527 groups again active in area elections
October 3, 2010
A political organization that District 61 State Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison once actively supported has now turned on her with a slew of negative mailers and robo-calls while she seeks re-election as a write-in candidate.
“After six years in Denver, Kathleen Curry has become just another politician who listens to the lobbyists,” a recent mailer sent out by the political group Accountability for Colorado claims.
The mailer, as well as a recent robo-call sponsored by the same group to District 61 voters, also claims Curry filed a “bizarre lawsuit” asking that she and third-party gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo be allowed to “ignore” campaign finance limits.
Never mind that the lawsuit filed by Bill Zimsky in federal court, in part on Curry’s behalf, actually questioned the constitutionality of a state amendment that limits individual campaign giving for independent and minor party candidates to half the amount that Democrats and Republicans can accept.
“It’s interesting that they would say that, because Tom Tancredo wasn’t even included in that lawsuit,” said Curry, a Democrat-turned-independent. “The lawsuit simply challenged the fact that unaffiliated and third party candidates can’t raise as much money as the major party candidates.
“Yeah, we did challenge it, because it’s not fair,” said Curry, who recently testified in the case before Federal District Court Judge Philip A. Brimmer. “Now, they’re turning that around and using it against me.”
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Likewise, Accountability for Colorado in another mailer has labeled the Republican candidate in the District 61 race, Crested Butte attorney Luke Korkowski, as an “anti-Medicare extremist.”
All the while, the group has issued glowing recommendations for the Democratic candidate, Roger Wilson of Glenwood Springs, albeit unsolicited on his part.
Korkowski made light of the group’s activities in a recent letter to the editor, and dismissed it as nothing more than political “entertainment.”
“People have asked me if it makes me mad that these goofballs over at Accountability for Colorado are using such outlandish tactics,” he wrote. “Of course not … this is some great entertainment …
“The truth is, Roger, Kathleen and I have run a good, clean campaign,” Korkowski wrote. “We disagree on policy, but we’re very respectful and cordial toward each other. We cannot control what independent groups do or say.”
Indeed, each of the candidates in the three-way race to represent the sprawling House District 61 – which includes Glenwood Springs/eastern Garfield County, Pitkin County and the Eagle County portion of the Roaring Fork Valley – has done their part to distance themselves and their respective messages from the group.
But, it’s an indication of just how much money is being put toward an attempt to influence state and local races from such organizations, especially with majorities in the Colorado House and Senate on the line in the Nov. 2 election.
“I’ve been glad to have the support, and grateful that it has been positive initially, at least as it’s directed my way,” Wilson said.
However, he admits he’s frustrated that such information can be distributed on his behalf, but without his input and endorsement. And, he knows it’s probably only a matter of time before the tables turn on him.
“My phone number appeared on a negative mailer aimed at a Democratic candidate in the Durango area by mistake,” Wilson related. “I suspect a similar negative may be directed at me at some point.
“But, the real story is, the reason that money is going into this race and many others in the state is because of the importance of retaining the House majority for the Democrats,” he said.
Known as 527 political organizations, these 501(c)4 nonprofits are allowed to participate in political activities but cannot specifically endorse or work directly with a candidate.
Numerous such groups were active in the 2008 elections, including some rather nasty attacks in the race for two Garfield County commissioner seats that year. Most of the groups that were active two years ago aren’t even registered in Colorado anymore, but have been replaced by others with like-minded goals.
Groups such as Western Tradition Partnership, the Colorado Victory Fund, the Senate Majority Fund LLC, and Colorado Conservation Victory Fund have also been active in the State Senate District 5 race between incumbent Democrat Gail Schwartz of Snowmass Village and Republican challenger Bob Rankin of El Jebel.
Accountability for Colorado has actually been around since at least 2007, according to Colorado Secretary of State election records for political committees.
In fact, Curry is more than vaguely familiar with the group, which she said has worked on behalf of House Democrats for some time.
“I know them well,” Curry said. “I spent time fundraising for them when I was a Democrat. Since I didn’t have an opponent in the last two cycles, I did some calling for them on behalf of other Democratic candidates.”
With her departure from the Democratic Party last December, however, any friendly ties to the organization were apparently severed.
And, there’s big money at play that can be used against her and other candidates who could threaten the Democratic majority in the Legislature.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports filed with the state, Accountability for Colorado had spent nearly $221,400 on various political activities, including mailings, polling, radio advertising and robo-calls.
Among its biggest donors to date, according to the report filed Sept. 20, were Coloradans for Civil Justice, which had contributed $57,500; the Colorado AFL-CIO labor union ($50,000); the Colorado Beer Distributors Association ($15,000); Fort Collins philanthropist Pat Stryker ($75,000); and communications giant Comcast ($10,000).
Curry commended the Democratic leadership in the State Legislature which pushed for changes after the 2008 election that required more disclosure of who gives to 527 groups. But, she said there needs to be more accountability when such groups slander or libel a candidate or distort their voting record.
And, in the case of one group called “The Neighborhood Project,” there have been claims that it paid canvassers in Gunnison and Garfield counties to go to residences where there is a Curry yard sign telling them to vote for Wilson, which would be illegal.
“My opinion of these groups is not very positive right now,” Curry said. “They do need to be more closely regulated.
“It’s one thing to inform voters to help them make decisions, and I think voters would very much like to make informed decisions,” she said. “But in a lot of cases it’s not helpful, in fact it’s very harmful, when there are misrepresentations about someone’s record.”
Candidates can seek to press charges through the local district attorney’s office in the more blatant cases, she said.
“But, a lot of times these things go out with only a week or two before the election, so by time you do that the most you can expect is a slap on the hand well after the election,” she said.
Curry said she would favor legislation requiring DA’s to do an expedited review of such complaints as soon as they’re filed so that they can be immediately prosecuted.
She also favors putting more liability on donors who give to organizations that engage in illegal or libelous activities.
“That might bring some accountability back on the people who donate to these groups, so you could in effect sue the donors, too,” Curry said. “Right now, any liability does not go against the donor.”
Wilson said that, beyond state legislation, it’s a national election finance issue.
“What I would like to see is much more transparent reporting of who the contributors are to these organizations, in particular if those donors are corporations,” he said. “We need as much transparency as possible with anything corporations do in terms of political contributions.”
He said he would even go so far as to recommend that corporations stay out of political activities altogether, and would support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to that effect, in response to the recent Supreme Court ruling giving equal footing to corporations in political giving.
The registered agent for Accountability for Colorado, Julie Wells, could not be reached for comment for this story.