(Promoted by Colorado Pols)
A Feb. 24 fundraising email from Susan Shepherd, the embattled rookie City Council member for Denver’s District 1, blames widespread opposition to her re-election on “disgruntled folks in our community who don’t believe in smart development and growing our communities.”
Talk to District 1 voters though and they paint a starkly different picture: Opposition to Shepherd has galvanized because of her outsized advocacy for property developers who have clashed at times with local residents, compounded by what many see as an unseemly Shepherd grab for campaign dollars from those same developers.
In what rapidly is becoming the most closely watched 2015 Council race, residents of the Northwest Denver district point out how developer interests in District 1 projects dovetail with their spending on Shepherd. Opponents also describe Shepherd’s open opposition to local residents — through Council votes and in numerous public statements — on occasions when they have faced off against her developer benefactors over sometimes contentious property ventures in neighborhoods such as Sloan’s Lake, West Highland and Berkeley.
To be fair, a District 1 Council member must work closely with property-related businesses. The Northwest Denver district is home to booming redevelopment on West Colfax Ave. and at the old St. Anthony hospital site by Sloan’s Lake. It’s a hotbed of residential scrapeoffs. And not suprisingly Shepherd’s strongest opponent, Jefferson Park architect Rafael Espinoza, has worked directly with developers both professionally and as a community advocate. As a result he likely will attract some of their campaign support.
But what typically stuns residents who review Shepherd’s campaign finance reports of the past two years (here, here and here) is the magnitude of developer largesse. More than a third — nearly $15,000 — of Shepherd’s TOTAL campaign donations from 2013 to January 2015 came from businesses and people whose current or planned District 1 projects she has advocated in Council votes, public statements and meetings with residents. And that was even before her planned Feb. 26 kickoff event where envelopes were ready again to be stuffed with checks and cash.
Payments through January included: A $500 payment from a construction company CEO in Houston, Texas, who is building a large apartment building at 38th Ave. and Lowell Blvd. in West Highland. Another $1,000 came from the Austin, Texas-based restaurant chain that Shepherd helped to get tax increment financing for a project on West Colfax. There was $1,000 from EnviroFinance, the lead redeveloper at St. Anthony; more than $2,000 from a property manager with restaurants speckling District 1; and more than $2,500 from entities related to Red Peak Properties, which in 2014 lost a heated battle vs. West Highland residents to plop three five-story apartment blocks next to the 100-year-old Victorian houses near 32nd Ave. and Lowell Blvd. A more detailed donations list is here.
To paraphrase the late Sen. Everett Dirksen: $2,000 here, $2,000 there…pretty soon you’re talking about real money.
Compounding the ill will that the appearance of a major conflict of interest has created: Shepherd’s typically prickly demeanor when engaging large, organized groups of local residents that have sought her help in mitigating traffic problems and other impacts from various local projects. Some 500 residents petitioned against an upzoning to increase the allowable building size on some blocks in the St. Anthony project to 12 stories from the 5 stories originally promised. Shepherd voted "yes" on the upzoning, as requested by NAVA Real Estate Development. NAVA co-owner Brian Levitt is a Shepherd campaign funder.
Residents also cite Shepherd’s behavior during the multiyear battle with Red Peak, which among other things saw her promote as “compromises” design elements the developer already had in its original plans predating the rise of community opposition. More recently, residents reported that Shepherd glowered from the sidelines at a Feb. 17 community meeting staged by Houston-based Trammell Crow Residential — whose CEO Kenneth Valach gave Shepherd $500 — to promote a planned apartment project for Shepherd donor Gene Lucero.
In contrast with her smiling photo ops such as marching in the Martin Luther King Day Marade, many District 1 residents characterize Shepherd’s personal interactions with them as “disdainful” or “unhelpful,” and point to her lack of any significant initiatives on CIty Council. During this month’s near-record snowfall in Denver, Shepherd showed astonishing tone deafness when she posted a Facebook entry admonishing residents — in a district with numerous elderly residents — to clear their sidewalks because “the snow won’t remove itself.”
Clearly the rookie councilwoman faces an uphill battle to retain the seat she won by just a 5% margin in a 2011 runoff election.