Mayor Mike Coffman has scored a victory in a lawsuit against his own city that touches on whether he and other officials can campaign for fellow candidates in the upcoming Aurora municipal election.
“These extreme rules are designed specifically to deny me the fundamental right to publicly support candidates or ballot initiatives. I’m grateful that the court has granted an injunction suspending these rules while our lawsuit to have them declared unconstitutional continues," Coffman says in a statement lauding a judge's move.
On May 28, Judge Peter F. Michaelson of Arapahoe County District Court granted Coffman's motion for a preliminary injunction to block the implementation of certain provisions of a campaign finance ordinance approved by Aurora City Council in late 2020. Co-sponsors Nicole Johnston and Juan Marcano had said the measure was designed to enhance transparency and equity; in his filing, Coffman argued that it restricted his own free speech.
Through his attorney, Dan Burrows of the Public Trust Institute, Coffman sued the City of Aurora and the Aurora Clerk, Kadee Rodriguez, in mid-March.
Michaelson agreed with the First Amendment arguments in Coffman's filing that the ordinance's prohibition on a political candidate campaigning for other candidates or ballot initiatives is unconstitutional.
"The Court concludes that the Ordinance allows self-funded candidates a distinct advantage over others. Rather than make access to the ballot more equitable, this Ordinance makes it illegal for candidates to associate with other more experienced candidates and limits each candidate’s ability to amass resources by virtue of those associations," Michaelson wrote in his decision. Additionally, Michaelson ruled that the ordinance's prohibition on coordination among election campaign committees is unconstitutional.
"This Ordinance appears to have little to do with corruption, and much to do with the speech, conduct and association among like-minded candidates," Michaelson concluded.
But Marcano, who identifies as a Democratic socialist, doesn't see the ruling as a total loss. "The language around coordination needs to be tightened up, as the judge agreed it could be broadly interpreted to inhibit a candidate's First Amendment rights, which is not our intent," he says, adding that he hasn't yet had a chance to meet with attorneys for the City of Aurora to figure out how to "tighten that up while still ensuring coordination is prohibited between candidates and other entities in keeping with county, state, and federal elections."
Adds Johnston: "I still am astonished seeing the words 'Coffman vs. City of Aurora' all to make it easier for the mayor to be able to infuse dark money in multiple campaigns of candidates who support his agenda."
The City of Aurora hasn't determined whether it will appeal the ruling. "The city is still reviewing the Court’s order and evaluating its options and next steps," says spokesperson Ryan Luby.
In the meantime, the judge's ruling means that the two major aspects of the ordinance aren't likely to apply to current campaigns, since the rest of the lawsuit won't be litigated before the November 2021 election.
And the stakes are high in that election. Right now, five out of the ten seats on Aurora City Council are occupied by left-leaning politicians. That's led to a series of 5-5 votes over the past eighteen months, with Coffman, a Republican, typically siding against the left-leaning members of council when he breaks a tie — the only time the mayor can vote.
Five of the ten council seats are up for grabs. Of those, only one has an incumbent council member running again: Democrat Crystal Murillo in Ward I.
Johnston, who ran as a Democrat for the Ward II seat and won in 2017, is stepping down on June 14 to move to Colorado Springs. Marsha Berzins, a Republican who represents Ward III, is term-limited and cannot run for re-election.
Allison Hiltz, who ran and won as a Democrat in 2017 for an at-large seat, is not running for re-election; first-time councilmember Dave Gruber, a Republican who has the other at-large seat, is not running again, either.
Over a dozen candidates, including Dustin Zvonek, who worked with Coffman when he represented Aurora and neighboring areas in Congress, are running for the empty council seats.
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