Interview: Colorado Springs mayoral candidate Yemi Mobolade speaks with KRCC ahead of the runoff election

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28min 53sec
Colorado Springs mayoral candidate Yemi Mobolade.
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Colorado Springs mayoral candidate Yemi Mobolade sat down with KRCC’s Andrea Chalfin ahead of the May 16 runoff. He spoke about his leadership experience, why he got into politics and addressed key constituent concerns.

The interview and transcript has been edited for time and clarity.

Andrea Chalfin: Yemi Mobolade, thanks for coming in to speak with us.

Yemi Mobolade: Thank you for having me. It's a joy to be here.

Chalfin: Let's just jump right into it. Why do you want to be mayor? 

Mobolade: I love this community and I have the leadership that is needed in these times. Leadership matters. And when you look at the issues that are in front of us, I'm talking about a public safety crisis, our aging infrastructure and just the overall economic vitality, you need a leader with proven ability to bring the best people around the table to solve problems. And that's what I've demonstrated in this city. And I believe there's a new way politics can be done that doesn't require experience in a ballot. And that is the genius of President Reagan's leadership. In his words, he said, ‘I'm not a politician.’ I believe much of the problems that troubles us today is brought up by lifelong career politicians. And we need ordinary citizens with the ability to look at these issues with fresh eyes. And that's what I bring to the table.

Chalfin: As you just said, you're a political newcomer. Why is now the time to jump into politics to run for mayor?

Mobolade: Look at the times we're in. Division is at an all time high. People are just discontent with not only political leadership, with government. The statistics show that public trust in government is at an all time low. Andrea, we can't keep doing the same things over and over and expecting the results to change. And when you look at American history and world history and you see that in every area, when the times where society or the culture is disturbed, new type of leadership emerge that bring healing, hope, sanity, pragmatic solutions back into society. And that's what my community needs. At some point, you look around you and you realize that you are the change you want to see in the world. And I am inspired by the heroes before me and the reformers before me who have made life better for me. And I want to take that baton and move it forward. 

Chalfin: So you're a small business owner. Name something that you're proud of in your professional past that you think you'd be able to apply to being the mayor of Colorado Springs.

Mobolade: Absolutely. So what gives me the confidence of being mayor? I've raised my hand in this community over the last 12 plus years to consistently say ‘yes, I want to be a part of the solution.’ My first business was started because our city and the downtown area needed a cultural place that would inspire our young people and that would keep them in our city because we were losing them. And so that's how my first business was birthed. And we have inspired a lot of our young staff into even greater things. Some of them are business owners that I’ve supported, some of them went back to school and now they're nurses in our community. Beyond that I am proud that I leverage my own business successes to help other small business owners in this city. And the list is many. It's why I have about 120 businesses supporting my campaign. And that's a consistent path for me in this city, is to raise my hand and use every vocational decision for the advancement of this city.

Chalfin: And something that you regret or view as a mistake or maybe wished you handled differently?

Mobolade: I'm a leader that has been tested. I'm a leader that has been tried. 2020 was a hard year for many of us. On the campaign trail, I get some people that will criticize me for my association with the Black Lives Matter movement. And I'm a Black leader. I have my own story of being an outsider coming in. And I made a decision that we would support the spirit of the movement of Black Lives Matter before we found out that the organization itself had a lot of troubles and challenges. My intent was always to support this desire for a more equitable and fair society, not the entity itself, and not being criticized that I'm leading protest, that I am anti-police, anti-law enforcement, which those things are so far from the truth. My heart is to be a bridge builder. My heart is for unity. My heart is to move our city forward. My heart is, ‘Can't we just all get along?’ So sometimes I go back and I think, ‘Was that the right decision?’ I don't know cuz we've paid the price. I've paid the price in so many ways for that decision. But that's leadership. You take a risk, you correct course and you make the best of it. And that's what I'm really proud of. It's not the challenges that I've had, but how we have made the most of it and the best of it.

Chalfin: And so just talk about that for a minute. You know, KRCC sent surveys out to all of the candidates for the general election. And you identified public leadership as the number one challenge facing the next mayor of Colorado Springs. Explain what you mean by that and why you think it's the number one challenge. 

Mobolade: Right. If I remember correctly, on the survey I mentioned the three essential functions of government. According to the city charter, your mayor is tasked with providing a safe city. Your mayor is tasked with ensuring that we have access to clean and safe parks. I'm a parent of three young kids. We depend on the parks and playgrounds. And your mayor is also tasked on ensuring that you can navigate this city well. So public safety, public parks and public infrastructure. Public safety is at the top of the list for me because that's what we're consistently seeing on the polls. Andrea, my team and I have attended almost 90 meet-and-greets and knocked on over 25,000 doors. So we hear about public safety, but here's why I add a fourth P - public leadership. We cannot get any of those things done if you don't trust your government, if your government is not transparent and if you don't feel like your government is accessible. So leadership matters. We are facing historic lows in trust in government. I want to change that. I want to redeem that. I want government to be more transparent. I want government to be more accessible. I want the mayor's office to welcome voices from all neighborhoods. I want families from all pockets of the city to be represented. It's why I put that fourth P, public leadership, cuz we cannot get anything done without good leadership. And it's why I'm running.

Chalfin: And speaking about public safety, in this survey that we sent out you highlighted tools, training, crisis intervention-  

Mobolade: Yes. 

Chalfin: The personnel numbers and retention efforts. Just a blanket, how are we doing?

Mobolade: How are we doing? Not great. We're okay. We're okay. And this is why leadership matters, Andrea. We're not having the real questions. What you will hear on a campaign trail, what you will hear from the current administration is recruitment, recruitment, recruitment. Yes. And if we don't close that back door, we're gonna be recruiting for the next 10 years. Bottom line, I've learned that morale is low. I've learned that there's some conversations to be had. The weight of the badge is heavy. I, and this is making me emotional, cuz I'm a Black leader. So I sit in the middle of my desire to humanize a badge and at the same time be a bridge to our communities that don't trust the badge.

If we don't do that work, we're never going to catch up. Our residents are still gonna be on hold when you call 9-1-1. Some of your calls will not get top priority because we are still short 70 people. I have seen firsthand the realities of the job and a lot of people that don't wanna do it. So we have to tell the other side of the story and be able to champion the good work that has been done. And one of the things I want to do is, as an employer of people, I understand what good culture looks like. I understand what it looks like to boost morale. I have made those mistakes. And when I didn't fight for a company culture, we suffered for it. And I'm a leader in the arena who has succeeded in being able to build a great team. And I will be bringing those expertise into a law enforcement department because if we do not take care of boosted morale and improving attrition rates, we will never catch up. That is the bottom line.

Chalfin: And how do you plan to overcome this?

Mobolade: Alright, number one is recognition for exemplary performance. So I mentioned telling the other side of the story. Number two is work-life balance. It's really important. And by the way that's a generational thing.  I sat with the Police Protective Association, which is the informal union for our law enforcement officers. And they are having the same workforce challenge as many of us are having in all the other industries. And it's the new generation of workers, work-life balance is really important. We need to lean into that. I wanna explore that. And number three is really important. Better training and just more opportunities to develop. Transparency Matters is an organization that the CSP leadership hired to assess our use of force. And one of the things that they did in collaboration with CSPD, I thought was genius, was to do an internal survey and to just kind of get a temperature check on how women and men in law enforcement are feeling.

Eighty percent of them ask for more training in terms of deescalating, in terms of creative ways and innovative ways to address issues. They are actually asking for it. And as mayor, I fully intend to deliver. I hear you. Let me help you in a way that you feel like you can do your job. Cuz that's what's tricky today is we don't know how to do our job. The community needs us, but the way we've been doing, we seem to get in trouble a lot. So I'm not doing this, I'm out. I don't want us to go through 11 months worth of training only to train them for a different job, only to train them for sometimes another city cuz that's happening too as well. We can't keep doing the same things over and over and expecting the results to change. And this is the challenge of my opponent. He will come into office and it'll just be simply status quo. We are not going to move forward. In fact, we will move backwards. The public safety challenges that we're experiencing in 2023 is different than what it was 20 years ago. We have to rethink how we respond, who we deploy and what we deploy. And that's the work I want to take on as mayor.

Chalfin: So in response to these surveys that we sent out, you also said you support the current setup of the Law Enforcement Transparency and Advisory Commission. And in response to criticism that the commission has no power or influence, you said it's an area of opportunity. What specifically would you do differently?

Mobolade: The biggest area of opportunity for me is as mayor to be involved. I want it to remain an advisory committee. I know the challenges around there is no teeth. I'm not quite sure that I believe that a group of ordinary citizens with complete oversight is the right way to go. I understand what our residents are saying. No leader, including the mayor, wants to just have full reign unchecked. I don't want that. Neither does the police chief want that. So the heart of those questions is correct, but my concern is not having qualified professionals. It's the same challenge on the utility side when you hear about the board. You know, do we need more energy professionals as board members? It's the same concern I have with the oversight. It needs to remain an advisory committee. And I believe the biggest opportunity is for the mayor to be involved.

I personally would be involved in the issues that I'm running on. So these are not just, I'm assigning it to a team member. These are items that I will be helping to champion. So I look forward to having the meetings with LETAC to hear the issues to be side by side with the police chief. I've seen examples of where that has worked really well. I actually, my relationship with law enforcement started when I was a pastor and I was part of the police chief's Faith Advisor council. It was an opportunity of exchange of information. I remember even one of the first times where we started having conversation around body cams and watching footage and the police chief at the time, Pete Carey was asking, ‘Hey, what are your perspectives on this? We want to get this to every cop.’ That environment. I've seen examples where we've done that well and I want to get back to those times and that's what our residents are asking about. 

Chalfin: A little bit of a different aspect of public safety. There's been a lot of concerns by residents, particularly on the west side of the city, about public safety as it pertains to evacuation planning. Some criticize the new system for notifying residents of emergencies as inadequate. What needs to happen to help keep people safe, help them feel safe, and to be able to evacuate in a timely manner?

Mobolade: That's a great one. I moved to the city in 2010. Two years later the first fire happened. A year after that the second fire happened. We all remember those days. It was scary, frightening. We lost a lot of homes. That pain is all too real and we are still feeling the long term impacts of that. And that's what you see in the tension today. I've met with the fire chief. I've also spoken with some of the leaders with the west side groups. I would say there's distrust. That's really what no one is saying.

And I've told this to the west side group. This is the Reagan-style comment that I'm making. The ability to look at the issues with fresh eyes, with no preference for a group or any kind of special interest could say ‘What is the best decision for our neighborhoods and how can government shift and adapt?’ The alerts I've heard are not working. I know what that means. Those are the things I wanna take a second look at. But this community has my commitment that my decisions will be what's best for our neighborhood. Because that's what government, that's why we exist, is to serve them. So that's an area of strong opportunity for me. And I've already started that dialogue with our fire department leadership. And so that's how we've been making those decisions. Here's the thing, I know that as a leader, not everyone is gonna agree with my decision, but one of the legacies and the marks of my leadership will be that Yemi listened to us and Yemi did the hard work of coming to a solution. I didn't like where he ended but I appreciate him listening to us. And that just comes from being in the hospitality industry.

Chalfin: This also plays into the development question, right? And you know, you've talked a lot about responsible growth and in terms of high density development, mixed use and so forth, there are a number of proposals in some of our most at-risk areas. And I'm wondering how you feel about developments on the west side, for instance, where it is some of the most at-risk areas.

Mobolade: We're making strides. The city, we're leaning into fire mitigation. Really important. We see how fire mitigation saved the Skyway neighborhood in the Bear Creek fire. So those are things that I will continue to do. The table retention dollars that we dedicated to fire mitigation, only 5 percent of that is being used every year. I think there’s opportunity to increase that amount cuz we have to prevent fire at the end of the day. So while we continue those efforts on the west side, the question is around infill. So we're talking about now we're getting into some growth issues. How do we balance the need to grow with the risk of those neighborhoods? Every neighborhood is different. Not one size fits all. As we talk about neighborhoods, the vibrancy of each neighborhood is paramount and residents will have voice in the decision making power. 

Now let's talk about 24-24. Yeah, I'm an economic developer. I'm for growth that is responsible. I am for growth that is sustainable. I am for growth that is intelligent. I do want to see us tackle our affordable housing project. I do want to see development. I do want to see info, I do want to see density cuz that's how we solve those problems. But in this issue, the residents have spoken, they have voiced their concern that maybe the time is not now. Maybe we need to look at a different pocket of the city for that development. And so as mayor, that was one of those areas, the 24-24 project that I believe demands the mayor's attention, demands the mayor's visibility. The mayor needs to show up. And that's an opportunity where I will be leaning into.

Chalfin: Another thing that has to be balanced with growth is infrastructure, roads, transportation. Do you see 2C, which is a voter approved tax for the roads, as well as the PPRTA, the voter approved tax, do you see as enough keeping up with our growth? 

Mobolade: Oh gosh, it's never enough. That's just God honest truth, Andrea, it's never enough. And I'm not suggesting that, you know, Yemi goes into the mayor's office and now we're asking people for more taxes. Times are hard. But the truth is that we have more needs than we're able to pay for. A $420 million budget doesn't get you very far for the 39th largest city. To put it in a framework people can understand, my school district, District 11, has a bigger budget than the city's budget. It’s over $700 million, just to let you know how the difference is. There are opportunities as mayor for me to take a second look to see where we can reduce waste, cut out some of the fat, maybe lean in to some of the core functions of government. Maybe we can free up some excess money to care for our public infrastructure. Cuz it's embarrassing. Forty five percent of Colorado Springs roads are in mediocre to poor condition. PPRTA, important measure, I'm glad the voters for the most part said yes. It's how we pay for some of our public infrastructure. When it comes to PPRTA, I'm thinking about public transit. That's a big opportunity right now as our city grows and we're thinking about how do you move through 200 square miles geographically.

Chalfin: Colorado Springs recently approved an ordinance that requires an amount of water to be available before the city annexes more property to build on. Some say that that creates a monopoly for certain developers. I'm just curious what you think of this ordinance and would you have supported it?

Mobolade: Right, some say its creates a monopoly. Some say it's an anti-annexation plan. Some also say it protects our water resources. So you have different perspective and opinions in it and they're all valid. As mayor, I need to hear all these. The problem is what's the real problem we're trying to solve? And Andrea, I fully intend to separate the water issue from some of the development challenges that it's caught up in. All the residents, we are just kind of watching all this happen and we're trying to figure out what is it? Can we annex or can we not annex? Do we have enough water or do we not have enough water? These are all questions I intend to answer. So 128 percent rule, it's a great starting point for the conversation that should have started 20 years ago. Now it requires time, it requires that we understand the true implications of it.

And this is the second thing I'll say, AnnexCOS is in the works. It's a refresh of a 2006 annexation plan. We need to go back and look at some of the wisdom in that document. It's a framework that helps us identify the policies around decisions of annexation. Cuz the question isn't, do we annex or not to annex? The question is how do we get to a place of decision? So 128 percent is one of those criteria. Is that the right number? Is it more, is it high? And what other criteria do we need to have before we say yes? Because people don't want to feel like they're caught up in a monopoly. 

Chalfin: I wanna go back to your tenure as a small business owner and how that informs what you would be doing as mayor. There have been a few hiccups, right? 

Mobolade: Oh absolutely. 

Chalfin: There was a ruling against you and your business partner at the time regarding wages at the Wild Goose. That same previous business partner was also accused of financial mismanagement. 

Mobolade: Right. 

Chalfin: Now to be clear, you were not involved in that particular restaurant and you've split ties with him, is my understanding. 

Mobolade: Yes.

Chalfin: My question is for you to really make sense out of the company you keep, people will continue to associate these issues with you. 

Mobolade: Right. 

Chalfin: What is your response to that? 

Mobolade: No, that's a great question. Dr. Martin Luther King has a quote that says the measure of a person is not who he is in a time of comfort, but how they handle challenges and controversy. And when I confronted my business partner and reported to law enforcement officers and handled that I was protecting our residents from this person that not only hurt me but hurt all these other people. I remember a number of people come up to me and saying, ‘You know what, Yemi, I like you. I've always felt like you could do the job. Now I know you can do the job.’ And this person said, no one wants an untested leader. I'm actually proud. Not of what happened. I'm proud of how I handled every single challenges that have come my way. Cuz Andrea that’s the everyday job of a mayor. It's moving from one crisis to another. So I'm glad for the experiences that has made me stronger, experiences that has now known, okay, we are not gonna repeat that. Okay, we need a better team member. And same with my business. Just be able to restructure, move the chess pieces around. And that is the experience I will bring. Because if I'm being honest, most of the things I've done in this city, I have immense success in just getting it done. And these moments in my business crisis, man, as where just stronger leadership has emerged from.

Chalfin: Shifting gears concerning the availability of affordable housing. You know, in 2018 Mayor Suthers set a five-year plan to add an average of 1,000.

Mobolade: 1,000 homes.

Chalfin: Right. 1,000 affordable housing units each year. City officials say they've been successful in meeting that goal, but the five-year plan ends this year. Is that effort something that you would continue?

Mobolade: If I'm being completely honest, I've asked everyone what that number means and no one can tell me. And this is not on the knock on current mayor John Suthers. I worked for him for three years. I think he's done a fantastic job. There are ways I want to lead differently than he did, especially with public engagement. Expect more town halls, fireside chats, reporting to our residents in terms of what we're doing on behalf of our city. And also to listen from them. But when I ask about the thousand homes, no one can tell me what that means. Cuz what I wanted to do was how can we build upon that? Can we take that thousand to 2,000? Let's get an ambitious goal. ‘Well, we don't know if we can do that.’ Why? ‘We don't really know what that thousand means.’ 

It's a great number. I applaud the mayor for putting a number in front of us cuz that's what we need. We're 12,000 units short. So a thousand kind of hopefully calls people to action. But I'm not for platitudes and empty promises. So I need to get a better understanding of what those numbers truly mean. I will tell you what I want to do is to lean into housing innovation. But Andrea, there’s virtually no housing for attainable. So workforce housing, so law enforcement officers, military personnel, teachers, that's where the gap and there's no financing available for it. So perhaps we can start thinking about building homes differently. 3D manufacturing of materials for homes, it's a thing. I know that cities were experimenting with one home right now. Perhaps we can bring that into the solution. Modular homes and other types of development that actually drop the cost of housing down and makes it more affordable. That's one of the things that would be leaning in to as mayor.

Chalfin: Earlier you said Suthers has done a fantastic job, but you also said that if your opponent, Wayne Williams is elected as mayor, it's the same old and Colorado Springs will in fact actually go backwards. That feels like contradictions to me. So expand on that and please be specific.

Mobolade: The reason why I said John Suthers has done a good job, when you look at what he inherited and he set out to do the things that he said he was gonna do. He wanted to take on our potholes. He wanted to repair the broken relationship between city admin and city council, which was very contentious at the time. And in defense of Mayor Steve Bach, I thought he did his job was to rip the bandaid, usher us into this new form of government. It was a big power struggle. And you needed a leader that just says, ‘We're doing it.’ John inherits what some may call a mess and we're stable, we're fine. But I don't believe we're great. I have literally heard from people who say my opponent would just be status quo may not even be a good version of John. The areas of opportunity from the mayor's office where John could have done a better job is just public engagement.

I believe John's leadership was poised for where we were eight years ago. And that's why I give him, say he did a good job. If John was running today, I do not believe that is a leadership that's needed for our future. It takes somebody with the unique skill set that I have to offer. I'm a triple strength leader that's straight from Harvard Review. And what that means is that I have experience and impact in the private sector, the nonprofit sector and the civic sector to be able to call upon all three areas to the table to solve many of our growing pains. This is one of the many strengths that I bring in this new reality that we find ourselves. 

Chalfin: A few closing remarks? 

Mobolade: Ballots are out and I just wanna remind our voters what's on the ballot. I ask for you to move past all the chaos and narrative on both sides of the political spectrum cuz I'm getting attacked from both sides. And what's truly on the ballot is a difference between a city for the few and a city for the many. What's on the ballot is the difference between special interest and your interest. What's on the ballot is a difference between leadership that is one of fear and leadership that is optimistic, hardworking and just wants to get s*** done. And with that optimism, I believe that even though the problems that are facing our community are tall, it's nothing we can't solve with strong leadership and collaborative leadership that actually puts our residents and families first, your interests. And it's why I'm proud to have run the campaign that I have run. It's hard work, make no mistake about it, to do 90 meet-and-greets, and make a case to the residents and knock on thousands of doors and listen and learn and listen and learn and tweak your strategy and tweak your policies because you are responsive and adaptive to the needs of the resident.

That's what you can expect from the future of your mayor. I ask for your vote, but even more importantly, vote for your city. Vote for Colorado Springs. 

Chalfin: Yemi Mobolade Thank you for your time. 

Mobolade: Thank you.