And yes, he's voting for Trump
by Andrew Braverman; photo by Leo Turpan
After a week of silence, I was thrilled to see a Facebook message from “Stan for Commissioner El Paso County District 3” agreeing to my request for an interview. Stan VanderWerf is a Colorado Springs resident, 27-year veteran of the US Air Force (USAF), family man and small business owner. After attending Purdue University and completing their ROTC program, VanderWerf went directly into the Air Force. After nearly three decades in the armed forces, Vanderwerf settled in Colorado Springs to found an aerospace defense consulting firm and 3D Printing business.
VanderWerf greets me with a wave and friendly smile on the Worner quad. He’s wearing a nametag that introduces himself as “Stan VanderWerf / County Commissioner Candidate” and a USAF baseball cap. At first, he makes small talk about how time-consuming the campaign has been, what a change of pace it is from running his businesses. In fact, as we make our way to a conference room, he admits somewhat sheepishly the toll his businesses have taken as a result of this decision. After he mentions the amount of clientelehe’s sacrificed to run, I take to heart the concessions of candidacy, even for City Commissioner of Colorado Springs. I wonder out loud what makes a man at the helm of two successful businesses totally change pace to run for a small public office. As if reading my mind, VanderWerf insists that he’s “always had it in [his] heart to serve.” “[He] loves this country, and that’s what caused [him] to join the Air Force.” After retiring, he couldn’t resist “scratching the itch” of serving the “greatest country on the planet.”
VanderWerf answers all my questions with succinctness indicative of the three decades he spent in the military. His answers have a matter of fact clarity, convincing me of his implicit belief in the truth of his candidacy. It explains how VanderWerf finds himself pulled back into service once more, except this time as a County Commissioner candidate in Colorado Springs. Satisfied, I move to question VanderWerf about his take on some pressing political issues in Colorado Springs.
VanderWerf approaches my question on the “Sit, Lie” ordinance cautiously: “If they’re homeless, they still have rights…but on the other side of the coin, you have citizens that are walking downtown and they’re scared of these people…you have to be sensitive to their rights as well.” Admitting that “solving it is impossible,” VanderWerf suggests that we can “just reduce it to as small an issue as possible.”
“There are different reasons why someone is homeless, sometimes it’s a mental disorder…sometimes an addiction to a drug…sometimes they’re a criminal and they’re hiding in there.” However, traveling around to various local homeless shelters, VanderWerf explains that he’s been getting to know this issue as intimately as possible. He insists, with a furrowed brow, that our dearth of low-income housing is a major contributor to the issue, and remedying this will be crucial to the solution.
VanderWerf proposes a less conventional policy prescription: “in some cases, quite frankly, you just need to give them a one-way bus ticket back home. They themselves realize that they made a mistake…the number one best thing you can do is get them back with their families.” This admittedly “doesn’t solve everything, but” is a reliable option, according to VanderWerf. This emphasis is logically tied into his platform stressing an increase in “citizen safety.” He moves to lament the difficulty of matching target populations of social welfare programs with the programs themselves and emphasizes the importance of fixing that.
VanderWerf distills the situation: “You can tell the horse that there’s water in the pond, but they gotta walk over there themselves.” Ultimately though, the issue is “really, really complex, and when a problem is complex it’s never easy to solve.” He briefly offers up a suggestion of reaching the target populations in relevant places. For example, he proposes that teachers should be educated about warning signs for child mistreatment in order to help the kids that are being mistreated.
VanderWerf’s policy diagnoses and recommendations never came off as recently formed. It seemed to me that he’d been considering these issues for some time now, instead of stumbling towards a platform after casually deciding to “scratch that [old] itch,” as one might have expected from his casual and comfortable stance.
As the interview drums on, our conversation inevitably drifts towards some of the focal points of the election this November. VanderWerf animatedly unwraps his positions on immigration, recalling a time he traveled to the border during his tenure at the USAF. He talks about how the thousands of illegal immigrants represent an affront to legal immigrants who’ve spent years filling out paperwork and waiting to be allowed in. Simply, “it’s disrespectful to them.”
During our chat, I press for his position on Trump’s past suggestions of temporarily banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. “A difficult question,” VanderWerf replies pensively. It “wouldn’t be the first time” the U.S. instituted an immigration prohibition like that he argues, though not able to recall if there had been one specifically on religious ground. “I got friends who are Muslim, some in the military, and let me tell you they don’t actually have a problem with that either.” He substantiates his argument: It’s obviously a “security issue” to him, not just “some kind of form of bigotry.”
“They want to implement shari’a…what’s in shari’a?” he asks, rhetorically. “Women are property, if you’re gay and lesbian we throw you from roofs, if you’re black we kill you.” Before I can try to fact-check these claims, he continues:
“We could find ourselves one day with communities in the U.S. that are banning gays and lesbians, or something, which is ridiculous…if we’re not careful that’s what we could end up with.” As VanderWerf reaches the end of his immigration discussion, he adds that “we have freedom of religion in this country; its protected. I don’t have a problem at all...if you have a religion that says I hate this group or that group. Now, Mr. Guy you have to come to a reconciliation here and either give that up and follow U.S. law, or accept that you’re going to be prosecuted.”
VanderWerf has “had enough of Clinton corruption.” I heard similar comments while standing in line for a Trump rally in the Norris-Penrose convention center. People sold shirts imitating a campaign advertisement but saying, “Hillary for Prison 2016,” which brought in healthy business. Perhaps sensing my political inclinations and those of many of my fellow Tigers, he explains; “I’d ask Democrats; consider voting for Trump.” It “might be a little uncomfortable because it’s across party lines,” he graciously adds, to which I swallow my suggestion that it might be uncomfortable for more reasons than just tip-toeing across party lines.
He espouses the freedom of people and freedom of markets that Trump’s presidency could bring us: “The freer markets are and the freer people are, the better off we all are.” Of course this excludes freedom of people to enter our country, but I decide against bringing this up—it must have slipped the candidate’s mind. VanderWerf uses the DMV as an example of the offensive degree to which government intervenes in our life today. Every time you go, the government “steals two hours of your life.” Trump would eliminate this wasteful intervention, he thinks. “There is no perfect candidate…now it’s a question of which one do I think will get us closer to what I believe is important in our lives…and the answer to that is Trump.”
I ask VanderWerf about his opponent in the upcoming election, Electra Johnson. “She seems like a nice lady,” he answers circumspectly. “We’re in the middle of a campaign so I don’t sit down and have a coffee with her,” he quips, but then quickly adds “but I would do that.”
Despite his amicable disposition towards Johnson, he feels that “she doesn’t have a broad breadth of public experience” sitting over budgets and managing organizations, while “[he] does...for her, it will be a learning process.” VanderWerf thinks that his lengthy experience in service has conditioned him well for the job. He cites his “ability to make decisions based on principles” as one of his most important traits, expressing how he managed a budget in the Air Force “that exceeded $1 billion,” and how that groomed him for potentially handling the $300 million El Paso County budget.
VanderWerf also touts his experience overseeing numerous disaster planning and relief circumstances in his time at the Air Force and expects that this experience would be useful for a county commissioner hopeful as well.
Yet, as he lists his accomplishments Vanderwerf oscillates back to more cooperative feelings towards Johnson, suggesting “she cares about the community just as much as [he] does.” After bringing up the “elephant in the room,” how the entrenchment of actual GOP elephants in El Paso county’s voting records offer him a sizable head-start, he responds gravely. “Just on sheer numbers, it will be challenging for her…” however, “[He’s] taking [Johnson] seriously.” That being said, the candidates don’t differ in all regards. In fact, two focal points of each of their platforms overlap: increasing disaster preparedness and revitalizing a local economy.
VanderWerf, like his opponent, very deliberately stresses that just voting is the most essential thing to remember come November. Anytime I query him about third party candidates or undecided voters he is careful to answer first with a reminder that “this is one of your rights, and you need to exercise it.” VanderWerf asserts that the “principle is to vote.” After all, candidacy in this election requires endorsement and confronting of political ideals beyond individual platforms.
In a panel discussion in McHugh Commons with opponent Electra Johnson, VanderWerf reiterates this point along with many others from our interview, often verbatim. However, this reiteration was a trend I noticed in both candidates: falling back on platitudes of their platform that they feel confident about. My time spent talking and listening to VanderWerf also suggests another commonality between the candidates. While he might be slightly more politicized and groomed for public office from his previous career, the requisite passion (held by Johnson as well) also accompanies his pedigree. VanderWerf convinces me that he is running because there are things in El Paso County he feels so displeased with, that he must make every effort to change them. He is particularly invested in one of the questions I pose to him, about the first things he would do in office if elected. A couple hours after our meeting, I see a voicemail that VanderWerf left on my phone. It was 15 minutes of elaboration on the topic.
The voicemail underscores VanderWerf’s genuine commitment to the race in El Paso County and its future, albeit a different one than Johnson envisions. His visit to the panel at CC affirms this. Amidst a crowd he knew to be overwhelmingly liberal, he attended and attempted to engage in political discourse, despite intimations from the crowd during a Q&A that their politics differ widely from his own and repeated attempts to discuss his Trump endorsement. Parts of it may have been blatant pandering (i.e. his suggestion of assembling a “beer brewing school”), but his effort was still admirable and a reassurance that both candidates for El Paso County district 3 commissioner are unequivocally invested in the community’s future.