If politics is war by another means, two weeks ago, Democrat Mike McLachlan, the Durango-based lawyer running for the 59th district in the Colorado House of Representatives, unleashed the political equivalent of a bomb.
In a mailer paid for by his campaign, McLachlan accused his opponent, incumbent Republican J. Paul Brown, of “lining his own pockets with our dollars. As La Plata County Commissioner J. Paul Brown took tax dollars and set up a slush fund for himself and his family.”
As proof, the mailer cites a 1998 article in The Durango Herald in which County Commissioner Wally White, a Democrat, spoke about his review of the Animal Damage Control program, which killed problem animals – mostly coyotes, mountain lions and bears that prayed on farmers’ livestock.
“There was really no accountability. We found out at the time (1993-1995) that there were literally seven cooperators who were receiving benefits from this program, and of those seven, two of them were Brown and his father,” White was quoted as saying.
Smelling blood, Democratic super PACs have pounced on the accusation, spending more than $100,000 on McLachlan’s behalf in October alone. The race, which could tip the balance of power in the House, has become one of the most heated and expensive in the state.
Predators and politics
Though the allegations are incendiary, they don’t tell the whole story.
While serving as county commissioner, Brown changed the county’s controversial predator-control program – which, because of bad press, underwent four name changes in little more than a decade – to become a cooperative, dividing the cost of a predator-control specialist among four governmental entities: the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Wildlife Services, Archuleta County and La Plata County.
Brown, a sheep rancher, acknowledges that he’s financially benefited from the program.
“But I hate him saying that I padded my pockets somehow, just for me and my dad and five others,” Brown said. “I’m not that way. I would never do anything like that.”
Hesperus farmer Davin Montoya said, “I think it’s a tragedy: McLachlan’s an attorney, but if he were in court, he’d be charged with perjury.”
McLachlan’s campaign director Matt Sheldon said, “We stand by the research done by Commissioner White. … This guy’s corrupt. We held him accountable for that.”
Wildlife services would not disclose the number or the names of the program’s cooperators from 1993 through 1995, the period White audited.
But Carol Bannerman, spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Damage Program, said records indicate it “had a fairly large base of cooperators” at that time, and that “it dealt not just with livestock predators, but with the relocation of beavers and skunks.”
Hody Ewing, who was the program’s trapper, said while the program primarily benefited sheep ranchers, it served hundreds of “cooperators at the time, including the city of Durango, on everything from coyotes to skunks.”
Moreover, George Vandenberg, former county wildlife commissioner, scoffed at McLachlan’s contention that Brown “set up” the program.
“The program wasn’t new at all, nor was it formulated under Brown’s jurisdiction,” Vandenberg said. “Truth is truth, facts are facts, and that is a very misleading advertisement.”
Rich Coolidge, spokesman for the Colorado Secretary of State, said that unlike commercial speech, inaccurate political speech essentially is constitutionally protected.
Ethical or no?
Democrats like former County Commissioner Josh Joswick, who defeated Brown in 1992, are defending McLachlan’s accusations as fair and accurate, calling Brown’s voting on the program a conflict of interest.
White recoiled from the term “slush fund,” but said, “I tend to agree with (McLachlan). I’d call it a misappropriation of funds.”
County Attorney Sheryl Rogers said county commissioners are legally barred from voting on issues from which they derive a substantial and direct economic benefit.
“But the reality is that in a small town, our commissioners make decisions all the time about budgets, taxes, that economically impact them and us all,” she said.
Votes such as Brown’s can “create the appearance of impropriety, but it’s not black and white,” Rogers said. “Often, people are voted into office because of their opinions, for instance, their views on protecting agriculture.”
Democrats appear maddened less by Brown’s impropriety than by his perceived hypocrisy.
“In my mind, what’s especially egregious about this is that Brown decries government subsidies at every opportunity, yet he’s the first person at the trough,” Joswick said.
White, a llama rancher, said he has never “taken a dime from the government” and has been ardently opposed to the predator-control program for years.
“It’s about personal responsibility, which Brown talks about all the time. The program is just a subsidy for private business,” he said.
In addition to money from the predator program, since 1995, Brown has received commodity, conservation and disaster subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture totaling at least $180,375, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Some people, including Democrats, took issue with the tone of the accusations.
“Brown has the most honesty and integrity of anyone I ever saw,” said Joe Brown, no relation to J. Paul, who’s been a registered Democrat for 30 years. “I’m a good Democrat, but I despise what the Democrats are doing. It’s vicious, negative politics. Why do the American people give politicians a by on lying? McLachlan hasn’t proved anything.”
Though White wholeheartedly supports McLachlan, he said he was deeply uncomfortable with a comment he made to a newspaper nearly 15 years ago, denatured of context, being the basis of Democrats’ attacks on Brown for corruption.
“It’s technically true but extremely misleading, a sad state of affairs typical of this kind of political crap,” White said.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a campaign this bitter,” said local historian Duane Smith. “What this does, unfortunately, is sours people on politics and drives out people – good people – who might want to run.”
Said McLachlan: “I don’t know that we’re going negative. I think what I’m trying to do is draw a contrast between Mr. Brown and myself.”
He also noted that he’d been a victim of Republican super PACs’ negative ads painting him as a killer of jobs and babies, but conceded that Brown, who morally objects to negative ads, has not produced one.
Several attributions were deleted from the original online version of this story. The print edition was accurate.