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Sharp elbows, dark money: Is this new normal for Colorado Springs city elections?

March 25, 2017 Updated: March 26, 2017 at 8:26 am
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Dark money, high-dollar campaigns and sharp-elbow politicking are playing an unusually big role in this year's contests for the City Council, longtime political observers say.

The veiled donations and rough-and-tumble tactics in a few races highlight the stakes in an election that could reshape the priorities of the city's legislative body.

Six of the council's nine seats are in play. So come April 4, the City Council could be stacked with candidates more willing to follow the lead of strong Mayor John Suthers.

But just as easily, the council soon could march to a different tune, aligning less with the mayor's agenda.

All bets are off with the election nine days away.

"The real mystery is who are the nameless, faceless persons or person who are behind the attempt to take over City Council," said Colorado College professor emeritus Bob Loevy, a political scientist.

Loevy was critical of dark money, so called because under federal tax code nonprofits don't have to identify their donors. He said some groups operate in lighter shades of gray, disclosing more information. Others, including Colorado Citizens Protecting our Constitution, are a concern, Loevy said, because of their shadowy nature.

"The voters have no way of telling what's really going on," he said.

Nearly $500,000 has flooded into the six council races - all for jobs that pay $6,250 a year.

At stake are some momentous issues locally:

- Overhauling the Banning Lewis Ranch annexation agreement and creating a master plan, which will guide development across the eastern one-third of Colorado Springs;

- Managing development around the planned U.S. Olympic Museum and redevelopment of southwest downtown;

- A possible restructuring of Colorado Springs Utilities' governance, as several candidates want to include appointed board members.

With development-related regulations of key interest, the Housing & Building Association has been generous with its money.

The HBA PAC advocates for the 500-member association and does not itemize its donors and how much each contribute, as allowed by the city clerk.

That group funneled $53,000 into this election as of mid-March - almost five times what it donated in the 2015 municipal election.

Its beneficiaries - Chuck Fowler, Greg Basham, Deborah L. Hendrix, Lynette Crow-Iverson and Andres G. Pico - have been popular with developers.

Nor'wood Development Group and Classic Companies donated another $28,500 to some or all of those candidates, and some top executives for each company also ponied up an additional $6,000 or more.

In each case, developers sought candidates they considered to have a "business mindset," said Kyle Campbell, chairman of the HBA PAC. He pegged the rising donation tallies on the city's improving economy.

"I think we're viewing this as an opportunity to reshape the focus of City Council," he said.

Whether developer dollars will be decisive depends on the voters.

At an early March forum, some candidates trumpeted their independence: Yolanda L. Avila proclaimed, "Heck no!" about taking developers' money.

But most HBA-backed candidates expressed pride and gratitude for the contributions.

Builders and developers long have been prominent players in the city's political landscape.

"We talk about the developers as if they're bad boys. They just have more money to put into it, and they tip the balance," said Mary Lou Makepeace, who served six years as mayor and 12 years as a councilwoman and has received developer donations.

But, she added, "State elections have a limit on how much you can give to a candidate. There should be a city limit on contributions."

The abundance of open seats this year has heightened the stakes, fueling an influx of dark money.

"The campaign finance reports read like a good detective novel," said former two-term Councilwoman Jan Martin.

She tied the changed tone and cost of the election to the city's strong-mayor form of government, which voters passed in 2010. It made the mayor the chief executive and no longer a voting member of the council, thus creating an additional district seat.

"Power and influence began to take on a big role," Martin said. "That has slipped over into council races, because they're realizing that - especially when it comes to land-use decisions - they need the council, too."

At least one dark money group has honed in on the District 3 contest.

Colorado Citizens Protecting our Constitution recently sent mailers to voters there, calling former Vice Mayor Richard Skorman a "liberal lobbyist" and his opponent, Fowler, "a conservative community leader."

Skorman said the mailer misrepresented his political history.

That committee, which also doesn't disclose its donors, touts itself as working to "engage in social welfare activities by educating the general public on federal and state and constitutional rights, including under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution." Its registered agent is Dede Laugesen, wife of Gazette editorial page editor Wayne Laugesen. A call from The Gazette to her was not returned.

Little else about it is known.

The group raised $90,000 through mid-March, eclipsing its 2015 campaign haul of $76,000 with several weeks to go.

The emerging trend has imbued the council races with a distinctly different feel, said former Councilman Val Snider.

"This time around, some nonprofits that don't have to show donors remind me of national politics, the way it's become so divisive and slanderous," Snider said.

Such lack of transparency is a problem, said Luis Toro, executive director of Colorado Ethics Watch.

"People deserve to know who's spending money to influence their vote," Toro said. "It helps them understand who benefits from possible policies. And it also helps identify possible conflicts of interest with legislators and City Council members and the industries that are supporting them."

Colorado Springs Forward's endorsements have mostly mirrored those of the HBA.

The nonprofit, led by former El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen and a six-member board, has sought fresh blood. Pico was the only incumbent to get its nod.

The candidates' common philosophy is pro-business.

"Everybody talks about job creation," Lathen said. "The question is how they take that kind of a vision and actually put it to work on City Council."

A key is to work with Suthers and advocate free-market principles, she said.

To advance those goals, the group has pumped more than $32,000 into its candidates' coffers as of March 15, the most recent campaign finance filing date, with one more reporting period still to go before the election.

The group raised $85,000 during the 2015 mayoral and at-large council races.

Lathen pushed back against the notion of Colorado Springs Forward being a "dark-money" group. The organization always has sought to help businesses thrive, she said, and its goals are transparent on its website.

"I think it's fairly obvious," she said. "Our mission is there."

The website has a partial list of donors without amounts. Its campaign finance reports had neither.

Relying less on their pocketbooks to influence the election and more on their voices, Together For Colorado Springs, also a nonprofit with elections filings as a PAC, reported only $200 in contributions as of mid-March. But the group - not two months old - has been vocal in stumping for its slate of candidates: Skorman, Jill Gaebler and Avila.

Some question whether this election is creating a new normal for Colorado Springs.

"I've never seen an election with so much money, and I certainly don't recall one that had the nasty elements this one has," Makepeace said. "We've never been Mayberry RFD, but this has always been a nice town."

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Gazette reporter Maria St. Louis-Sanchez contributed to this report.

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