Aurora Mayor Coffman Suing Own City Over Campaign Finance Ordinance

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman is suing the City of Aurora.
Evan Semón
Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman is suing the City of Aurora.
Mayor Mike Coffman is suing the City of Aurora over a campaign finance ordinance passed in late 2020 by the Aurora City Council, over which he presides.

“I agree with the contribution limits placed on candidates in this ordinance,” Coffman, a former U.S. representative who was elected mayor of Aurora in November 2019, says in a statement about the suit. “But under the cover of campaign finance reform, the sponsors of this proposal, councilmembers Nicole Johnston and Juan Marcano, have blatantly violated both the Colorado and U.S. Constitutions by inserting unrelated provisions designed to silence me.”

Coffman filed the lawsuit in Arapahoe County District Court on March 17, naming both the City of Aurora and the Aurora Clerk, Kadee Rodriguez, as defendants.

“The Aurora City Attorney’s Office is still reviewing the lawsuit, so it would be improper for us to comment on it at this time. However, the CAO defends any policy or law that is supported by the city council as a body," says Ryan Luby, a spokesperson for the city.

Coffman's suit claims that the ordinance's prohibition on a political candidate campaigning for other candidates or ballot initiatives is unconstitutional. It also argues that the ordinance prohibiting coordination among election campaign committees is unconstitutional; under the current rule, for example, two campaigns are not allowed to share the same consultant, the lawsuit asserts. It also takes issue with "expanded disclaimer requirements for electioneering communications and independent expenditures," aspects of the ordinance that he says are unconstitutional.

“A person doesn’t give up his rights just because he decides to run for office. Mike Coffman has a constitutional right to encourage his friends and neighbors to vote a particular way, to volunteer for other people’s campaigns, and to voice his opinions on the issues just like anyone else,” says Dan Burrows, who is serving as Coffman's lawyer and works as legal director at the Public Trust Institute, a "nonprofit public-interest law firm that litigates to advance liberty and individual rights in Colorado," according to a statement on the case. “If you think it’s okay for the government to stop someone from doing that, I’m not sure how you got through high school civics.”

Councilmember Johnston, who co-sponsored the ordinance placing limits on campaign contributions in Aurora, says she's astounded that Coffman is "wasting taxpayer money for the city to defend a lawsuit on an issue that brings transparency and accountability that he can't even vote on. ... The mayor should be focusing on important city issues that aren't about making it easier for him to be involved in dark money politics."

Coffman refutes the claim that the purpose of the ordinance was to combat corruption, arguing that it instead was designed to "limit the influence of certain persons on Aurora’s elections," according to the lawsuit.

"Mayor Coffman has name recognition and fundraising ability that is unmatched by any other person involved in Aurora municipal politics. On information and belief, Mayor Coffman’s political opponents wish to sideline him in future elections—i.e., they wish to neutralize his name recognition and fundraising ability so that he cannot effectively advocate for his preferred policies and candidates," the lawsuit claims.

The five mayoral candidates on the 2019 ballot in Aurora raised over a million dollars combined.

Last November, Aurora City Council voted seven to three in favor of the campaign finance reform ordinance, with one Republican, Curtis Gardner, voting in favor; the three other Republicans on council voted against it.

Five Aurora City Council seats are up for grabs in November 2021; Coffman wants to get a ruling on his suit as soon as possible in order to be free to campaign for other candidates.

"There is a currently declared candidate for Aurora City Council whom Mayor Coffman supports and on whose behalf Mayor Coffman would campaign and raise funds if allowed," the lawsuit states. "Mayor Coffman expects that there will be additional City Council candidates whom he will support and on whose behalf he would campaign and raise funds if allowed. Under the ordinance it is now illegal for Mayor Coffman to perform [these] activities."

Here's the full complaint: