Mayors decry outside money in Garfield County election
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Four area mayors, mostly Democrats, gathered on the steps of Glenwood Springs City Hall Tuesday morning to publicly blast outside funding aimed at benefiting Republican Garfield County commissioner candidates.
They spoke in front of a banner with the words “GarCo For Sale?” Their words highlighted “a disturbing trend ” the influence and use of outside oil and gas money to try to influence the outcome of the election,” said Mike Sawyer, a volunteer for Stephen Bershenyi, a Democratic candidate for the Garfield County commission.
The mayors said some of the groups spending for ads and mailings benefiting Republican candidates have failed to properly register or disclose their funding sources, which could violate the law.
Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert, a Democrat who made an unsuccessful bid for county commissioner in 2004, said he’s concerned that oil and gas money is apparently coming from outside the county and in some cases outside the state to try to influence the local county commissioner races.
“Some candidates publicly stated they want to be in business with the oil and gas industry,” he said. “I’m looking for partners in the county commission to deal with the health and safety impacts as well, not someone who wants to be a business partner.”
Area mayors also banded together in the 2006 election to endorse local Democratic candidates.
In one example of the activity the mayors were concerned about, the chairman and CEO of Denver-based drilling company Antero Resources Corp. gave $20,000 to Western Heritage, a recently created 527 political organization. That group has spent money on an ad campaign to benefit Republican county commissioner candidates John Martin, a three-term incumbent, and Mike Samson, Rifle High School’s dean of students.
Martin is battling Bershenyi, a Carbondale blacksmith and artist, while Samson faces off against Steve Carter, a Rifle attorney and former county judge.
Martin didn’t return a phone message Tuesday, but Samson said in a statement, “I’m an educator, not a politician, and I wish that these third parties would leave us alone. Unfortunately neither my opponent nor myself have any control over these groups. I agree with those who condemn this practice. As commissioner I will hold the gas industry as well as others responsible. I pride myself on being fair and honest to all involved. My main goal is to work together with all for a united Garfield County.”
In all, five groups outside the county spent about $45,700 in the last two months to sway voters in this year’s two county commission races as of Friday.
The outside interest seems to be about the county being a key battleground for energy development. About $31,500 went to pay for ads supporting the Republican candidates or targeting Democrats, while $14,200 went to ads supporting Democrats or targeting Republicans. Most of the funds benefiting the Democratic candidates came from an environmental advocacy group called Western Organization of Resource Councils.
All the candidates said they didn’t know anything about the expenditures or work done on their behalf.
Glenwood Springs Mayor Bruce Christensen, registered as unaffiliated, said, “What we’re seeing right now is terrifying because we’re seeing someone who appears before the county commission on a regular basis potentially illegally influencing the race.”
He noted that he was expressing his own views and was not speaking for the city.
New Castle Mayor Frank Breslin, a Democrat, said the outside funds were influencing things “unfairly, possibly illegally” and “with deception.”
“We are very concerned about this trend of outside money where they don’t even know where the money is coming from,” he said.
Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig, a Democrat, said a number of political mailings sliming Democratic candidates and praising Republican ones have the intent of disguising their agendas and confusing voters.
“We have very real and broad concerns about the future of democracy in Garfield County,” Hassig said.
He acknowledged that outside funds have been coming in to the benefit of the Democratic candidates as well, but he said, “The great difference is that these funds have been clearly defined and clearly disclosed.”
Christensen said he’s not worried about smaller donations to Democrats from environmental groups because “they’re playing by the rules.” He said they’re grass-roots groups that care about the public good, rather than groups asking for public funds for private benefit.
Sawyer said Republican Scott Shires, of Aurora, has illegally run groups called Coalition for Energy and Environment and Colorado League of Taxpayers, which have sent out misleading attacks on the Democratic county commission candidates and violated the Colorado Fair Campaign Practices Act by failing to register with the Secretary of State and report the source of donations.
Sawyer said the Colorado League of Taxpayers was fined last month by the Secretary of State for sending out similar mailings in Weld County. Shires was also fined for providing corporate funding for mailings without setting up a political committee with the Secretary of State, and he refused to report the source of funds for his attack ads.
Democratic state Senate District 8 candidate Ken Brenner’s campaign issued a statement Tuesday saying 527 groups using funds from “vested interests mainly from outside the state are blanketing Senate District 8 with postcards that are targeting Ken with untruths.” The campaign said the groups may be illegally supporting Brenner’s opponent, Rep. Al White, because 527 groups aren’t supposed to support candidates.
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