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Behind the Ballot: Pueblo Mayor seat up for grabs in ‘historic’ race with nine candidates

PUEBLO, Colo. (KRDO) -- The upcoming race for Pueblo mayor is crowded with nine candidates vying for the open seat in what many of them said is a vital race for Pueblo’s future.

Many of the candidates will be familiar to Pueblo residents, as four are current city council members — Larry Atencio, Dennis Flores, Heather Graham and Regina Maestri — and the current mayor, Nick Gradisar, is running for a second term.

There are also two former city councilmen who want to return to City Hall — Chris Nicoll and Randy Thurston.

Only two candidates are new to the political realm. Tom Croshal is a retired business owner but said the fact he isn’t a politician sets him apart. The youngest candidate on the ballot is Deryk Trujillo. The 26-year-old runs the podcast Street Champs, where he talks to Pueblo residents of all different backgrounds.

KRDO NewsChannel 13 asked all nine candidates the same 10 questions, from gang violence to the city's poverty rate, to take voters Behind the Ballot and help them determine which candidate they want to be the next Pueblo Mayor.

Editor's note: These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you running for Pueblo Mayor?

Larry Atencio: "I came here when I was five years old. I lived on the East Side all my life, and I'm very passionate about the City of Pueblo. I volunteered with almost every organization you can think of to just to give back to the community. I teach my kids to do the same, and I just feel very passionate that we should give back to the community that we live in."

Tom Croshal: "I've chosen to stay in Pueblo because I think Pueblo is a great city. We have our issues, and that's why I've decided to run for mayor, because I think I can make a difference in Pueblo and make it a better place for everybody to live. Crime's out of control. Homelessness is out of control. I feel there's solutions to these problems and I think I'm the right person to solve the problems."

Dennis Flores: "I'm involved intimately with everything that's happening in Pueblo from all directions. That's why I say I don't think any of the other eight candidates, including our current mayor, have as an extensive resumé of lots of different things. I've been involved in government in Pueblo since early 1993 when I got elected to the school board. So I've got a lot of experience."

Nick Gradisar: "Our work is unfinished. I think we've made a good start towards transition in Pueblo to the strong mayor system of government. We've got the city moving in the right direction, but we've got a lot of initiatives that remain to be worked on, so I just want to finish that up in my second term."

Heather Graham: "I've been on city council now for almost two years and I have found it very difficult to make the change that I want to with the strong mayor form of government. I think the only way to make the change is to assume the mayor position and then work collaboratively with the city council, which is not really being done now."

Regina Maestri: "I've been a resident here for 33 years. I raised my family here. The city that I once had known to be a place I wanted to raise my family — a place with faith, family and community — it's not how I knew it. So I decided I'm going to take action and I'm going to get involved and hopefully we can turn it back around."

Chris Nicoll: "I've been off city council for a couple of years now and I've just been watching our city decline and it's really concerned me. Pueblo, like a lot of cities across America, are experiencing what I consider a decline, so I decided I think I can do better and I can bring forward my plan, which would address Pueblo's, what I'm calling our, big city problems that we're experiencing right now."

Randy Thurston: "It's a unique, magical community and we've seen it over the last four or five years really go off the cliff. My whole motivation is to change direction and get Pueblo on the right track for its future."

Deryk Trujillo: "Their policies just didn't align to what I saw and what I thought I wanted Pueblo to look like and what my colleagues and my friends aspire Pueblo to be. The disconnect comes from the youth. Everyone running for mayor right now other than one candidate, they're 50, 60 years old. It's not the same world they grew up in anymore. It's time for a change.

What is your top priority?

Atencio: "We have these hot button issues that are crime and homelessness, but we can't deal with those issues unless we have a vibrant economy. That's the one thing that I want to bring to Pueblo is good quality of life and economic development that we can rely on to make sure that we have the resources to deal with the problems in our community."

Croshal: "Crime and safety. I don't think people feel safe in their neighborhoods, especially in the poorer neighborhoods. That's where we need to be. Boots on the ground. If every 20 minutes or so of you see a police car drive by, you feel safer as a resident of that neighborhood and I think that puts the bad guys on notice, but like I said, we're not going to be able to do that without getting fully staffed."

Flores: "The priority of our city is to make sure that it's a safe place to live, that we have an excellent police force. One of the big issues, and it's nationwide, is it's getting harder to recruit people that want to be a policeman. We're short like 50 police officers. We have the slots open, so we have to start marketing better and getting that stuff filled."

Gradisar: "Our top priority is the economic situation in Pueblo, making sure that Pueblo gets the economic growth that the rest of Colorado has experienced. We need to create an economy in Pueblo where every young person who wants to remain in Pueblo is able to find a job or a career that'll allow them to support their family."

Graham: "Reduce crime in the city of Pueblo. Crime affects every single citizen. It affects businesses and it affects economic development. We are down 56 officers in the police department year to date, so my top priority would be filling those positions, possibly doing away with the Civil Service Commission for 90 days so we can hire 90 days straight and making the job more attractive for people to come in."

Maestri: "My number one priority is reduce waste. Start by restoring the integrity of fixing the foundation. We can't just continue to put lipstick on the city, on the issues. We have a lot of good amenities and a lot of good things here in Pueblo, before we move forward to advance, we have to fix what we have."

Nicoll: "Crime. In the short run, we've got to just get our officers out there on patrol. In the long run, we've got to fill our open positions. We have a lot of open positions right now that we have to fill, so I have a plan that will address that and be more creative in how we offer our recruiting packages for recruitment of new classes for our police academy."

Thurston: "We're faced with a lot of challenges with crime, homelessness and illegal drugs. Pueblo will never reach its potential until we get a handle on that, so my stance is very simple zero tolerance for crime and illegal drugs. It's not that people go away for a long time, but every crime, every illegal drug will have a consequence attached to it."

Trujillo: "Public safety and keeping young graduates — high school and college graduates — in Pueblo to boost our economy."

The Pueblo Police Department said youth crime has increased by 28% in the last three years. How will you address the rise in youth violence?

Atencio: "We have to bring resources to bear to the organizations that deal with young people, with kids, and make sure that they're funded adequately so that they can do the job that they're bound to do. We can deal with that problem if we just serve the people that we're supposed to serve."

Croshal: "We need to work with the schools for openers, and we need to hold parents accountable for their kids actions. If there's no accountability, it's just going to continue to increase. We have truancy laws. We need to enforce those truancy laws. If your your son or daughter is not in school, maybe you need to do a night in jail."

Flores: "Put more pressure on the school board. It really would help to have a mayor that understands that environment. I would want to form a partnership with the school board in educating kids. We do have SRO officers in all our schools. They have to be more proactive."

Gradisar: "Working with School District 60, which we've done. We've got a program in the middle schools that tries to intervene when people are making those decisions about whether to go into gangs or not. We were sort of the impetus of getting that started, finding the grant money and and paying for some of those professionals to go in there and do that."

Graham: "We need to put the DARE program back in school, have officers go to the school and educate kids on the importance of not getting involved in violence and then also giving kids an alternative for things to do after school and not necessarily even allow them to get wrapped up in the gang activity, because Pueblo has so many more great things to offer kids."

Maestri: "There are no consequences. Until we restore consequences, we are kind of really in a pickle. As mayor, it would be my duty, my first and foremost duty, to enforce ordinances. Starting with that will make a dent in it. I'll make sure that everything at a municipal level that we can tackle is going to be tackled."

Nicoll: "We have to be community policing in the neighborhoods and the youth need to see the police officers in their neighborhoods and know that they're going to be right there and they're going to be addressing crimes as they happen."

Thurston: "We're rewarding bad behavior. We need to have a strict, strong, tough love approach to this and let the youth know that there is a consequence. We need to have facilities that we can have on a lockdown situation where they can have skill sets, they can get over addictions and they can have counseling."

Trujillo: "Rehabilitation is the answer. We have to get to these kids at the schools and the first time they get in trouble and make that shift in their life to where they could go right but let's make them go left. Each situation is different and we have to respond to each situation uniquely."

Similarly, Pueblo Police said some of the more recent violent activity is gang related. What would you say to residents that are concerned with the gang violence in Pueblo?

Atencio: "The city isn't taking care of our citizens. The state isn't doing it. What we have to do is reach out to people, especially if they're very young, put them in those programs, athletic programs, music programs, cultural programs that they can latch on to and have a choice. Because what it boils down to is when they don't have a choice, they'll pick the wrong choice."

Croshal: "If you don't have enough police on the ground, you're going to have a problem. If you're constantly patrolling these problem areas where a gang activity exists, that's going to deter that activity. Maybe we need to work and develop some sort of gang intervention program, but really that all comes back down to is having our police force staffed fully."

Flores: "One of the things that the state legislature has done is they're letting violent criminals out too early on probation, so that's one thing that I'm going to look at. Another is getting more police officers on the street. We're down 50 officers, so filling those are going to be my priority."

Gradisar: "It's disconcerting to the community and it's something that I know the police department is concerned about. We've got a gang task force that works with the sheriff's department and with our federal partners to try to put a dent in that and take them into custody. In fact, they've arrested some gang leaders and taken them out of circulation."

Graham: "People aren't getting locked up and put away the way they should be. The police department is doing a tremendous job. They are doing what they can, but it's really catch and release. When they're catching the bad guys, they go to jail for 6 hours and they're back out on the street. It has to be collaborative with the sheriff's department and the DA's office."

Maestri: "Without a strong police force, we're hurting. A mayor is the boss of everybody and you have to foster relationships with your administration to make them feel appreciated, to give them the tools necessary to do their job. I'm hoping to foster relationships to where officers who are being mistreated in other communities are wanting to come here."

Nicoll: "I want to restore the gang task force in Pueblo that would actually investigate gang units andget out there and actually talk to some of the gang members to try to find out why are kids getting into gangs and what can we do about it."

Thurston: "With drugs being so easily distributed and no consequence, that's what's driving that level of gang activity. My stance is very simple, we have to go after drug dealers on all levels."

Trujillo: "Those kind of go hand in hand with the youth violence and the and the gang culture. It's not the old man, like the movies portray. It's the ten, 11, 12 year olds that you've got to worry about."

What would you do to make child care more affordable and available to Pueblo residents?

Atencio: "The brunt of the problem is with low income people not making enough money to afford child care. We subsidize it in a way, but until wages go up to the point where they can get to a living wage, it's not going to happen."

Croshal: "That's something that we would really need to take a look at. It's not just Pueblo and Pueblo County, it's everywhere. When you do find child care, it's not affordable, so that's another issue. Maybe we can help out with some sort of financial assistance."

Flores: "We're going to vote to start using some of our lodging tax to help subsidize people that are having trouble paying their daycare. They have slots in Pueblo, they're just having trouble paying, so we're going to use our lodging tax (if the ballot initiative passes)."

Gradisar: "One of the things we've done in the city is we have eliminated the licensing fees for child care providers and for daycare centers. I think some of this universal pre-K education will help with some of those child care needs, but it's a problem we all have to continue to work on."

Graham: "It's going to be on our ballot this year and is taking 1.5% of the lodging tax and providing it to child care for people that need child care. We've done a few things on city council. We did away with the fee for the child care providers, so I think it's making decisions to subsidize child care in whatever way the city can."

Maestri: "At a municipal level, we do not have the resource to keep a program like that going. We just don't right now, we are suffering. The public is going to be very aware that we our budgets were overinflated and we're not generating the revenue to cover the expenses that we've created."

Nicoll: "The city actually funds two child child care centers in the city of Pueblo. I think that's the right approach. I think those are good nonprofits that we are funding and we absolutely need to have more funding go for child care."

Thurston: "We need to have as many opportunities, whether it's schools opening up early or alternative schools providing early training. There's a lot of things, but that is done by getting a group of people together that understand child care. I want to hear from the experts and we want to get that taken care of."

Trujillo: "It's not that we don't have the money, it's just when allocating these funds appropriately, we're not keeping a close enough eye on where these dollars are going. We need to take a closer look at all those dollars, put them where they will matter in child care."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 23% of Pueblo residents live at or below the poverty line — the second highest of any city in Colorado. How would you bring that percentage down?

Atencio: "I'm encouraging our businesses to raise wages. If we raise wages, then people will go out and spend that money in the community and bring up everybody in the community."

Croshal: "Hopefully, we can bring in better employers through Pueblo Economic Development Corp (PEDCO). We're going to come back to crime. If we can make Pueblo a better place overall, a rising tide lifts all boats, so we can hopefully bring everybody up."

Flores: "We have 4,000 jobs available in Pueblo and we don't have the skills to match those. One of the things that I want to do is to train people where the jobs are at."

Gradisar: "Increasing the economic activity in the city of Pueblo by making sure we've got good paying employers here. Diversify our economy to try to get our local businesses to expand that. We do it also by making sure that our residents are getting the education that will allow them to work for some of these more highly technical industries that pay more."

Graham: "You have to lift Pueblo up as a whole. We also have really good paying jobs in Pueblo, too. I think it's it's more generational and it's about educating people to get back in the workforce and showing them what life could be if they were working."

Maestri: "We need to reevaluate PEDCO. If they're going to bring jobs that are barely above poverty level, when you put a family behind that, it doesn't sustain a family. They did a $13 million investment of taxpayer dollars for a company that's promising 87 positions at 41,000 a year."

Nicoll: "I want to make Pueblo into a regional technology hub — what I call a center of excellence that's built around our university and our community college, and then bring forward a new economy based on cybersecurity, cloud computing. Develop that workforce so it's ready to go and then attract companies to come to Pueblo and raise that baseline so that we're not an impoverished city."

Thurston: "The first thing is that we need to bring in good paying jobs. We have to be looking at the future with technology. We have the chemical depot plant that's going to be taken over by the county here shortly. There's 22,000 acres that we can bring in phenomenal, large companies and technology and and new opportunities for us to have mass jobs that are paying higher wages."

Trujillo: "Keeping young graduates, keeping young families here in Pueblo. That's going to revitalize other parts of the community. To solve the the poverty issue in Pueblo we're going to have to tackle it one individual, one family at a time. I don't think there is a blanket solution."

The city hasn't released a comprehensive plan on how to address homelessness despite discussions one was being developed. How would you address homelessness in Pueblo?

Atencio: "I'm going to support all the organizations that deal with that issue. It's not government's prerogative to deal with that particular issue. Churches, civic organizations, I'll support them as much as we possibly can, from a public point of view."

Croshal: "If we could develop some sort of temporary shelter and give them some stability in their life, that's the first step, because then at that point, we can bring in, mental health experts, people to deal with substance abuse and job services."

Flores: "We need to enlist these mental health entities. We have the Colorado Mental Health Institute. We should go to them and say, 'Can you help us here?' I don't know how many addiction recovery facilities we have in Pueblo. We have a lot, so we need to bring these people together to help us solve that issue."

Gradisar: "The number one condition afflicting the homeless in the city of Pueblo far and above drug abuse or alcohol abuse is a mental health disorder. One of the things that we're working on is trying to intensify the outreach efforts of the agencies that provide mental health services to make sure that those homeless individuals who have mental illnesses are getting the treatment that they need."

Graham: "The homeless resistant resource resistant individuals in Pueblo are causing a lot of havoc to taxpayers, to business owners, and something has to be done about it. I plan on putting up quickly temporary shelters and passing ordinances like a no camping ban."

Maestri: "I am here to enforce ordinances. I am here to put more ordinances in place. If people don't like that situation, they can find they can either suffer the consequences based off the ordinances or they can find another place to live."

Nicoll: "We need a really robust shelter that can handle large numbers of people, so we have to get some locations in the city where that can occur. Once that's in place, the city needs to institute a no camping ban citywide."

Thurston: "I will give everything we can to get the right resources, but the criminal homeless that are coming in, that are causing the chaos and the crime, I'm doing everything to get them out of Pueblo."

Trujillo: "It's not about attacking the whole group. It's about making a difference in one person at a time. It's impossible to to do everything at once."

What's one thing you would do to revitalize Pueblo?

Atencio: "Build up the economy in Pueblo, make Pueblo beautiful enough so that people want to come here and spend their money. We have amenities that many people around the state don't have."

Croshal: "People just know Pueblo for crime stats, our poverty stats and our teenage pregnancy stats, so we need to develop a marketing campaign and turn that around. Ideally hire a PR firm so they can work on changing our image."

Flores: "The city has to be more involved in the marketing of our community along with our Chambers of Commerce. We also need to look at more industries in the tech area."

Gradisar: "Continue to work with existing employers and continue to work with PEDCO to attract new industries like Fomcore that's going to come here next March and start manufacturing furniture for schools. All those kind of efforts are important."

Graham: "I would like to see how we can use some of those (PEDCO) funds to revitalize and clean Pueblo up, clean the streets up. You have to make Pueblo attractable to bring businesses here."

Maestri: "It is fixing the issues of trash, weeds, homelessness. I would be working from day one with my administration to tackle those issues, clean it up, bring integrity to the books, bring integrity to the taxpayer dollars and bring integrity to the city."

Nicoll: "I would bring forward an urban renewal plan by working with the city's urban renewal department and actually get tax dollars we set aside for rebuilding (historic neighborhoods) into something new, like an antique small, where those storefronts are full of shops and they're not just boarded up."

Thurston: "Revitalization starts with making it a safe community. If we're not safe, there won't be any of that. That's why a safe Pueblo and zero tolerance is my number one priority, and I am totally committed to getting it done."

Trujillo: "I'm going to donate three fourths of my mayoral salary every single year to young graduates in the form of a grant. But the catch is you have to stay in Pueblo to to receive that money."

If you became mayor, is there anything you would change about how city processes or how things are run?

Atencio: "I'm going to look at all the departments and ask those department heads to do a comprehensive survey or look at their department to see what could be done better. I'm going to be asking for an increase in productivity."

Croshal: "If you want to start a small business, it's so hard. I would streamline some of the processes with planning and zoning, with taxing and with businesses. That's what we really, really need to do is streamline the processes."

Flores: "I would delegate more authority to our directors. I would ask them, what they need to improve in their departments. I would put in place an evaluation system, which has never happened in Pueblo."

Gradisar: "I'm not sure that I would change something about how the city works. We've put in place an excellent leadership team and we've got good programs going as I said, we just need to continue doing that good work in order to move the city forward."

Graham: "Rebuilding those relationships with the council. It's not the councilors who make the decisions or who can even get the information. It's very filtered. I want to do away with all that. I want to let the council do their job."

Maestri: "I am going to be auditing each and every one of those departments. The meaning behind the municipal government is to maintain, build new infrastructure and grow foster economic development. I have the background to do that."

Nicoll: "I think the mayor needs to be more hands on and more involved. In my first very first day, I'm going to sign an order that requires more police to be out in the neighborhoods and patrolling on patrol."

Thurston: "We have to have a community leader, a mayor that listens to the people. We have to have a mayor that's transparent. We have to have a mayor that is working on a vision for the future, making us a business friendly and business development friendly community. Those are all just a few pieces of what has to change."

Trujillo: "The city council is so disconnected. They bicker. They talk about each other outside of the building. We need to start there. We need to have team building exercises. Everything runs smoothly when you work well together."

Why should Pueblo residents vote for you for mayor?

Atencio: "I have the vision. I can see what Pueblo is going to look like in 10 or 20 years. I see it as a big, vibrant community where people want to come here to visit, people want to come here to live, people want to come to work. We just have to make the environment a place where people want to go to."

Croshal: "I am not a politician. I'm not political, nor will I be. I'm a retired small business owner. I see things differently and I just think I'm the right person to get the job done."

Flores: "As far as experience, I don't think any of (the other candidates) rise to the level of my experience. I'm the logical choice in Pueblo. I've I've seen it all. I've kind of done it all. I want to have the power to be able to manage the city of which I have the best background of all of the candidates."

Gradisar: "I'm the only one that has experience being mayor. I'm the best qualified and I'll keep the city moving in the direction that we've done in the last four years. We're on a good track in Pueblo, and let's keep it going."

Graham: "Do your research on the candidates and figure out what they've done. One contender has been on city council for 16 years. What has that contender done? What has the current mayor done? Look what I've done and look what I possibly could do if elected mayor."

Maestri: "Whose policies do they like best? Do they like someone who stands firm in the beliefs and moving this community forward? Or do they like the other person? That's why it's very important. This is a historical race."

Nicoll: "I have the experience. I served on city council for eight years and we need somebody with experience. I have this unique background with a tech background that nobody else has. And I have the vision to bring Pueblo in a whole new direction economically."

Thurston: "They need to vote and they need to research all the candidates and make a decision who's the most qualified, the most seasoned, who has the passion and the strength to stand up and do what's right without compromise and stand up to the people that are making Pueblo an unsafe place to be."

Trujillo: "I might not be the most experienced, but I want to inspire young people to see that they can do this. You don't have to know everything. I'm not afraid to go find someone that knows, bring them on my team asking their opinions, and then we could form an answer together. A lot of the other candidates, that's where they are kind of lacking."

Ballot for the November election will be sent out October 16. The last day to vote is November 7.

Article Topic Follows: 2023 Voter Guide Stories

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Quinn Ritzdorf

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