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Council election signals Littleton’s ‘openness to change’

The Littleton City Council is poised for ideological change following the election of three new councilmembers, including a mayor, in the 2021 election.

By electing three candidates who campaigned on issues such as housing diversity and resources for homelessness, Littleton voters have signaled a more progressive shift for the city.

A fourth race was an apparent narrow victory for incumbent District 1 Councilmember Patrick Driscoll, who represents downtown and has emphasized the concerns of businesses. He led activist Candice Ferguson by just 50 votes out of 2,924 counted as of Nov. 5 in unofficial results.

Kyle Schlachter, who served as councilmember at-large from 2017 to 2019, won his bid for mayor, marking the first time in decades that Littleton voters have directly elected their mayor. In the past, councilmembers elected the mayor by choosing among their own.

Schlachter beat out former pastor and political newcomer Jon Buck by almost 17 percentage points and council incumbent Carol Fey by nearly 28 points.

Schlachter had been critical of Fey in the past for refusing, at times, to work collaboratively with other councilmembers and for once walking out of a council meeting. He pledged to bring a more cohesive and positive leadership style and to work in good faith with other councilmembers.

“I know how important it is to have a functioning community here,” Schlachter said in an interview with Colorado Community Media during an Election Night watch party at Carboy Winery. “We don’t always have to agree on the issues but we all have to respect each other and work collaboratively with each other.”

Gretchen Rydin, a social worker and therapist who ran for councilmember at-large, won by almost 6 points over opponent Krista Kafer, a Regis University instructor, longtime conservative think tank fixture and Denver Post opinion columnist.

The two had drawn sharp differences in their approach to homelessness, with voters ultimately endorsing Rydin’s multi-pronged community approach over Kafer’s more hard-line stance.

Kafer had said while she supports treatment and services for those experiencing homeless, “panhandlers” and “urban campers” were not welcome in the city and told CCM in an interview that she would support a camping ban similar to Denver’s.

Rydin said such a move would send the wrong message and vowed to have the city invest in homelessness care through projects like a proposed navigation center that would provide temporary shelter and connect people experiencing homelessness with needed resources.

Rydin also campaigned on a message of mental health and said the city needed to do more to provide resources to those struggling, something that she said resonated with many voters. Ultimately, Rydin said she wants to bring a more inclusive voice to council.

“I’m excited to bring equity to Littleton,” she told a crowd of dozens during the Carboy Winery watch party.

Stephen Barr, who ran for a seat to represent Littleton’s District 3, championed more growth for the city including mixed-use development and expanded housing options. His platform triumphed over that of his opponent, Paul Bingham, a longtime Littleton resident who routinely expressed reservations about too much growth and development which he believed could threaten the city’s “community character.” Barr beat Bingham by 13-1/2 points.

Barr said his election, along with those of Rydin and Schlachter, shows Littleton’s “openness to change, to new ideas, to new faces, to new people, to newer residents,” in an interview with CCM.

Driscoll’s narrow margin over Ferguson in the District 1 race underscores the city’s receptiveness to the messaging around diversity and inclusion that was central to Ferguson’s campaign.

“For it to be that close tells me I got some work to do, to understand the other side,” Driscoll said.

Ferguson campaigned against Driscoll with charges that he had not done enough to promote inclusivity and had shut out diverse voices.

The District 1 councilmember had come under fire in June 2020 for contacting an organizer for a Black Lives Matter march in Littleton in what the organizer, Lauren Acres, said was an “aggressive, harassing and intimidating” call.

Driscoll said he had called on behalf of business and property owners who feared the march could result in vandalism and property damage from bad actors. Littleton police observed no damage during the march.

Driscoll also joined four other councilmembers in voting to defund the Littleton Immigrant Resources Center in September, a move that rocked some community members who urged the council to reconsider. Ferguson said the decision sent an anti-diversity message.

Driscoll said he understands how these events may have spurred support for Ferguson’s campaign and that, while he would not have acted any differently, he said he is ready to have more conversations around diversity and inclusion.

Some of the winning candidates, including Schlachter and Rydin, have said they would work toward potentially reversing the council decision to defund the immigrant center to ensure it remains operational.

“I think (the center) speaks to a broader acknowledgement that our world is diverse and complex and that Littleton is not an island amongst cities,” Barr said.

Rydin said she would even like to see the center’s resources and programs expanded to support the expected arrival of refugees from Afghanistan, with the Denver metro area expecting more than 1,500.

Schlachter, Rydin and Barr are slated to join Driscoll, if his lead holds up, as well as current councilmembers Kelly Milliman, Pam Grove and Jerry Valdes.

“They bring fresh ideas, they bring energy, they bring forward-thinking perspectives,” said Milliman, who hopes the new members will further move the ball on issues like housing equity.

“I’m very passionate about attainable housing and more diverse housing options,” she said.

Valdes, Littleton’s outgoing mayor who will continue in his role as councilmember for District 2, said he is excited about working with the new councilmembers but is sad to see the departure of At-Large Councilmember Scott Melin, whose term expires next week, and Fey, who lost the election for mayor.

He said he welcomes the diversity of perspectives that will be present with the new council, pointing to backgrounds that include social work, engineering and business.

“It’s a variety of thoughts out there, and we’ll just see what we can do,” Valdes said.

But he cautioned new councilmembers against the urge to undo previous council decisions. Rydin has already expressed desire to restore funding to the Littleton Immigration Resources Center (LIRC), something outgoing councilmember Melin said he hopes can happen.

“LIRC was such a powerful symbol,” said Melin, who was the only councilmember to join Milliman in voting against defunding the center in September.

He also hopes the new council will continue to embrace growth and development and said “burying our heads in the sand presents problems.”

Ultimately, Schlachter, Rydin and Barr said they are ready to strike a new chord within city leadership.

“Across any of the issues, between development or street maintenance or homelessness, it was about how can we invest in the people and the infrastructure in our community to make it last long term,” Schlachter said.

For Rydin, it’s a testament to the type of progress she said Littleton is ready to see.

“We can’t resist or stop change, so now we’re going to get to have some ownership over it,” she said. 

Published on ColoradoCommunityMedia.com.