Should Denver taxpayers help candidates for local office pay for their campaigns?

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A group of Denver campaign finance reform advocates are trying to place an ordinance on the November ballot that would allow for public financing of municipal elections, reduce the amount of money candidates can take from individual donors and ban corporate and union donations.

Right now this effort is going by the motherhood-and-apple-pie title "Democracy for the People," and proponents hope to start circulating petitions in a few weeks. Opponents say there are better uses for public dollars, but the backers of this measure point to evidence from other cities that public financing increases participation in politics by regular people. 

"This would modernize and reform local campaign finance laws to make sure it's open and accessible and most importantly accountable to the people," said Jon Biggerstaff, executive director of Clean Slate Now, the group behind the initiative. Biggerstaff ran unsuccessfully for the State Senate on a platform that prioritized campaign finance. Clean Slate Now was founded by former Colorado Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon to work on reducing the influence of money in politics.

This isn't the first time this has been tried.

A different campaign finance measure that also included public financing of elections was withdrawn last year after a legal challenge by Denver political consultant David Kenney. Colorado Common Cause and Colorado Ethics Watch, who were both involved in that effort, are now "committed" to participating in a working group on campaign finance issues with the Denver Clerk and Recorder's Office rather than running a ballot measure.

That working group is looking both at practical, logistical issues like making it easier to find, read and use campaign finance reports and at more substantive changes that would require a vote of the City Council.

Neither Common Cause nor Ethics Watch was involved in writing this initiated ordinance, and they haven't taken a position on it. A spokesman for the Clerk and Recorder said it wouldn't be appropriate for the office to comment on an initiated ordinance at this time.

"There's a lot of momentum around small donor empowerment around the country, and it can bring a lot of people into the political process when it's done right," said Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. "We're not involved in the current effort. We're waiting to take a position if it qualifies."

Peg Perl, senior counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch, said Denver's campaign finance laws do need to be updated. Since the 1990s, when they were last revised, campaign cycles have lengthened, there are more ways to reach voters and outside spending, as opposed to spending by candidates themselves, has become a much bigger part of elections, even at the local level.

"There is a real hole that needs to be filled there," said Perl, who is also not taking a position on the ballot initiative. "The ordinance needs to address outside spending and disclosure. There is a whole host of things that voters cannot make informed decisions about, in terms of who is supporting or opposing the candidates."

The League of Women Voters does support this measure, with the caveat that members haven't seen the final language.

So what would this ordinance do?
  • It lowers the limit for individual donations to candidates. Right now, the mayor can accept up to $3,000 from a single individual, far more than the $575 that a candidate for governor can accept from an individual. Candidates for other citywide offices like auditor, clerk and record and at-large councilman can take $2,000 and candidates for district council seats can take $1,000. The ordinance would reduce that to $1,000 for mayor, $700 for citywide offices and $400 for district council seats.
  • It defines independent expenditures and adds them to the groups that have to make disclosures to the city.
  • It bans corporations and unions from donating to candidates.
  • It creates an $8 million fund to allow for public financing of elections. Candidates who opt-in to this system would agree to a certain number of public debates and would accept an even lower limit on individual contributions. The fund would match -- at a rate of 9-to-1 -- the first $50 of each individual contribution, that is, up to $450. There would be a cap on total city funds that would be given to any one candidate -- $750,000 for mayor, $250,000 for other citywide offices and $125,000 for district council races. There would be no cap on total spending by candidates, as there is in some cities with public financing.

Biggerstaff said the public financing mechanism is particularly important as it would help amplify the voices of candidates who are running largely with community rather than corporate support.

"Is that going to be enough for these candidates to be competitive?" Biggerstaff asked. "You're still going to be outraised, but we want enough for these candidates to get their message out and run viable campaigns."

Mayor Michael Hancock raised a total of $1.3 million in the 2015 election.

Biggerstaff points to a number of studies in other cities, including a 2010 study of New York City elections by the Brennan Center for Justice. That city's public financing system provides a 6-to-1 match for donations up to $125. After the system was implemented, more candidates ran for office, more individuals donated to campaigns and city elected officials became more diverse, both racially and economically. The report contains a "What about Bloomberg?" section on the self-financed billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, who could afford to buy television advertising in the middle of Yankees games. The authors conclude that self-financed candidates cannot be contained, but that public financing gives their opponents a better chance than they would otherwise have.

Corporate money is playing a larger role in local elections.

Colorado Ethics Watch published an analysis of Denver campaign contributions after the 2015 election that found that 26 percent of the $4.6 million spent in that election came from non-individual contributions -- PACs, unions, corporations and so on. Mayor Michael Hancock was the largest single recipient of corporate or business contributions with $372,659.51. Hancock ran essentially unopposed in that race. Council President Albus Brooks and Councilman Chris Herndon both received significant corporate support as well.

The candidates with the support from corporate interests and the largest recipients of outside money didn't always win. Auditor candidate Chris Nevitt, a councilman, received $83,821.87 in PAC contributions, the most of any candidate that year, but he lost to Timothy O'Brien, a former appointed state auditor who argued that background made him more qualified. And district council candidates Liz Adams and Halisi Vinson both had single-candidate PACs set up just to support their runs, and they still lost, Adams to Paul Kashmann in District 6 and Vinson to Kendra Black in District 4. Black herself received a fair amount of business PAC money, particularly from real estate interests.

Union PACs accounted for about 16 percent of outside spending, and again, they saw their preferred candidates both win, in the case of Stacie Gilmore in District 11, and lose, in the case of Aaron Greco in District 7.

Not everyone thinks public financing is such a great idea.

Kenney, the political consultant who challenged the last initiated ordinance, said he hasn't read this one yet, but he'll always oppose public financing of elections.

"As someone who has been around for a while and been on so many boards and commissions, we have such huge funding needs for transportation, such huge funding needs for education, such huge funding needs for health and human services, it seems like not the highest priority for public dollars," he said.

There's more than one way look at money in politics, which Kenney acknowledges is a problem. Being able to raise enough money to get your message out is a marker of a candidate's level of support.

"You could argue that it's trying to give public money to candidates who can't raise money because they don't have support," he said.

Kenney also suggested lowering the limits for donations to candidates could backfire. The limits for candidates for state office is "absurdly low" in his mind, forcing candidates to put more effort into fundraising. Meanwhile, numerous ways of evading the individual limits have flourished.

"All these noble efforts to change campaign finance law have made it worse," he said. "It doesn't drive money out of politics. It drives it underground. ... I don't disagree that we need to do something about the money in politics. The most important thing is transparency. It's important to know who is giving money to which candidates and why."

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