Of all the races in the 2009 Longmont election, Ward 2 was the most contentious and hardest fought. People outside the city were making comments like “Longmont is Ground Zero” when describing how this election could be a bellwether for state and national elections next year. I contend that Ward 2 was more specifically Ground Zero within Ground Zero. It lived up to its reputation for a knock down, all out brawl. The results in the end though were fairly lopsided.
Incumbent Karen Benker faced off against Katie Witt. In previous elections Ms. Benker received funding, in non-partisan Longmont elections, by the Democratic Party, be it at the county or city level. She regularly wore her party politics on her sleeve, something fairly new in Longmont politics. Along with three other members of council, known as the “Bloc of 4” were members Sean McCoy, Brian Hansen, and Sarah Levison. It was a regular occasion to have them tout their leaders from Congress to the Presidency after the 2008 Election, in one case Mr. McCoy stumbling through a partial recital of President Obama‘s inaugural speech. Problem is, they didn’t ride into office in 2007 with any strong mandate – only one won by a majority and Ms. Benker actually lost that year in her bid for Mayor. They over-interpreted the mandate they thought they got, and overplayed their hand, which was quite heavy handed at times.
In their undeserved hubris, especially on the part of Ms. Benker and Mr. McCoy, they made enemies on a regular basis and woke up those they’d probably rather kept asleep and uninterested in local politics. Again, they thought they were riding some kind of wave of voter approval, but 2007 has proven to be a “one trick pony”, a hiccup in Longmont elections, and the past two elections (Special Election of 2008 and the recent 2009 Election) clearly prove that point. There was no “blue wave” as was bragged about, there was yet a blue rock thrown into a puddle, with no ripples.
After a 2008 defeat to State Senator Brandon Shaffer, Katie Witt decided early in 2009 to run for Longmont City Council Ward 2, and announced in March, which was fairly early by Longmont standards. The odds were fairly stacked against her running against a popular (to her supporters) incumbent who had won re-election 4 years earlier. Ms. Benker conceivably would once again have the Party behind her, most of the same donors who had contributed in her ’05 and ’07 campaigns, and the campaign machine and network of volunteers ready to take on any challenger. The impression out there was that Katie Witt wasn’t to be taken seriously, including a sniping comment by Sean McCoy calling her a “council wannabe“.
Ms. Benker didn’t announce until late July, and Katie Witt used that time to knock on hundreds (which was eventually thousands) of doors and have volunteers hit up the rest within the ward with fliers. The area of highest priority was Clover Basin, the voters of highest priority were not Republicans, but voters that were not affiliated with any party. Unaffiliated voters are the highest percentage of voters in Longmont, followed by Democrats and Republicans, in that order. The message that went out had to appeal to both sides of the spectrum because there’s no way of knowing which way an unaffiliated voter tends to lean – and with Longmont supposed to be non-partisan in local elections, this was an ideal way to campaign anyway.
Ironically, the precinct with the highest amount of unaffiliated voters in Ward 2 is smack dab in the middle of Clover Basin. As is #4, #5, and #9 out of the 21 precincts within the ward. Ms. Benker was trying to use Clover Basin as a campaign issue, naming as one of her main accomplishments the ending of the Clover Basin Fire District Tax. Of course, anyone who paid attention to that process would know Ms. Benker was stretching the truth (to put it mildly) in this claim as that was not what the council voted on. This was covered extensively on this website and was later used against her in a mailer.
How did Clover Basin vote? The results there mirror the overall results almost exactly, basically a 60-40 split for Katie Witt. Ms. Benker was planning on riding Clover Basin to victory, but 60% of the voters didn’t buy her story.
On Ms. Benkers home turf, Prospect, which is a precinct that also includes neighboring Creekside, Katie Witt beat Karen Benker by a 61-39 margin. On Katie Witt’s home turf just north of Prospect, Witt got nearly 70% of the vote. Many precincts that surround Main Street that have more Democrats than any other affiliation also went for Katie Witt. In total, 19 of the 21 precincts in Ward 2 were won by Katie Witt (there are also 2 other precincts with a total of around 18 voters). The area around Twin Peaks Golf Course went strongest for Witt, averaging over 73% in 2 precincts.
Bottom line was that Karen Benker’s negatives were too high and Katie Witt ran a clean and positive campaign. There were negative mailers and robo-calls done against Benker, but did not come from nor were coordinated with the Witt campaign. Frankly, I’m not sure they were even necessary. At every turn Ms. Benker would make one mistake after another. She had a lousy record to go on, acted spiteful and vindictive to anyone who didn’t agree with her, and tried to use the Election Committee and the Longmont Fair Campaign Practices Act as her personal re-election tool and revenge machine.
She had volunteers who were witnessed placing Benker signs directly in front of Witt signs on private land where Witt had received permission but Benker had not. Witt signs were repeatedly stolen, and these were not removed by Code Enforcement. There were people directly connected with the Benker campaign who would personally attack Witt supporters on websites and letters to the Boulder Weekly and the Times-Call. They gave the term “politics of personal destruction” a whole new meaning. In defending her record, Benker stretched the truth about as far humanly possible, regardless of actual statements and votes.
All it boils down to is that Ms. Benker was a lackluster candidate and ran an equally lackluster campaign. Re-election was never a real possibility, nor was it deserved.
In the end, Katie Witt beat Karen Benker by over 1,500 votes out of roughly 7,000 total votes. It wasn’t even close. Karen Benker was the de facto leader of the “Bloc of 4” and was also Mayor Pro-Tem. I always said that if Benker was defeated it would send a shockwave through the city and surrounding areas, as she wielded great power and influence, and not just within Longmont’s borders. And not always positive power or influence.
Big money didn’t defeat her. A dirty campaign didn’t defeat her. It was a combination of a superior candidate and campaign running against her, and Benker beating herself. Simple as that.