Dark-Money Group Dropping Big Money on Denver Ballot Measure Ads

Defend Colorado is pouring money into the upcoming Denver election.
Defend Colorado is pouring money into the upcoming Denver election. Unsplash/Element5 Digital
click to enlarge Defend Colorado is pouring money into the upcoming Denver election. - UNSPLASH/ELEMENT5 DIGITAL
Defend Colorado is pouring money into the upcoming Denver election.
Unsplash/Element5 Digital
Defend Colorado, a dark-money group that poured cash into successful efforts to land three measures on Denver's November ballot, has poured more into ads pushing two of those proposals.

On September 22, Defend Colorado filed its Independent Expenditure & Electioneering Communication Report with the Denver Elections Division showing that the organization, which won't reveal its funding sources, is spending $215,000 on digital advertising for Referred Question 2F and Initiative 303.

Referred Question 2F, also known as Safe and Sound Denver, seeks to repeal an ordinance passed by Denver City Council in February that overhauled the group-living aspects of the Denver Zoning Code, raising the number of unrelated adults who can live in the same home from two to five and increasing the number of places in the city where homeless shelters and halfway houses can be established. The repeal measure is being pushed by Safe and Sound Denver, a citizen advocacy group that sprang up in 2020 to oppose the proposed group-living ordinance.

Initiative 303, spearheaded by Garrett Flicker, chair of the Denver Republican Party, would create civil liability for the City of Denver if it does not clear out a homeless encampment 72 hours after receiving a citizen complaint. The measure also calls for the establishment of up to four designated camping sites, two of which exist in Denver right now.

The $215,000 advertising expenditure brings Defend Colorado's total spending on Denver's November election to $540,000. The organization also doled out $90,000 to the Safe and Sound Denver issue committee; $117,500 to the issue committee that pushed Initiative 303 onto the ballot; and another $117,500 to Initiative 304, which was also proposed by Flicker and seeks to lower the Denver sales tax from 4.81 percent to 4.5 percent.

"Defend Colorado has a history of working on issues that aim to improve Colorado's economic climate and supporting policies that create or preserve economic opportunity. The group also holds local government directly accountable for results. It makes sense that Defend would support good ideas that address some of Denver's most significant issues," Sean Duffy, a spokesperson for Defend Colorado, previously told Westword. Duffy did not respond to questions about the latest advertising expenditures.

The use of dark money in politics exploded after the landmark Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision in 2010. A donation is characterized as a dark-money political contribution when an entity uses "the law to directly hide donor information so it creates different pathways for donors to give but not have their name publicly out there," according to Andy Szekeres, campaign finance administrator for the Denver Clerk and Recorder. "We have no idea if it's an individual or an organization," he says of Defend Colorado.

Flicker did not respond to our query of whether he knows the people behind Defend Colorado. Asked the same question, Florence Sebern and Paige Burkeholder, two members of Safe and Sound Denver, jointly responded: "We are happy to answer questions regarding Safe and Sound Denver campaign finance reports. Your question does not pertain to a Safe and Sound Denver report, so it might be based in ignorance or perhaps meant as a 'gotcha' opportunity. Please advise." Sebern had previously told Westword that she herself has not communicated with Defend Colorado; she did not respond directly to a follow-up question about whether the Safe and Sound Denver organization knows who is funding Defend Colorado.

"Denverites want safe and stable neighborhoods; we want children to be protected with buffer zones between schools and halfway houses, shelters, sanctioned camps; we want less density, trash, congestion, and parking problems. The Mayor and City Council didn't listen; now it's our turn," Sebern says in a statement about why voters should check "yes" for 2F.

The three measures supported by Defend Colorado contributions all face opposition.

While discussing his proposed budget on September 15, Mayor Michael Hancock spoke out against Initiative 304, calling it a "threat to everything" he'd discussed in relation to the budget. "I want to make it very clear," he added. "It will result in immediate, up to $80 million of cuts from the budget if it passes."

Flicker does offer a comment on Hancock's opposition to the proposal. "As with any regressive tax, the sales tax is a tax on poverty," he says. "Those of us with middle to low incomes pay a much higher percent of our income to sales tax than those in upper-income brackets. If adopted, this measure would decrease the Denver sales tax rate by just 6.5 percent from the current rate — a very small decrease relative to the 32 percent increase since 2018. Over the same period during which Denver sales tax has risen 32 percent, the state sales tax has not changed. It is time for Denver taxpayers that need it most to have some economic relief from these regressive taxes."

During a September 22 presentation to Denver City Council about the proposed budget for the Department of Housing Stability, Chief Housing Officer Britta Fisher noted that Initiative 303 "could have far-reaching implications that are not exactly clear yet at this time."

And dozens of faith-based organizations, advocacy groups, neighborhood organizations and elected officials have come together to oppose the Safe and Sound Denver initiative through the "No on 2F: Keep Denver Housed" campaign.

"If the ballot measure passes, it would repeal Denver’s Group Living Ordinance, which would have a significant and harmful impact and limit affordable housing options in Denver. All Denver residents, no matter what we look like, where we come from, deserve a safe place to call home," the No on 2F campaign offers in a statement.

Denver's November ballot is stacked with measures. Aside from these three, Denver voters will be asked to weigh in on three other citizen-initiated measures, including two related to the Park Hill Golf Course. Denver City Council also referred two charter-change measures to the ballot, one of which would pull nominating power for the Independent Monitor out of the mayor's office. And voters will also decide whether to approve five bond-package questions that would total $450 million if all pass; the most controversial involves a $190 million ask for National Western Center projects, including a new arena.

This story has been updated to remove duplicate information contained in an erroneous Defend Colorado filing, and also to correctly refer to Safe and Sound Denver as an "issue" committee, not a "political" committee.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.