I’ve got to believe that in a normal year, the Pueblo County Commission race between incumbent Garrison Ortiz and challenger Abel Tapia would be a lot more heated.
After all, the race has divided the local Democratic Party into two factions, which seem to differ more in personalities than on issues. For some people, Ortiz is a rising star who represents the local party’s future. For others, Tapia is an experienced political hand who won’t let the party forget its roots.
So what were the two candidates doing when I checked in with them last week?
Ortiz was working on a plan to create an online shopping network for local businesses, similar to what Amazon does on a worldwide scale. Ortiz said between that and other projects he’s pursuing as a result of the coronavirus, he’s found it hard to make time for campaigning.
As for Tapia, when I caught up with him, he was catching up on some yard work.
Now, Tapia isn’t one of those political wannabes who announce plans to run for office, assuming that’s all that’s needed to win votes. He’s held elected positions on the local school board and the state Legislature, so he understands that running a successful campaign requires a lot of hard work.
“If not for this, I’d be all over Pueblo, knocking on doors and shaking hands,” Tapia said.
The “this” he was referring to, of course, was the coronavirus. Since the opportunities for the candidates to meet face-to-face with voters are limited due to concerns about the virus outbreak, Tapia said he’s turned to other tools, such as social media, text, emails and Constant Contact missives to get his message out.
And Tapia apparently doesn’t consider himself to be at a disadvantage.
“It affects everyone,” he said. “I don’t think it gives an advantage to anyone.”
On that point, I’m going to respectfully disagree with him. I think the current situation provides a huge advantage to incumbents such as Ortiz.
As the current chairman of the Pueblo County Commission, Ortiz can get free media coverage almost any time he wants. He could call a news conference that did nothing more than provide the latest information on coronavirus cases in Pueblo County ― and the chances are the event would be reported by one or more media outlets.
As a challenger, Tapia doesn’t have that luxury. He’s going to have to scramble for whatever media attention he can get, which is a lot more difficult when there are no forums or campaign events to attend.
Tapia can hope people will visit the local Democratic Party website and listen to candidate speeches online. Or that people will do other research, including checking out his website and other sources of information available on the web.
The chances are, die-hard political junkies will do this, if they haven’t already. But for undecided voters who don’t live and breathe politics, there’s no guarantee that will happen, even if a lot of us suddenly have a lot more free time on our hands.
None of which is to say Ortiz is doing anything wrong by being in the media spotlight when current events put him there. He was elected to represent his constituents’ interests. If he were choosing to maintain a low profile during a time of crisis, then there’s no doubt he would be criticized for that. And deservedly so.
By issuing a statewide stay-at-home order, Gov. Jared Polis saved local politicians, including Ortiz, from one of the most politically unpopular decisions they might have been forced to confront. No one could fairly blame Ortiz for the governor’s decision, or the other negative aspects virus containment efforts have had on our way of life.
The election isn’t until June, so there’s still plenty of time for Ortiz to make missteps that could affect his electability. If we’re still on lock down at that point, which seems possible, there could be a lot of discontented voters who want to take their frustrations out on someone in authority.
However, at least for now, Tapia said he’s not planning to attack the manner in which Ortiz and his commission colleagues have responded to the virus.
“I don’t think it’s right to criticize and make this a political issue,” Tapia said. “We’ve all got to get through this.”
That’s an admirable statement of unity during a difficult time in our community’s history. Whether it will hold up until Election Day remains to be seen.
Blake Fontenay is The Pueblo Chieftain’s opinion page editor. To suggest topics for future Prairie Politics columns, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.