Denver Government

Fair Election Funds Could Level the Denver Field in 2023

Denver campaign finance has gotten a makeover for 2023.
Denver campaign finance has gotten a makeover for 2023. Westword
For Denver residents, the November 2022 ballot will be just the start of the action. The city's municipal election is coming on April 4, 2023. This election promises to be big and contentious — and not just because the mayoral race will be wide open. It also marks the first time that qualifying candidates can subsidize their campaigns from the Fair Elections Fund.

"I think what voters wanted is people to run for office who didn’t have to sell their soul to do it," says Owen Perkins, one of the proponents of a ballot measure that Denver voters overwhelmingly approved in 2018, adding a major public financing component to municipal campaigns.

That initiative, which Denver City Council referred to the ballot after negotiating with Perkins and other advocates who'd already successfully placed their own measure on the ballot and subsequently pulled it, created the Fair Elections Fund, which will match donations from $5 up to $50 at a ratio of nine to one for candidates who agree to lower contribution limits and take donations only from individuals and small donor committees. The matching funds will come from City of Denver coffers; the ballot measure called for a $2.88 per resident per year allocation from the Denver budget, adding up to about $8 million over the four-year municipal election cycle.

The 2023 election is the first one to fall under this new program. The fund will pay up to $750,000 for a mayoral candidate's campaign; up to $250,000 for the campaign of a would-be at-large Denver City Council member, or a candidate for clerk and recorder, judge or auditor; and up to $125,000 for a candidate vying to represent a specific council district. Even if a candidate raises more than the match amount, the fund contribution is capped. The Fair Elections Fund does not apply to RTD, Denver School Board or district attorney candidates, nor to those running for the Colorado Legislature.

Qualified candidates who have declared an intent to participate in the Fair Elections Fund will receive an initial round of public campaign financing in August of this year, then a second payment later in 2022. In 2023, the funds will be doled out monthly. Any Fair Elections Fund money left at the end of a race or after a candidate drops out must be returned.

"There’s a lot of progress we can make at the local level to diminish the impact of Citizens United."

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"This is all in the wake of Citizens United," explains Perkins, referring to the landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that removed many restrictions on rules surrounding campaign contributions, essentially allowing big money to play an outsized role in politics. "I think almost everybody who was involved working on this measure is also committed to overturning Citizens United, but we’re not making progress there. But there’s a lot of progress we can make at the local level to diminish the impact of Citizens United."

Perkins works with Clean Slate Now Action, which focuses on getting rid of big money in politics.The organization was founded by Ken Gordon, a Democratic state legislator who died in 2013 while making a run for Colorado Secretary of State. Perkins, who says that he got his passion for the money-in-politics issue from Gordon, worked on the 2018 initiative with Candi CdeBaca, now a member of Denver City Council, among others.

click to enlarge Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. - DENVERGOV.ORG
Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca.
denvergov.org
"I was one of the primary proponents of the Fair Elections Fund prior to becoming a candidate because I recognized how impossible it was under the status quo for regular grassroots candidates like myself to compete against big money and corporate interests," says CdeBaca. "For too many years, the soul of our city has been at the mercy of those who can afford to sway an election. Given how active we expect the 2023 election cycle to be, the Fair Elections Fund will give regular people a shot at representing their own communities." CdeBaca ran against Albus Brooks, then the representative for District 9, and raised $155,273 to his $392,414, but still managed to defeat the incumbent.

The 2018 ballot measure also decreased contribution limits across the board in Denver. For example, mayoral candidates, some of whom have generated millions of dollars in campaign contributions in past elections, now have an individual contribution limit — whether from an actual human, a business or a political action committee — of $1,000, down from $3,000 in the past. But mayoral candidates who participate in the Fair Elections Fund will be limited to maximum individual donations of $500, and those only from actual individuals or small donor committees, which are set up to ensure that the money comes from people, rather than political financing entities.

The Denver Clerk and Recorder's Office is charged with implementing the rules for the Fair Elections Fund and the other changes; it's been readying a new campaign finance system that it will unveil later this month.

"I think what this law will do is candidates will not have to spend as much time raising money and spend more time talking to voters than they did in the past. At least, that’s our forecast," says Andy Szekeres, campaign finance administrator in the Denver Clerk and Recorder's Office. His work on the Fair Elections Fund, like the hours of other Clerk and Recorder staffers working on compliance, will be covered by the fund.

Not just anyone can qualify for the Fair Elections Fund money. Mayoral candidates will need to show that they've gotten donations of $5 or above from at least 250 individual Denver residents. Candidates for council, auditor, judge or clerk and recorder will need to show that they've gotten $5 or above from at least 100 individual Denver residents. And candidates will need to submit these qualifying contributions to the Clerk and Recorder's Office by February 13, 2023, which is fifty days before the election.

"I think if you have a serious campaign going, that’s a very attainable threshold."

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"I think if you have a serious campaign going, that’s a very attainable threshold," says Perkins.

The Fair Elections Fund is already proving popular. Eight out of the ten candidates who have registered campaigns since the official start date of January 1, 2020, for the 2023 Denver municipal election have expressed their intent to participate in the fund. And there could be many more. The last time there was no incumbent running for mayor — back in 2011 — Michael Hancock, then the president of Denver City Council, was one of eleven candidates in the race. In the first round of the election, he got a slightly smaller percentage of the vote than Chris Romer, the top vote-getter; Hancock then beat Romer in the run-off. If as many candidates jump into the 2023 mayoral race and apply for Fair Elections Fund money, the $8 million could go fast.

And since both at-large Denver City Council seats are being vacated by term-limited members Robin Kniech and Debbie Ortega, those races are also likely to generate a lot of interest — and could further drain the fund. Incumbents, too, are looking at the Fair Elections Fund.

What happens if the Fair Elections Fund goes dry?

"If the fund runs out of necessary funds, the Denver Clerk and Recorder will notify the candidates we do not forecast we have enough funds to fulfill the maximum allotted allotment from the fund," says Szekeres, who adds that the contribution limits required by the fund would no longer apply to these candidates. "Additionally, the council could move to provide more money to the fund," he adds.

Going forward, council could vote to use its authority to adjust the funding mechanism to increase the size of the Fair Elections Fund. And there's a good chance that council would do this, since so many members might be funding their campaign this way.

click to enlarge Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds. - DENVERGOV.ORG
Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds.
denvergov.org
"Our democracy is of the people, by the people, and for the people. Corporations are not people. I have pledged to accept donations from the people of Denver, and that does not include corporations, political action committees and other non-people 'people,'" says Councilman Chris Hinds, who has already signed up to run again in 2023 and plans to observe Fair Elections Fund protocol. "The Fair Elections Fund, also known as 'Democracy for the people,' strives to realign our election process with the principle that people are paramount to our democracy." Both Hinds and fellow councilman Paul Kashmann have already qualified for the Fair Elections Fund in their reelection bids.

Aside from observing the limits on donation size and restrictions on who makes them, and keeping the Fair Elections Fund money in a bank account separate from the rest of any campaign money, candidates participating in the program must also agree to participate in at least two debates in a general election and at least one in a run-off election. (Last November, voters approved moving up the municipal election from the first Tuesday in May, its traditional time, to the first Tuesday in April, so that the June runoff would be two months later, a span that falls in line with state and federal laws.)

Denver is not unique in adding a public funding mechanism to municipal campaigns. Many cities, counties and states across the country have done the same.

"If we look to New York or Tucson or Seattle, where they have different election-funds models, history shows us it gives more diversity across all ethnic and demographic breakdowns of candidates. You see more people running for office because of these funds. There’s more competition and less uncontested races," says Szekeres.

Even though the measure establishing the Fair Elections Fund received over 70 percent of the vote in 2018, it didn't enjoy unanimous support from Denver City Council members. Councilman Kevin Flynn was opposed to the proposal four years ago. And during budget negotiations in late 2020, he proposed siphoning some money from the fund as a way to make up for projected revenue losses during the pandemic that were leading to employee furloughs. Council ended up rejecting that proposal.

And now Flynn has signed on for the Fair Elections Fund financing.
click to enlarge Denver City Councilman Kevin Flynn. - DENVERGOV.ORG
Denver City Councilman Kevin Flynn.
denvergov.org
"That is the way campaigns are done now," Flynn says. "I was the first candidate to receive a qualifying contribution, on New Year’s Day 2020, and I believe the records will show I was the first to reach the threshold of 100 Denver donors. I already have received sufficient Denver contributions to result in matching funds that will provide my campaign with more money than I spent in either of my two previous elections."

Jeff Walker, a past director of the Regional Transportation District board who represents parts of south central Denver and is now an at-large candidate for Denver City Council, has opted out of going for Fair Elections Fund money. Although he supports the concept and views it as a way to "level the playing field," he says he has a strong enough network that he doesn't need public financing, "so that money should go toward somebody else. The $8 million is probably not going to be depleted. But I don’t want to even take a chance of me using something that could go toward somebody else’s campaign."
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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.