague political campaigning: “If a politician is running for some big office and says, ‘I’m for full employment, I’m for the environment, and I’m for education’ — well, (who’s going to say) ‘I’m for unemployment, for dirty air, water, and I want illiterate people’? If I didn’t say anything when I negated it, I didn’t say anything originally.”
Horak, with his matter-of-fact style and sometimes unpredictable votes, developed a reputation as a swing vote during his years on council.
“I was called “Justice Kennedy” by some,” he said.
Why? He said he tried to do a lot of listening during work sessions and public comment, often waited until after he’d heard everything to come to a decision, and generally looked for ways to compromise and achieve a council priority while incorporating concerns into the adopted policy.
For example, on affordable housing, “if the project or the policy doesn’t meet what you want, then you try to change it, or you suggest to the developer, ‘If you did ‘X,’ I’d be more supportive of your project,’” Horak said. “That’s how you get something done. If you (vote no on everything) you don’t get anything done.”
Horak, not prone to grand speeches about his ideals, groaned at a question about his vision for the future of Fort Collins.
“I think it’s presumptuous that I have some vision,” he said. “It’s not the council’s job, or the mayor’s job, to set the vision. It’s the community’s job to work with us to put that down.”
Still, he said, Fort Collins is at a pivot point in many ways, facing rapid growth, a changing economy, and rising cost of living. As mayor, he’d focus on helping council make those tough decisions about how to pay for community priorities like affordable housing, transit and climate action.
That could mean cuts to things like parks or cemetery maintenance and services for the homeless population, which Horak sees as a county rather than city mandate.
“I don’t think, in real dollars, that we’re going to have much more revenue than we have today in the future, which means … you have to start looking at making some changes in what services you’re providing,” he said, adding later, “everything can’t be a priority. If it is, you don’t have priorities, you have stuff to do.”
For more about Horak, visit his website: gerryhorakformayor.com. See his answers to the Coloradoan’s candidate questionnaire here.
Among Horak’s endorsements are Fort Collins mayor pro-tem Ross Cunniff, retired Poudre Fire Authority emergency management chief Mike Gavin, former City Council member Dave Edwards, former Mayor Karen Weitkunat, and a group of residents from the Alta Vista, Andersonville and Buckingham neighborhoods. Note: The Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce didn’t endorse a mayoral candidate this year, noting that “any one of the three candidates can serve our community well.”
Editor’s note: Horak’s endorsement list was updated at 3 p.m. Wednesday to reflect that Gavin is a retired PFA employee.
Molly Skold: A ‘fresh face’ with ‘fresh perspective’
Molly Skold’s name might not be familiar to all Fort Collins voters, but she’s more than familiar with Fort Collins.
The Colorado State University graduate (who once served a stint as Fort Collins High School mascot — but that’s for another article) returned to her hometown six years ago after a few decades spent in rural Russia, Chicago and Omaha. She now works remotely as vice president of marketing and communications for East Campus Realty, a prominent Omaha real estate developer.
Since returning to Fort Collins, she joined the boards of Visit Fort Collins, Fort Collins Museum of Discovery and Elevations Credit Union. She also took part in Visit Fort Collins’ Destination Master Plan committee and a capital campaign for the Food
Bank for Larimer County.
“I’m a fresh face, and I bring a fresh perspective, but I’m a product of Fort Collins,” Skold said. “I don’t have political agendas; I don’t have baggage; I don’t have business relationships that have gone sour. I’m here to provide the skills that I know how to do.”
Skold says she has a knack for “providing enthusiasm for a common goal.” She points to her work in Omaha as a preview of the kind of work she wants to do here. She co-led the Midtown Crossing development, a private-public partnership that turned a 30-to-40-street “blighted area” of Omaha — think parking lots and liquor stores — into Omaha’s “center of gravity,” with apartments, retail and a huge park that hosts concerts and other community events.
Skold was also involved in Omaha tourism and public art campaigns that promoted branding for the city, with a new slogan of “We don’t coast” and a series of large “O”s stationed throughout the city. She’s led other private-public partnerships, including Omaha’s Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center and Omaha’s “ Horses of Honor” public art installation to honor police officers who died in the line of duty.
Skold’s excitement is apparent when she talks about her projects in Omaha.
“When you believe in something, and you work together … for the common good, you create this momentum that can just guide you,” she said. ”My tagline is ‘together with purpose,’ because I think we ought to be a city with purpose, and we ought to do it together.”
So how does she want to apply that experience in Fort Collins? Many of her answers come back to public-private partnerships, which she sees as an answer to many of the struggles Fort Collins is facing: housing affordability and homelessness, climate change, and rising costs of child care, to name a few.
“I know how they work, I know how they drive energy, and I know how they contribute to a more vibrant city,” she said. “I think public-private partnerships are absolutely crucial and critical to every single area of focus we have in our city. I think there’s an opportunity everywhere.”
Her vision for Fort Collins is “resurgent, collaborative and future-focused.” She said some of her top priorities would include supporting “disciplined growth,” local businesses and tourism, and ensuring that city government is fiscally responsible.
Another priority is to create a community-wide campaign that beckons parts of the community that might feel left out, including younger, older, new and lifelong residents. The campaign could “help people become more active advocates and more vocal about what we want in this city,” thereby encouraging more diversity of thought in city government.
“I think we could do a better job at engaging the collective intelligence, and the energy and the innovation of this population,” Skold said. “We haven’t laid the groundwork for a healthy conversation in a healthy community. There are too many silos.”
With her platform’s prominent focus on the private sector, it’s possible Skold could end up serving on a council where her policy positions differ from those of other council members. If that happens, she said she’ll focus on consensus-building and will work with the rest of council to find common ground.
Skold said she feels that her appeal as a candidate lies partially in her unique status as someone who understands Fort Collins but can bring a different perspective to council as someone with a business background who hasn’t previously been involved in government.
“If the voter wants a career politician, I’m not that candidate,” Skold said. “But if the voter wants somebody who thinks independently and understands how we can get our community back together — that’s who I am. If you bring a candidate like me, who has that positive, pragmatic (perspective) and knows how to get things done, that’s how we’re all going to win.”
For more about Skold, visit her website: molly4mayor.com. See her answers to the Coloradoan’s candidate questionnaire here.
Among Skold’s endorsements are Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell, the Fort Collins Board of Realtors, developer and Water Valley Company CEO Martin Lind, former mayor Karen Weitkunat, and Ginger and Baker owner Ginger Graham. Note: The Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce didn’t endorse a mayoral candidate this year, noting that “any one of the three candidates can serve our community well.”
Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.