In his small handful of years as a conservative politico, Brad Jones has been called many things -- childish, a racist, a "back-door politician in training" -- but never "news-gatherer." That was before the 23-year-old launched www.facethestate.com on March 26, however. And before the end of that week, when his reporting had caused Mike Merrifield to step down as chair of the Colorado House of Representatives Education Committee and derailed what many observers saw as a Democratic effort to de-fund charter schools.
The smoking gun, which Jones posted on his website, was a copy of a private e-mail in which Merrifield, an El Paso County Democrat, told Colorado Senate Education Committee chair Sue Windels that supporters of charter schools deserve "a special place in Hell."
Mainstream media outlets reported widely on the scoop, which might have been labeled an unmitigated victory for the fledgling website if bloggers from Colorado Confidential and Colorado Media Matters hadn't quickly pointed out Jones's long resumé as a right-wing political operative whose work history includes the campaigns of Doug Lamborn, Shawn Mitchell and Bob Schaffer.
"The thing is, he's not some innocuous blogger," says Colorado Democratic Party chair Pat Waak. "He really has a long history of pulling dirty-tricks kind of stuff, and this is the same thing."
Jones, who describes himself as a libertarian, reacts to such accusations with a shrug and the same Cheshire Cat grin and gleeful rhetorical pounce that he uses for all political debate. "They can talk about me all they want," he laughs. "I don't mind the free publicity."
But he does take issue with being called a blogger, since he styles his website as a news-aggregation service à la the Drudge Report, one backed up by original investigative reporting and editorials by a staff of approximately a dozen writers. While he won't name his staff or the in-state moneymen funding the site -- "I want people to be talking about the issues rather than launching ad hominem attacks on my writers," he says -- he's more than happy to explain how he got ahold of Merrifield's e-mail from hell.
Earlier this year he submitted a Colorado Open Records Act request to Windels's office for all documents relating to education policy for the current legislative session. Jones says the specificity of his query was to see what Windels, a former public-school teacher and well-known critic of charter schools, was planning for an upcoming education bill. The senator sent Jones a large stack of documents that included messages sent from her official state government e-mail address, as well as ones from her personal Comcast account. It was here that Jones found an exchange between Windels and Merrifield in which the two discussed ways to eliminate funding from the state's Charter School Institute.
"There must be a special place in Hell for these Privatizers, Charerizers [sic], and Voucherizers!" Merrifield added. "They deserve it!"
Jones posted the quote on March 29, and Merrifield resigned his chairmanship the next day, citing the controversy over the e-mail as well as health concerns. Windels, who didn't return several messages for comment, has declined to heed similar calls to step down from leadership.
The dustup also prompted the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to look into a threatening e-mail sent to state senator Nancy Spence, the ranking Republican on the Education Committee. In an April 7 missive, "the edcation [sic] panthers" accused Spence of conspiring with other school-choice advocates to fund FaceTheState. com, and said that her grandchildren needed "to pay."
But life as a young, conservative activist isn't all big scoops and ousting people. Jones's pop-culture palette comprises Chappelle's Show, Quentin Tarantino, indie band the New Pornographers, and other mainstays of twenty-somethinghood. He even lists the Rocky Horror Picture Show as one of his favorites and is organizing a group to attend the cross-dressing '70s musical shows later this month at a downtown theater, complete with lingerie and live singing.
His knack for political theater was cultivated during his days at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where the Arlington, Virginia, native developed a reputation as the Karl Rove of the school. When Jones became chair of the Campus Republicans in 2003, its rolls could be counted on two hands. With an unapologetic attitude and tongue-in-cheek enthusiasm, Jones began to raise the group's profile, and within a year, the communications major had organized an on-campus talk by Ann Coulter, been impeached from student government in a messy political coup, testified before a state congressional panel about liberal bias in academia, and increased CU College Republican membership five-fold.
At one meeting in January 2004, 35 students filled a basement auditorium while Jones, wearing a T-shirt showing the United Nations emblem being chucked into a trash can, announced plans for new campus campaigns, like Conservative Coming Out Day and the Affirmative Action Bake Sale.
In fact, it was that bake sale, where students were charged less for brownies and cookies based on their race, that got him his first dose of notoriety. A school administrator attempted to block the event, but backed off after Jones threatened a lawsuit. In the ensuing media attention, Jones said, "Well, either you're going to love us or you're going to hate us. And even if you're going to hate us, at least we're going to get press coverage."
Jones left campus after graduating in 2005, and he quickly moved to Denver to pursue a career as a political consultant. In 2006 he worked on several Republican campaigns and scored a position as campaign manager for Aimee Rathburn in State House District 1. Rathburn, a skeet-shooting fifty-year-old conservative, was a long shot for the southeast Denver seat, but she never hesitated to hire a 22-year-old who had never run a campaign. "He never got freaked out during my campaign. He would laugh at things that I would get freaked out about," she recalls. "He has the ability to step back and look at the big picture. He doesn't sweat the small stuff."
Rathburn lost to her Democratic challenger with 45 percent of the vote, but Jones continued on as an independent political consultant under the title Brad Jones LLC and built websites for the Denver GOP and conservative talk-show host Amy Oliver.
He also built www.coloradosenatenews.com, the official press site for the Republican Senate. Records show that Jones was paid to build the site, and many critics accuse him of also maintaining it and posting content, including a press release about the Merrifield e-mail that referenced FaceTheState.com.
It is these cozy connections that make some suspect that Jones's open-records request was a politically motivated attack strategized by Republican legislators.
"I cannot ever remember a press release that came out of a state office where Democrats or Republicans referred to political blogs or websites about anything," says former Colorado Democratic Party chairman Tim Knaus. "That's not the job of press officers. They're state, taxpayer-funded employees whose job it is to communicate with voters. I think there should absolutely should be an ethics complaint filed right now."
Jones maintains that his efforts with FaceTheState.com are not under the direction of Republicans in the legislature, but an independent project. "I'm not doing a favor to a political party," he says. "I think if you look at the landscape of independent political reporting in Colorado, there's a need for journalistic standards."
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Still, he doesn't classify himself as a reporter: "I'm not the one writing all of the stories," he says. "I kind of see myself as more of a ringleader of the site. I keep all the pieces moving in the right direction."
But is it possible for Jones to label himself as an online journalist when he's also a scrappy conservative activist and a for-hire Republican insider? An example of these multiple personalities was on display recently when Jones guested on Jon Caldara's Channel 12 talk show, Independent Thinking, alongside state school-board member (and former congressman for which Jones once campaigned) Bob Schaffer. Caldara, a longtime mentor to Jones and president of the Independence Institute, kept discussion lively with a dissection of Merrifield's "Hell" statement. After the taping, however, Jones was much more interested in a scoop Schaffer had clued him in to on charter-school opponents in Estes Park.
Jones leaned in and asked, "What can I do to help on this?" In his first week running his new website, Brad Jones crashed a state representative.