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Record votes for Republican Boulder councilman highlight nuance within city’s left-leaning majority

Yates and two new councilwomen on same slate broke 17,000 votes

BOULDER, CO – November 5, 2019: Candidate, Bob Yates, and his wife, Katy, appear encouraged by election results during Boulder City Council election watch party at the Museum of Boulder on November 5, 2019. (Photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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Despite Boulder politics being steered by liberalism since 1971, the city turned out in force last month to reelect Bob Yates, a registered Republican, to City Council with by far the most votes since at least 2005, according to available online records.

With his tally of 17,508, Yates broke the record for total votes garnered in the last 14 years, previously held by Councilwoman Mary Young when she gained 15,170 in her 2013 election bid; records from the 2007 Council election are not available through the Boulder County Clerk’s website.

While Yates considers himself “a progressive Republican,” and municipal elections are nonpartisan, meaning party affiliations are kept off the ballot, his dominance with voters demonstrates the lines along which the city’s left-of-the-aisle electorate differentiates, political leaders said.

Yates’ record-breaking vote total coincided with the elections of three other members — Councilwomen Junie Joseph and Rachel Friend, and Councilman Aaron Brockett — of local political group Better Boulder’s endorsement slate, with the former two also winning more than 17,000 votes apiece. The results showed candidates embraced by slow-growth advocate PLAN-Boulder County were less attractive than those supported by Better Boulder and its affiliates, which has pushed for more flexible policy on development.

Voters aligned with the PLAN-Boulder agenda have touted slower growth of the city as an environmental benefit, and have dismissed supply-and-demand economics as a solution to the city’s high cost of living, arguing that most housing that gets built will be of the luxury, expensive ilk without extensive local government regulation.

“Everyone who is in the PLAN-Boulder camp, and everyone who is in the Better Boulder camp sees themselves as advocating the most progressive policies for the city,” Boulder County Democratic Party Chairperson Raffi Mercuri said. “Both ideologies are representative of the party.”

Critics of PLAN have called its policies the driver of Boulder’s reputation among developers as a difficult city to work in and as excluding middle-income earners from home ownership.

“I think there are points PLAN-Boulder makes that are rooted in experience with the realities of development in the city,” Mercuri said. “They’re responding to the fact that a lot of luxury housing has been built, and the notion that more market-rate housing will lead to more supply and a decrease in rent, is not realistic. Every time something like that is built, it increased the cost of land. I think Better Boulder and (its affiliate) Boulder Progressives all believe that the solution is long-term and we need to espouse better zoning policies and eliminate single-family zoning in the future and that’s what will lead to affordable housing in the long term. I can’t say that any one perspective is anti-Democratic Party.”

Boulder County Republican Party Chairperson Theresa Watson found Yates’ popularity in this election and his initial 2015 election unsurprising, as Boulder’s affordability has continued to disappear with recent market trends.

“I think that’s a natural human behavior, that when you try something and when it doesn’t work, you try something else,” Watson said. “… The incredible load of regulations on home building has really squashed who can come in and build something and has limited people to come in and develop Boulder. It has hurt the individual and the small company quite a bit.”

Yates said he is a proponent of allowing markets to behave naturally in general, as Republican agendas have frequently decried government interference in private sectors, but the second-term councilman also sees the need for government intervention to keep Boulder’s affordable housing stock moving in the right direction.

“I think housing is one of those areas where, particularly in a situation like Boulder has, where there is such an imbalance of supply and demand, I do believe in government intervention, because the alternative is unacceptable,” Yates said. “If we didn’t have an inclusionary housing requirement (for developers to provide permanent affordable units) it probably wouldn’t be built. Boulder would become progressively older, whiter and richer. The little bit of diversity we had would become less. … There are purists out there who say that government intervention is always bad. I think sometimes government intervention is very appropriate.”

Watson struggled to articulate, however, how a majority of the local Republican Party members feel about the concept of a Boulder project Yates is excited about that will change the types of development that can occur across most of the city.

While Yates sees it necessary to continue updating the land use codes for the city’s zoning districts in order to allow for more housing and mixed-use buildings to be erected in areas where they are prohibited or more difficult to get approved by local laws, Watson described government activity surrounding changes of planning regulations as complicated to justify one way or the other.

While on one hand, an individual property owner who did not expect at the time of his or her purchase the adjacent area to be rezoned to allow denser, bigger housing structures may feel infringed upon, the conservative concepts of the government opening up to letting the markets for such products determine outcomes, and extracting as much value as possible from land are also in play.

“There is a lot of pressure to accommodate and bring in as many people and diversity in Boulder,” Watson said. “I think sometimes we do that at the detriment of the individual and we try to force maybe too soon. … It’s a very sensitive issue in Boulder County. … We love people coming into Boulder. We love the look of our mountains and Front Range, we love the beauty we’ve been given in Boulder County and Boulder in particular, so we encourage people to come because that’s good prosperity for all, but it does come with its problems. Prosperity, and property rights, it’s all completely intertwined and it makes it very complicated.”

Yates defended the city initiative by saying the changes don’t take anything from any current property owners and it won’t impact them unless they decide to redevelop. Rather, the work will signal to future property owners what the community wants to see built years down the road, he said.

He also said he disagrees with much of the current national platform of the Republican Party.

“My Republican friends always remind me they think I’m a really bad Republican, and I probably am,” Yates said.

He believes the current pace of development, which has seen housing grow by an average of 353 units annually since 2010, according to city data, is appropriate to maintain, because some residents take issue with that amount of expansion, while others feel it is not addressing the housing demand soon enough.

“I don’t believe anyone would mistake Better Boulder for conservative,” Mercuri said. “Something traditionally conservative is more openness to development, but if you leave it there, that’s kind of disingenuous. I think that (Better Boulder’s philosophy) stems from the fact that Boulder is a very affluent city that people have had a very hard time living here. They want development in that they want denser housing and more affordable housing. We can’t stop there and say they’re just pro-development.”

Mercuri added that that’s the political narrative spun during election season, while those aligned with Better Boulder claim the slow-growth advocates don’t want the city to add any new residents at all, and neither is true.

“I think Bob Yates knows the city he lives in and legislates accordingly,” Mercuri said.

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