Election Results 2021: Centennial City Council races see partisan undercurrent

Carnes wins by hefty margin; Alston's victory narrower

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Centennial voters chose a new city councilmember in the west end of the city, favoring Robyn Carnes by a large margin, and they stuck with an incumbent councilmember in the east, Marlo Alston, in a tighter race.

In both races, partisanship played a subtle — and sometimes not-so-subtle — role in how the campaign season unfolded.

They were the only contested races in the city's election, in which Mayor Stephanie Piko and council members Tammy Maurer and Mike Sutherland were unopposed for re-election.

The winners of the election that ended Nov. 2 will serve four-year terms on the nine-member council, which consists of two members from each of the four districts, plus the mayor, who is elected citywide.

'I'm a little bit center-right'

In the race for Centennial's council District 1, Robyn Carnes amassed a large lead over Fernando Branch on election night and held it, winning with 55.3% to Branch's 44.7% in unofficial returns as of Nov. 8.

District 1 is the far west part of the city, encompassing most of the portion between South Broadway and Colorado Boulevard. Carnes and Branch ran to replace Councilmember Kathy Turley, who is term limited.

Carnes is a vice president of expansion for Rescue America, a national organization that provides a 24/7 hotline and emergency response system to help survivors of sex trafficking.

During the campaign, Carnes sent out a mailer that said voters should elect her to keep a “conservative majority” on the Centennial City Council.

Carnes said that although Centennial City Council races are officially nonpartisan, voters often don't treat the election that way.

“When I was walking neighborhoods, the No. 1 question I was asked is, 'Are you a Republican or a Democrat, or are you conservative or liberal?'” Carnes told the Centennial Citizen.

Regarding the mailer her campaign sent, Carnes told the Citizen that the word “conservative” meant “a conservative approach.”

“When we say conservative, it's a conservative view to taxes. It's a conservative view to public safety, versus extremists,” Carnes said.

In a Sept. 29 campaign newsletter, Carnes referred to her opponent, Branch, as “far left” based on a questionnaire.

The two candidates were both given a series of questions to answer from a program called ActiVote, Carnes told the Citizen. She said she wasn't planning to take the questionnaire but that she did because Branch did. ActiVote provides “easy access to your elections and what candidates really stand for, while filtering out all the noise,” according to its website.

Based on the answers, the program placed them on a spectrum, Carnes said. In her newsletter, Carnes wrote: “I fall near center on the political spectrum.”

Carnes received campaign contributions from Suzanne Taheri, the Arapahoe County Republican Party chair; Heidi Ganahl, a Republican on the University of Colorado Board of Regents who is running for Colorado governor; Kathleen Conti, a Republican former state representative and former Arapahoe County commissioner; and Susan Beckman, a Republican former state representative from Littleton and former Arapahoe County commissioner and Littleton city councilmember.

Asked about the absence of prominent Democrats among her campaign contributors, Carnes said it might be based on whom she asked for support.

She added: “I think that if you're going to have to plot me, I'm center, I'm a little bit center-right.”

Carnes also received a campaign contribution from Schumé Navarro, who ran this year as a candidate for Cherry Creek school board. Navarro also received a contribution from Carnes. Navarro was chosen as secretary of the Arapahoe County Republican Party this year.

'I would say I'm left leaning'

Branch worked as a teacher for 10 years and as an assistant principal for about eight years. He serves in a philanthropic position as the senior director of partnerships and programs at the Colorado “I Have A Dream”​ Foundation, an organization that helps students around the Front Range get “to and through” college, Branch said.

Branch disagreed with the results of the political questionnaire, telling the Citizen: ““I see myself as a little bit of where (Carnes) sees herself … I would say I'm left-leaning but very much in the center.”

Branch's campaign website said he supports “radical change for social justice reform.”

The website adds: “Social justice movements are alive and should not be feared. Centennial is a beacon of hope for what is possible when city governance works with law enforcement to find the right way. We all can choose the issues that most stir our passions for justice to ensure that Centennial is leading the State and the nation in this issue.”

Regarding law enforcement, if there are gaps for improvement, the city should talk about it, Branch said.

“I believe in Arapahoe County, the justice, equity, diversity things around hiring and implementing those trainings, they're doing a great job” already, Branch said. “I want to support them to do an even better job.”

Branch also serves on Centennial's Public Safety Advisory board, according to a bio page online. Branch and other residents of Centennial give feedback to the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, which provides police services in the city, and hear perspective from deputies on how law enforcement handles certain situations, Branch said.

He feels that “we can do a better job of ensuring that those young men and young women, or other, feel that they're showing up as their best selves,” Branch said, saying he wants to support officers' mental health.

“Officers, just like any other profession, need to have … their mental health and their social-emotional needs met,” Branch said.

“The steps I gave you today as far as police reform, that's my 'radical' change,” Branch said.

Former Centennial City Councilmember Vorry Moon endorsed Branch, according to his campaign website, and Branch said he also was endorsed by U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, D-Centennial.

His campaign contributions showed many donations from out of state, which Branch said came from friends and family.

“I have a pretty big network … friends, family, people who know me and love me dearly,” Branch said. The trend in donations “makes total sense being a first-time candidate,” said Branch, who said his past couple months of donations have been primarily Centennial-based.

Carnes, interviewed a few days after the election, spoke in collaborative tones and said she wants to work with others “for the betterment of our neighborhoods and for District 1.”

“I think we could be friends when this is all done,” Carnes said of Branch. She added: “We approach things differently, but we're going to meet for coffee” and get to know each other.

Branch, who said he had sent a message and suggested having coffee to Carnes, said he'd like to talk about the issues people in the community brought up. He sounded enthusiastic about sitting down with Carnes.

“I could be a soundboard to keep her accountable,” Branch said.

'It's about the values'

Carnes also received a campaign contribution from Mayor Piko, who also endorsed the conservative candidate in city council District 4, Neal Davidson.

Incumbent Councilmember Marlo Alston ultimately won a close race against Davidson, garnering 51.2% of the vote to Davidson's 48.8%, according to results as of Nov. 8.

District 4 includes northeast Centennial, largely in the vicinity of Smoky Hill Road.

Davidson's endorsements included one from the chairman of the Cherry Creek High School Teenage Republicans club, according to his website. Davidson also gave a campaign contribution to Navarro, the Creek school board candidate.

Meanwhile, Alston's endorsements included several from local Democratic officeholders, including Crow; Nancy Jackson, an Arapahoe County commissioner; and state Sen. Rhonda Fields, among others.

Politically, national issues are entering the local level, such as people pushing for getting rid of school-resource officers or defunding the police, “and I would be opposed to any of those things,” Davidson told the Citizen on election night. He appeared to be speaking about local politics in general rather than about Centennial council candidates specifically.

Alston told the Citizen that Davidson had talked about her “running a partisan race.”

“For me, it's not about the party that the person associates with that endorsed me — it's about the values that that person has,” Alston said.

She added: “Just to be clear, I talk about my admiration for certain people that (are) associated with the Republican Party, whether it's someone in my family or whether it's the late, great Colin Powell or the maverick John McCain.”

Davidson, a retired businessman, didn't respond to further requests for comment from the Citizen in the days after the election.

Alston and Davidson were running neck and neck within about a half of a percentage point of each other on election night. A margin of just 26 votes separated the candidates at that point. But by Nov. 5, Alston opened up a lead of about 2-1/2 percentage points.

The result recalled the razor-thin margin in the 2017 race in District 4, when Alston won with 34.3% of the vote to an opponent close behind at 34% and a second opponent coming in at 31.8%. It was the closest contest in Centennial's 2017 election by far — decided by only 14 votes — though it didn't trigger a mandatory recount.

But opponent Charlette Fleming requested a recount — candidates who lose an election can request a recount, regardless of the margin, at their own expense. Arapahoe County conducted a recount, which certified Alston as the winner.

Centennial operates under a “council-manager” form of government, where the non-elected city manager implements policy decisions made by the council. The council appoints the city manager.

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