Big spending in small-town election raises eyebrows
When the 1999 municipal election began to heat up, transportation and housing were again the dominant issues, and they remained the most talked-about topics throughout the race.
But now that the election is over, voters and politicians alike face a third issue that has only rarely been a factor in local politics – money.
Eight-year council veteran Rachel Richards won the mayoral contest by just 14 votes. En route to victory, however, Richards outspent second-place finisher Helen Klanderud by more than $9,000, and she outspent all three of her opponents by nearly $3,000.
Richards raised and spent $15,970; Klanderud had $6,671 to work with; third-place finisher Michael O’Sullivan raised $6,400 and spent even more – $6,547; and Bill Stirling didn’t spend any money on the election.
“When Rachel raised the bar as high as she did,” said Councilman-elect Tom McCabe, “I have to say I became concerned; I didn’t think it would go that far.”
Not since former W/J Ranch owner Wink Jaffee spent $50,000 in the early 1980s, in his unsuccessful bid to unseat County Commissioner Bob Child, has the electorate faced a campaign- spending gap of the kind they saw this year. Jaffee’s spending prowess proved no match for the popular Child, but in Richards’ case, money mayhave been the key to victory.
“It was probably worth 14 votes,” commented unsuccessful council candidate Tim Semrau, whose effort to focus the campaign on affordable housing landed him in third place in the City Council election. In a race as closely contested as this year’s, he says, any edge – including a $9,000 spending advantage – needs to be factored into the final result.
“Of course money played a role,” agrees O’Sullivan. “It seemed to follow the classic pattern with incumbents and those already in government getting a lot of financial support.”
O’Sullivan also believes Richards may have benefited from the fact that he took voters who might have otherwise voted for Klanderud.
Former county Commissioner Jim True agrees that O’Sullivan was supported by voters who would never vote for Richards. But he’s not ready to concede that money had much of a role in the end.
“I’m not sure I believe it adds significantly to the outcome in small-town elections like ours,” he said. “Rachel ran a well-organized campaign and she started early.”
Outgoing Mayor John Bennett also attributes Richards’ fund-raising prowess to her organizational and management skills, especially in light of Aspen’s strict $100 limit on contributions.
“In Aspen,” he said, “a candidate has to raise money the old-fashioned way – through a lot of $20, $50 and $100 donations.”
Richards says the stream of donations started early in the campaign, and as time passed, more and more of them came unsolicited.
“I think that any of the other candidates could have raised an equal amount if they had the support,” says Richards. “Helen Klanderud and Michael O’Sullivan raised as much as they could.”
Richards says that from the start she had a good idea of how she wanted to reach the voters through mailers and advertising and geared her fund raising to reach those goals. Richards sent two mailers to between 2,600 and 2,800 of the city’s most active voters, advertised in both papers, and ran ads on local radio and television stations.
Richards is sure she is going to end up paying a hefty sum out of her pocket, perhaps as much as $4,500. “That money came out my retirement,” Richards said. “I’m not a wealthy person.”
Klanderud says she actually curbed her fund raising when she reached an amount she thought was adequate. “We chose not to raise more because we were doing what we needed to be doing.”
The runner-up wondered about the influence of money shortly after the results were announced Tuesday night, but she was sure on Wednesday that money did not determine the outcome of the election.
“I don’t believe money played a role,” Klanderud says, pointing out that the winners in the council race, McCabe and Tony Hershey, made do with significantly less than any of mayoral candidates, except Stirling.
Though Klanderud isn’t willing to concede her defeat to the specter of big money, she nevertheless hopes politics and campaign finance in Aspen remain small-town affairs.
“I would hope this election doesn’t set a trend for the future.” Aspen’s size, she says, makes it easy for candidates and voters to meet face to face. “I met a lot of people I didn’t know. That was fun.”
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The scheduled return to in-person learning for middle school and high school students will have to wait another day as the Aspen School District announced Sunday students would return to remote learning.