Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about campaign finance in Congressional District 3.
By Joe Hanel
Herald Denver Bureau
DENVER – Super PACs are the bogeyman of the 2012 election, raising the possibility that a handful of rich people or companies can spend hundreds of millions of dollars to sway votes.
But, in Colorado state politics, few people are using Super PACs, with a notable exception.
Clean Slate Now is a group that argues against big money in politics. It supports only candidates who have sworn off donations by special-interest political action committees. The group also is a Super PAC – one of the most active Super PACs in Colorado.
The group spent heavily on Democratic House candidate Jovan Melton in a primary in an Aurora district against Terry Todd. Melton won by about 50 votes.
Clean Slate volunteers made 11,000 phone calls for Melton, and the group paid for 8,000 mail pieces for him.
“The problem is that as money becomes more important, the values and wishes of individual voters becomes less important and government starts working for special interests instead of people,” said Ken Gordon, founder of Clean Slate Now and the Democratic candidate for secretary of state in 2006.
To counter political action committee money, Gordon has put up his own cash. His $74,000 in donations make up more than 95 percent of Clean Slate Now’s fundraising.
Clean Slate Now is an independent expenditure committee – Colorado’s legal term for a Super PAC. Although they both use the same legal structure, Gordon said his group’s purpose of recruiting better candidates sets him apart from other Super PACs and campaign committees.
“I guess our goal is entirely different. Their goal is to get something special done for their ideology or their business,” he said. “Our goal is to support democracy.”
Another Super PAC to watch is Fight Back Colorado, a group that formed after House Republicans refused to allow a bill that created civil unions for gay and lesbian couples to get a vote.
The gay-rights group One Colorado and software millionaire Tim Gill each gave $25,000 to Fight Back shortly after it formed last month.
Although he’s among the state’s biggest Super PACs, Gordon’s $74,000 makes him just a bit player on the Colorado political stage.
That’s because in Colorado, the real money is in other types of committees.
Super PACs exist thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case that allows companies to spend freely to support candidates. But for now, Colorado companies prefer tried-and-true methods, like the “527” groups that are the biggest players in legislative races.
The four biggest 527 committees for Democrats and Republicans have budgets in excess of $1 million this year.
And that’s just the spending that’s been disclosed publicly.
Shrewd political operators are finding they can hide their donors and spending by setting up “social welfare” nonprofits that are actually campaign groups in disguise.
Luis Toro, director of Ethics Watch Colorado, is troubled by a recent Supreme Court case his group lost. He sued Secretary of State Scott Gessler to try to force greater disclosure by 527 committees, even when they don’t use “magic words” in their ads like “support John Hickenlooper” or “vote against John Hickenlooper.”
As a result of the ruling, Toro fears that groups that don’t use the magic words will never bother to file campaign-finance reports.
“There’s been a whole bunch of outside spending that won’t be captured,” Toro said.
Toro and other activists have faced off against Gessler, a Republican elections lawyer, almost since he took office in 2010. They say he is weakening campaign laws in a way that helps big donors and his party.
Gessler contends that Colorado has the strictest campaign-finance rules in the country, requiring donors to disclose their identities when they send $20 or more to a candidate or committee.
The system is complex and favors rich players, he said.
“It’s sort of an irony that campaign-finance reform was sold to Coloradans as a way to get big money out of politics,” Gessler said. “Whenever you see a complex body of law, it makes it easier for rich, well-funded organizations to navigate it.”
In any case, Gessler thinks the content of an ad is more important than who is paying for it.
“At the end of the day, it’s the issues that should be most important. Of course, a lot of people want to know who the source is,” he said.
Toro doesn’t buy that idea.
“People have a right to know who may be influencing elected officials with their spending,” Toro said. “It’s reasonable to assume candidates may be favorable to those interests later.”