Democrats divide and conquer fund raising

14 committees allow multiple $25,000 donations from individuals, unions


By Sandra Fish

Camera Staff Writer


            Editor's Note: This is one of several stories the Daily Camera is running on the money political campaigns raise and spend in the 2002 Colorado election.

   To analyze party campaign contributions, the Daily Camera used data downloaded from the Secretary of State`s office as well as information posted on the site. The data covers all of 2001 through Sept. 25, 2002.

   Much of the contribution data may be searched at the Daily Camera`s Web site at web.dailycamera.com/votersguide02.

            Colorado Democrats are funneling at least $1.5 million through 14 different fund-raising committees, allowing many contributors to legally exceed the state`s $25,000 limit on donations to political parties.

   Millionaires like former Boulder resident Jared Polis, Quark founder Tim Gill and Fort Collins heiress Pat Stryker -- along with a variety of unions -- are donating tens of thousands of dollars to the various committees. Most of the money is then sent to the Colorado Democratic Party fund or one of two funds created to pay for House and Senate campaigns.

   By contrast, the Republican Party has only one committee registered with the Colorado Secretary of State`s office. Still, Republicans spent about $7 million this election season through Sept. 25, compared with about $4.7 million for the Democratic Party. Those Secretary of State tallies include some federal money used on congressional advertising.

   The Democratic fund-raising technique is part of the party`s quest to win a U.S. Senate seat and two open House seats, to retain control of the state Senate and perhaps even win over the state House.

   "We`re obviously following the law," said Democratic Party spokesman Cody Wertz. "The law was changed by a Republican Legislature and a Republican governor. ... We had to do it to stay competitive."

   Democrats are using a loophole critics warned lawmakers about in 2000, when a new campaign finance law took effect allowing donors to give up to $25,000 to a political party committee. The parties can give unlimited donations to candidates, with some state Senate campaigns this year expected to exceed an unprecedented $1 million.

   "This is an obvious end-run around the contribution limits," said Pete Maysmith, spokesman for Colorado Common Cause, a government watchdog group. "This makes the case for why we need Amendment 27."

   Amendment 27 would limit donations to political parties -- and their affiliates -- to a total of $3,000 a year, essentially outlawing the system Democrats have created. The constitutional amendment also would limit party contributions to candidates to $13,000 for House candidates up to $500,000 for gubernatorial candidates. Voters will consider the measure -- sponsored by Common Cause -- Nov. 5.  A Daily Camera analysis of data filed with the Secretary of State`s office showed:

    Stryker,  who last month gave $3 million to fight a bilingual ballot initiative, is among the big donors to the Democrats. Stryker gave the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee $100,000 in June. She and her Bohemian companies have donated another $200,000 to various Democratic state committees. She`s also donated $12,500 to individual candidates for state offices. Stryker`s spokesman said she`s been an active Democrat for years.

    Polis,  who also is bankrolling an election-day registration initiative, has given $95,500 to the state party committees. Polis made millions selling an Internet company in the late `90s, then bankrolled his election to the state Board of Education in 2000. He`s donated $28,750 to individual state candidates.

    Gill,  the founder of Denver-based software company Quark Inc. and benefactor of the Gill Foundation supporting gay and lesbian rights, gave $95,000 to the state committees and $15,000 to individual state candidates.

    Boulder children`s author  Tom Barron contributed $70,000 to the committees, while environmental activist John Powers of Boulder and Rifle gave $95,000, mostly in recent weeks.

    Three teachers` unions  -- two national and one Colorado-based -- donated $184,750 to the various Democratic committees, not including individual candidates.

    Other unions are  kicking in as well. Food workers` unions gave $125,000; the state workers` union, AFSCME, gave $80,000; the AFL-CIO kicked in $83,500.

   "Big tobacco and the oil companies and multi-national corporations give millions of dollars to Republican candidates," Polis said. "Republicans outspend Democrats 2-to-1. (Gov. Bill) Owens is outspending (Democrat Rollie) Heath 5-to-1. I don`t believe that`s healthy for democracy."

   Indeed, the Republican Party has plenty of big donors. State GOP Chairman Bruce Benson and his wife, Marcy, each kicked in $25,000 last month. So did former party chairman and cable pioneer Carl Williams and his business. Numerous corporations are giving to the GOP.

   But the party isn`t trying to collect multiple $25,000 contributions from them, said Alan Philp, the party`s executive director.

   "The Republicans rely on a wider base of donors than the Democrats do," Philp said. "They`ve got a small handful of donors providing the bulk of the donations. ... It`s not disingenuous for the Democrats to seek to find every dollar they can."

   Maysmith disagrees.

   "Both parties make a dash for the cash, and they do figure out how to drop as much money into these races as they can," he said. "The political parties need to be about people and ideas, not seen as cash registers for large contributors. That`s what they`re doing right now, clearly."

   Democrats created nine of their 14 committees between July 25 and Aug. 13. For instance, the Senate District 1 Democratic Committee raised $170,000 from seven donors after its creation July 26. It`s unlikely the money is aimed at Senate District 1, where Republican Sen. Mark Hillman of Burlington is considered a lock for re-election.

   Instead, $98,000 of that money has gone to the State Democratic Senate Campaign Fund. That fund is being used to fuel several close Senate races, including that of Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald of Golden who faces GOP Gilpin County Commissioner Web Sill. Democrats have donated more than $100,000 to Fitz-Gerald`s efforts, while the GOP has shored up Sill`s campaign with almost $34,000 so far. The money goes for mailings and sometimes even television commercials.

   But like many Democratic Senate candidates, Fitz-Gerald`s campaign also has funneled money back to her party`s committees -- $50,000 in her case. Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, donated $10,000 of his campaign funds to the Senate campaign fund late last month, for instance. Boulder`s Jack Pommer, running for House District 11, gave $20,000 this week to the State Democratic House Campaign Fund, while Rep. Tom Plant of Nederland gave $1,500 and Rep. Alice Madden of Boulder gave $1,000.

   Unions, which don`t typically support Republican candidates, and a few corporations also are participating in the Democratic system. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee raised about $125,000 earlier this year, then donated the money in $25,000 sums to five other committees. Those committees, in turn, are taking that money and other contributions and turning it over to the state party or the Senate fund.

   Just this week, more than $100,000 poured into four Democratic committees from non-candidates.

   "Clearly they`ve been set up just to take money ... and to redirect it," Maysmith said.

   As for Polis, he`d be content if all the Democratic Party committees he`s donated to went away. He said he supports Amendment 27 in addition to his Amendment 30, which would allow voters to register at the polls.

   "I support any reform that helps break the stranglehold that special interests have on our politics," Polis said.

   Contact Sandra Fish at (303) 473-1356 or fishs@dailycamera.com.