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Suthers recalls 'quiet, comforting leadership' required of Colorado Springs mayor when tragedy strikes

May 28, 2023


Leading any city as its mayor requires a person to wear many hats.

Having served as Colorado Springs mayor for the past eight years, John Suthers has mostly worn his administrative hat, working to ensure the city is providing essential government services to its residents including adequate roads, housing and utilities.

But when tragedy strikes, "that, of course, requires a whole different type of leadership," he said.

Earlier this spring, Suthers sat down with The Gazette to reflect on his two terms as the city's top elected official before he leaves office Tuesday. Ruminating on his successes — including a growing city and economy, a revitalized downtown area and new revenue for roads and storm drainage — Suthers, from the downtown office he will soon vacate, also reflected on a series of tragedies Colorado Springs endured during his tenure.

He led the community through four mass shootings, including two that essentially bookended his time as mayor.

Just months after Suthers was elected in spring 2015, a gunman on Oct. 31 walked through a neighborhood near Prospect Park just east of downtown, killing three people before dying in a shootout with police.

Less than a month later, a gunman entered a Planned Parenthood clinic on Colorado Springs’ northwest side with an assault rifle, shooting and killing Ke’Arre Stewart, Jennifer Markovsky and University of Colorado Colorado Springs police Officer Garrett Swasey. The gunman also injured nine others, five of them law enforcement officers, during the course of a five-hour standoff on Nov. 27, 2015.

The state-level case of the Planned Parenthood suspect, Robert Lewis Dear Jr., continues to stall, as attorneys wait for the result of a federal appeal to not have Dear forcibly medicated to stand trial.

In the early hours of May 9, 2021, Teodoro Macias, the boyfriend of a female victim, shot and killed six members of an extended family at the Canterbury Mobile Home Park on the city's southeast side at a birthday party before he turned the gun on himself.

Accused shooter Anderson Lee Aldrich is alleged to have opened fire inside LGBTQ+ nightclub Club Q on North Academy Boulevard late on Nov. 19, killing five people and injuring more than two dozen others.

Aldrich faces more than 300 charges in the case; the trial has not yet been scheduled.

Those instances required "a quiet, comforting leadership," Suthers said.

"You're not saying to folks, 'Hey, this is what we need to do to solve this problem, or, you know, fix our streets or fix our stormwater' and all that kind of stuff. Your job in this instance is to do everything you can to make sure the community is not defined by the incident itself but by the response to it."

To lead the community through it, Suthers said he leaned on his past political experience and time as an attorney.

Suthers served from 2005 to 2015 as the Colorado attorney general, and previously had been appointed in 2001 by former President George W. Bush as U.S. attorney for Colorado. In 1988, he was elected district attorney of the 4th Judicial District that includes El Paso and Teller counties. In 1999, former Gov. Bill Owens appointed Suthers as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, and he also previously spent 10 years in private practice at the law firm Sparks, Dix and Enoch.

"I think I have a certain calm and deliberative air about me that I do think people appreciated in the course of some of these tragedies," he said. "... I’ve spent lots of nights at murder scenes and all that kind of stuff. Nothing shocks me too much anymore, unfortunately."

About a year after he was reelected, the global COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.

"People needed encouragement," Suthers said, recalling how the virus initially shuttered businesses, halted tourism, and eventually took the lives of early 2,000 El Paso County residents, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health.

"I have distinct recollections of looking out this window a couple of days after the shutdown happened, and there was a three-minute gap before a car went by — one of the busiest intersections in Colorado Springs. I said, 'Man, this is really different,'" Suthers said this spring as he looked out across downtown from his office in the City Administration Building.

Suthers recalled many conversations he had with Gov. Jared Polis, including when the state switched to a color-coded scheme for determining COVID-19 levels and severity across the state.

"We had a very candid relationship. I told him, for example, when we went to the color scheme, that we were losing the public. It was getting a little too complicated, you know? And I think he eventually agreed on that. It was all a race between the disease and what immunity there (was) for people that got it, and ... the vaccine," he said. "Of course, we still have COVID with us, but we got through a tremendous threat economically and health-wise."

The federal COVID-19 public health emergency declaration ended May 11.

Suthers said he hopes another global pandemic isn't going to hit anytime soon, but if it does, there are people in Colorado Springs and El Paso County who are well-equipped to face it.

"In my first year as mayor we went through all kinds of training exercises — wildland fire, flash flooding. We even did exercises for ransom attacks ... ransom demands (and) cybersecurity attacks. But you don't prepare for a worldwide pandemic," he said. "... I do think emergency services, in particular, has captured that learning from experience and I think we would be better prepared. Hopefully, it'll be another hundred years before something like that happens again."

Mayor John Suthers ends his tenure as the most trusted man in Colorado Springs.


Breeanna Jent covers Colorado Springs City Hall. She has previously covered El Paso County government and worked as the editorial assistant for the Pikes Peak Newspapers. She joined their sister paper, The Gazette, in 2020.

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