By Will Cornelius, CPR Campaign Finance Intern
A narrow strip of Denver running along East Colfax from Capitol Hill to Windsor Gardens is the site of a bitter — and extremely expensive — battle between two wings of the Democratic Party.
The House District 6 Democratic primary has seen the largest amount of dark money spending in a state legislative race this cycle, more than $407,000 in total just since June 1. Primary Day is June 28th.
At the center of all this spending are the candidates — Elisabeth Epps and Katie March. Over two thirds of the outside spending has been in support of March, while the remaining third has gone to promoting Epps.
Given the district’s political makeup, its voters are almost certain to elect a Democrat in November. But which Democrat will be important for the party. “Given that there’s only a handful of races with really competitive primaries, this could end up really affecting the tenor of the Democratic party in the statehouse in the next session,” said Seth Masket, political science professor at the University of Denver.
Epps is a longtime justice reform activist and community organizer. On Mother’s Day in 2018 she made headlines for raising over $25,000 to post bond for mothers held in the Denver jail system. She went on from that to found the Colorado Freedom Fund, a non profit organization that bails out people who otherwise can’t afford to post bond. The Fund also advocates for an end to the practice of cash bonds.
More recently, Epps and 11 others brought a lawsuit against the city and county of Denver over police misconduct during the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020 that resulted in a $14 million jury verdict, a first in the nation.
Epps has had her own experiences with the justice system. In 2015 she was arrested and later convicted of obstructing a peace officer while trying to help a man experiencing a mental health crisis. The case spent years on appeal before Epps was sentenced to 27 days with work release in January 2019. The case ultimately raised her profile and led her to work with Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod to pass bail reform and jail reform bills.
March’s background is as an educator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, History Colorado and at the Golden History Museum.
Her involvement with Colorado politics started in 2016, working first as an advisor to then-Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran. She has since worked in a variety of roles for House Democratic leadership.
March most recently worked as an advisor for outgoing Speaker Alec Garnett. Her focus was gun-violence prevention, helping to pass Colorado’s red-flag law in 2019.
Redistricting has scrambled the boundaries between House District 2 and 6 in Denver. The incumbent for the old District 6, Steven Woodrow, is now running in District 2 and has endorsed Epps in the primary. While the incumbent in the old District 2, Garnett, is term-limited from running again and has thrown his support behind March.
The redrawn House District 6 includes Capitol Hill, Uptown, Congress Park, Cheesman Park, East Colfax, Montclair, Hale, Lowry Field, and Windsor.
Colorado law makes a sharp divide between candidates and certain groups that raise money for political purposes.
Independent Expenditure Committees (IECs) are allowed to accept unlimited donations, but are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates or contribute to their campaigns.
The ban on coordination can make it difficult to fully ascertain the motives of the people and organizations behind IECs. And the obscurity around their donors is why their participation gets labeled “dark money.”
The most active IEC in the HD-6 race is Democrats for Progressive Leadership, which has spent $129,914 supporting March with mailers, digital ad buys, and phone calls. It has also put $92,880 into ads opposing Epps.
Trying to untangle where the group gets its money isn’t easy.
Democrats for Progressive Leadership gets all of its money — $162,500 over just two weeks this spring — from the another IEC, the We Mean Business Coalition, whose stated purpose is: “To support candidates for the state legislature, regardless of party affiliation who will strengthen small businesses, fix our housing shortage, and restore the American dream.”
Democrats for Progressive Leadership and the We Mean Business Coalition both filed their registration paperwork on May 20th.
We Mean Business Coalition’s accepted donations from four major sources, all also political organizations with obscure supporters. Donation records suggest their money comes from organized labor, the pharmaceutical industry, realtors, and the education reform movement.
Another IEC, Assuring Quality Healthcare Access for Colorado — which is associated with COPIC Insurance, a medical malpractice insurance firm — has also spent $50,000 in support of March.
On Epps’ side, all of her support has come from progressive and pro-labor groups. The Colorado Working Families Party Independent Expenditure Committee has spent $132,401 in the race since June 1st. The committee’s registered agent, Carlos Valverde, said this is one of the biggest races they’ve ever been involved in: “We are being outspent nearly three-to-one.”
The Colorado Working Families Party, which is separate from the IEC, endorsed Epps on April 28th. “Elisabeth Epps is a bold progressive champion, there is no question of that,” said state director Wendy Howell. “She represents a departure from the status quo, and I think that makes corporate lobbyists very nervous.”
March said she was aware of the outside spending on her behalf, but was more focused on her campaign. “We are working really hard to build a strong coalition of supporters,” she said.
Epps was unavailable to comment for this story.
The amount and timing of outside campaign spending is also notable. “So much of this spending is occurring fairly late in the game,” says Masket. “Until we have more complete campaign finance reports from the second quarter I don’t think we are going to have as clear a picture about just where all of this money is originally coming from and who made these donations and where they are going to.”
Editor’s Note: The spelling of Steven Woodrow’s name has been corrected.