Colorado’s largest cities have caps on marketing campaign contributions after Aurora made adjustments

Aurora will soon be putting tough restrictions on how much money can be raised in mayor’s and city council races. This will make Aurora the youngest major city in Colorado to reform a campaign funding system that many consider to be too opaque and friendly to big business interests.

With Aurora working with Denver, Fort Collins and Lakewood to revise the rules governing the role of money in local races, four of the state’s five most populous cities – with nearly a million registered voters – will have campaign funding controls on the books.

Colorado Springs does not limit submissions to candidates running for public office.

“(Aurora’s) ordinance comes from the type of accountability voters demand,” said Amanda Gonzales, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. “We all basically want a democracy in which we all have a voice. We want our elected officials to have no special interest. “

Aurora’s regulations came into effect in mid-December but won’t have any practical impact until next year when five council seats are available in November.

Common Cause helped Aurora draft its new campaign funding ordinance, which the city council passed 7-3 last month. It came a year after the city saw its most expensive local elections, flooded with campaign contributions of more than $ 1 million.

Mike Coffman, a former U.S. Congressman who won the mayor’s race by just over 200 votes out of nearly 75,000 votes, raised the lion’s share of the money during the 2019 campaign – more than $ 700,000, including thousands from energy and developer interests .

In contrast, Alderman Juan Marcano raised approximately $ 33,000 for his campaign in Aurora’s Division IV. He won by less than 2% over his opponent Charlie Richardson.

“Until 2019, when Aurora had the most expensive race ever, there was no political will to do anything,” said Marcano, who led the reform efforts. “This is a non-partisan issue. The people want a functioning, transparent and trustworthy government. “

Taming the local money game

Aurora’s new campaign funding regulations limit individual donations to a candidate or their political committee to $ 400 per election cycle for a station race and $ 1,000 for a general or mayoral race.

The ordinance allows the creation of small donor committees that can aggregate contributions from individuals not exceeding $ 50. These committees can give up to $ 4,000 to a candidate in station races and a maximum of $ 10,000 to a candidate running for total or for mayor.

Money from political action committees falls under the same limits as individuals, while direct contributions from corporations, corporations or unions are prohibited. There are no limits to how much candidates can finance their campaigns themselves.

Candidates have to report contributions and expenses eight times during an election cycle, twice more than required by the old rules.

Dale Nichols, an Aurora resident who worked for the Colorado Secretary of State’s office on campaign funding before retiring, began playing with his city’s rules a few years ago. He was tired of seeing hefty contributions from the oil and gas sector and from developers taking part in city races.

“At least there was the semblance of corruption,” said Nichols. “I think people are fed up with corruption.”

He turned to CleanSlateNow Action, an organization committed to “removing the corrupting influence of big money on politics and elections,” to write an ordinance for Aurora.

An analysis by CleanSlateNow Action of how much money could be saved on an Aurora race under the city’s new restrictions found that Marcano’s contributions in Ward IV would have dropped from $ 33,000 to $ 26,000. His opponent’s balance sheet would have fallen from $ 58,000 to $ 18,000.

But Nichols has no illusions that Aurora’s new regulations will remove all big bucks from the city’s political competitions.

The landmark ruling by the US Supreme Court in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission a decade ago ensures this, he said. “Dark money” can flow indefinitely through independent spending committees to stand up for or against a candidate or issue, although these groups are not allowed to coordinate directly with the campaigns.

“The corporate forces who want a disproportionate influence in the elections won’t just smile and walk away,” said Nichols.

Nicole Johnston, an Aurora councilor who worked with Marcano, said Aurora’s new rules will reorganize campaign funding in the city without breaking the law.

“We have done everything we can to move this forward without hurting Citizens United,” said Johnston. “It will bring more transparency and accountability.”

But Coffman says there’s a troubling section in Aurora’s new campaign funding. The mayor banned public officials from organizing, maintaining or controlling a political or issue committee and said the new regulations were “specifically designed to suppress my ability to be politically active in Aurora”.

Coffman said he wasn’t against cutting campaign contributions. In fact, earlier this year he offered his own reform plan with caps similar to last month’s when he said “eliminated all sources of input except individuals”.

Expand the field

Aurora’s donation limits mirror what Denver implemented two years ago when voters reduced the maximum contributions per donor to mayoral candidates from $ 3,000 to $ 1,000. $ 2,000 to $ 700 for auditor, clerk, and general council candidates; and $ 1,000 to $ 400 for the 11 district council seats.

Denver has also launched a Fair Elections Fund, a voluntary public funding system that uses city funds for participating candidates to provide 9-for-1 matches with contributions of up to $ 50.

Fort Collins has the strictest limits of any major city in the state: individual contributions are capped at $ 100 for mayor candidates and $ 75 for council candidates.

The new rules make it easier for people who cannot imagine running for office, such as parents with young children. Aurora’s ordinance includes a provision that allows candidates to use campaign funds to pay for childcare while knocking on doors or attending campaign events.

Johnston said this was included with her nudge. As a single mother of three, she said it was a huge time management challenge to run for her seat in 2017.

“I really wanted to encourage more mothers and fathers with young children to run for office,” she said.

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