A 'Gonzo' Mayoral Debate in Aspen Two very different mayoral candidates went head to head in an unusual debate format at the home of the late Hunter S. Thompson in Aspen, Colo. Politically correct behavior was checked at the door.
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A 'Gonzo' Mayoral Debate in Aspen

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A 'Gonzo' Mayoral Debate in Aspen

A 'Gonzo' Mayoral Debate in Aspen

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Aspen, Colorado is known for its beautiful location, great skiing and for having lots of rich and famous residents. The average home price is about $5 million. The town is also in the midst of a heated mayoral campaign. No candidate in the election earlier this month got more than 50 percent of the vote, which means there will be a runoff next week.

As Aspen Public Radio's Ben Bergman found out, the two candidates couldn't be more different.

BEN BERGMAN: Let's start with the underdog. Tim Semrau, a gray haired 50-something developer who's usually seen walking around town in designer jeans, a black shirt and a blazer. I visited him at the house he built at the base of Aspen Mountain. There are granite countertops, a plasma TV and great views of the ski runs.

Mr. TIM SEMRAU (Mayoral Candidate, Aspen, Colorado): Do you want a Perrier or juice or water or something?

BERGMAN: Semrau's house is surrounded by other houses he has built. He also owns two retail shops downtown. Semrau is a developer, which to many Aspen voters is a dirty word.

Mr. SEMRAU: I think it's one rung below lawyer in this town.

BERGMAN: For the past year, Aspen has banned all new downtown construction and prohibited downtown businesses from even remodeling their interiors. Some people fear electing Semrau would be like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Semrau disagrees.

Mr. SEMRAU: People have a misperception that I'm Donald Trump. Basically, I became a developer to get my own place to live.

BERGMAN: Semrau's assurances haven't stopped Aspenites from worrying. It didn't help when he started bringing "Atlas Shrugged" to debates. Residents have been combing through Ayn Rand's celebration of unfettered capitalism, searching for clues as to how Semrau would run Aspen.

Some have pointed out the novel is also a favorite of some in the Bush administration. In this mostly liberal enclave, that association may be worse than being labeled a communist, which is exactly how Semrau's opponent has been characterized. After Mick Ireland announced he was running for mayor, his detractors printed up bumper stickers that proclaimed anyone but Mick, next to Soviet hammer and sickle over an Aspen leaf.

When I stopped by Ireland's city-sponsored affordable housing community, he was on the porch tuning one of his bikes.

Mr. MICK IRELAND (Mayoral Candidate, Aspen, Colorado): What I'm doing now is the typical chain lube.

BERGMAN: Ireland has said he wants to drastically cut Aspen's carbon emissions, and to do his part, he's biked or taken public transportation to every campaign event. That's led the criticism that Ireland dresses inappropriately for important meetings, showing up in bike shorts. But he said he's no communist.

Mr. IRELAND: I'm not a no-growth person or a zero-growth person. But right now, we have growth that's unmitigated, out of control.

BERGMAN: Now, it's worth pointing out that Aspen's mayor only makes about $33,000 a year and has no veto power over the city council. So why would anyone want to be mayor of Aspen?

(Soundbite of music)

BERGMAN: Well, for one thing, you get to debate in Hunter S. Thompson's kitchen. The famous writer shot himself in this house two years ago, but his widow, Anita Thompson, still lives here. She got the idea for hosting this weekend's event after watching the recent debates for the French presidential election. She wanted the candidates here to be more freewheeling.

Ms. ANITA THOMPSON: It's more relaxed. It's more Gonzo style. I think it's the only place you can have a political debate where you don't have to be politically correct. It's, you know, it's in the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson.

(Soundbite of ice shaking)

BERGMAN: To help everyone loosen up, there's plenty of whisky and rum to drink, although some guests did become alarmed when they heard this shrieking.

(Soundbite of peacocks shrieking)

BERGMAN: Those are pet peacocks kept in a cage on the porch.

(Soundbite of a gong)

BERGMAN: That's the gong Thompson used to marry people with. He was a doctor of divinity. This weekend, the gong marked the beginning of debate, which turned out to be much tamer than its setting. The candidates reiterated their stands on growth and development. There was one countercultural moment when Mick Ireland, wearing spandex bike pants, said as mayor, he would enforce drug laws.

Mr. IRELAND: You ought to make an informed decision before you break the law.

BERGMAN: Thompson's widow interrupted.

Ms. THOMPSON: Patty, can you pass the pipe?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BERGMAN: With another bang of the gong, the candidates shook hands and went their separate ways: Ireland cycling off in the dark of night, and Semrau, speeding away in his black Porsche SUV.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Bergman in Aspen.

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