PAGOSA SPRINGS – Maybe you think he’s this town’s savior. Possibly you’ve lived in Southwest Colorado for years and haven’t even heard of Ross Aragon. Or maybe you’re not a big fan.
Whatever your perspective, here’s something that’s really, really hard not to admire: Aragon has been mayor of Pagosa Springs for 36 consecutive years and was town councilor for two before that. That’s 10 consecutive election wins. And that’s not all.
Although it means 20 hours’ work a week – give or take a few – mayor is not a paid position. And ...
“Here’s the most remarkable thing,” marvels Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League. “He has never missed an official meeting of the town board in 38 years – and that is absolutely incredible.”
It means never giving in to sickness, never taking an extended vacation – choosing town over personal life and even family.
“He is the Cal Ripken Jr. of municipal government,” Mamet says, alluding to the Hall of Fame baseball player who played in 2,632 consecutive games over 18 seasons.
Ross Aragon’s streak ends Tuesday. After the Pagosa Springs election, Aragon will hand over the mayor’s gavel to one of four candidates. Not everyone will mourn; such is the nature of politics. For better or worse, the town of 1,727 an hour’s drive east of Durango will enter a new era.
For Jacque Aragon, that’s hard to imagine. “I’ve been the mayor’s daughter since I was 5.”
That’s been a blessing and a curse, she points out. Growing up, dad never joined family excursions.
“If we ever did anything, we went with my mom or friends,” says Jacque Aragon, now 40. “He was always committed to this town.”
From a hardscrabble childhood, Ross Aragon learned the value of a penny and how to scrap for everything you get. Obviously along the way, he learned something about perseverance: How else to explain his longevity?
“Politics is not for the meek at heart. Politics is brutal,” the 73-year-old Aragon says. “If the left doesn’t get you, the right will.”
We’re speaking at Archuleta Housing Corp., where Aragon is director for the nonprofit low-income-housing provider. The second-floor office offers a nice view north and east: toward downtown, Reservoir Hill, the hot springs that prompted the first human settlement here (a military post in 1878) and the spectacular, tourist-luring wilderness along the Continental Divide.
Deep roots, he says, give him a sense of place and of duty. His ancestors moved to the region in 1821, he says, and at some point settled in the San Luis Valley. Later, they came “over the hill” to Archuleta County.
He grew up in far southwest Archuleta County between Allison and Arboles. He traded time between parents and his grandfather, and went to Ignacio schools until moving to Pagosa Springs for high school. If he wanted to see Roy Rogers or Gene Autry in a Western, he scrounged up Coke bottles to sell and raise the needed 15 cents. Sometimes, dinner meant wrangling catfish out of McCabe Creek, which flows into the San Juan River in town.
Aragon and his wife, Patty, met in high school and were married from 1963 until she died of cancer in 2000. While running two restaurants and while Ross worked for the housing group, they raised three boys and three daughters.
“Right after (the kids) learned how to walk, they learned how to bus tables,” Aragon says with a laugh.
It wasn’t until he was in his 30s, complaining aloud about town government during a visit to a local watering hole, that he was prompted to get into politics.
“They’re going to have a town election,” the bartender goaded him. “Why don’t you run?”
Aragon brushed the idea aside: “Oh my God, I could never do that.”
The bartender countered: “Well, quit your whining then.”
That was 1975. By 1976, he was a town councilor. Two years later, he ran for mayor.
“Everybody should take a turn, so you know it’s not as easy as it seems,” he says.
Aragon’s made some enemies along the way, but he’s obviously done something right. The former boxer has jabbed and counterpunched and then gone for the knockout when his pet projects were in sight.
Bringing business to remote and rural Pagosa has proved difficult, if not futile. So the registered Republican has been pro land development, which he refers to as “the godsend.” Homes continue to spring up all over the county. Between 1990 and 2000, the county population blew up, growing 8.5 percent per year – the 14th highest rate in the nation among counties. It’s still rising at a good clip. There’s also a huge market for second homes.
Aragon championed the annexation of the commercial development west of downtown Pagosa Springs, a strip that includes McDonald’s and a variety of other restaurants, shops and gas stations. This “flagpole” annexation brings a healthy revenue supply into city coffers but puts control of this money into a fraction of the county’s 12,000 residents.
“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Aragon says, referring to politics in general. “That’s the bottom line, and there’s no other way about it.”
He led a six-year push to create a community center. In 2002, the 20,000-square-foot center became reality, and in 2009, the town honored him by rechristening it the Ross Aragon Community Center.
His detractors got busy in 2012 when Aragon, eyeing the 100 jobs it could bring, backed Walmart’s effort to move into town. Some sensed shenanigans when the town tweaked its land-use rules in favor of big-box stores. An effort to recall Aragon got some traction but ultimately failed. Walmart’s effort is still underway.
And even now, as he leaves office, he’s catching grief for not supporting an $18 million recreation center. A 1 percent tax for the center will be decided Tuesday.
“They think that I’m some kind of machine,” Aragon says of the public and those who oppose him. “I’m not. I bleed, and I breathe, and I hurt, and I feel like everyone else does.
“I think what’s helped me survive personal political attacks has been that I’ve reminded myself that there’s always going to be detractors.”
But there are plenty of supporters as well, both Democrats and Republicans. Many came to the community center March 21 to – if you can say this about a guy with no signs of slowing down – pay their respects.
Former U.S. congressman John Salazar, now Colorado’s commissioner of agriculture, said Aragon was one of his mentors.
John Whitney, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s representative for the Four Corners, read a statement that Bennet read March 24 on the Senate floor:
“On behalf of Pagosa Springs in particular and Southwest Colorado in general, thank you, Mayor Aragon, for your many years of public service. We wish you well in your retirement, and we can’t wait to see what challenges you tackle next.”
Aragon has no plans to leave his job with Archuleta Housing. And he’ll continue to push the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership, a private nonprofit aiming to take advantage of the energy from Earth in green and healthy ways.
Mamet, with the municipal league since 1979, says records are inadequate to prove that Aragon is the state’s longest-standing mayor ever. But he might be.
“Ross’s imprint is everywhere in that town,” Mamet says. “Whenever I come to Pagosa, I just see a thriving community.”
After 38 years, the stress and worry over the job has finally trumped the will to deal with it. Ross Aragon is ready to exit the ring.
“At the end of the day, I think I will say I gave it my best shot,” he says. “If that’s not good enough, that’s just the way it is.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.