Mayor Mike Coffman moved recently to the top of the list of What Was He Thinking when he filed a lawsuit last week against the city to get around a local campaign transparency law he doesn’t like.
To understand what a difficult place Coffman has put himself and the city in, you have to understand what he actually did.
For years, Aurora, and similar large cities, have struggled to scrutinize campaign finance and election laws. State and federal governments have fought their way through endless battles that have more times than not left the public interest behind.
At stake is the need for the public to know whose money is influencing votes and candidates, and how much.
The benefit of transparency in election and campaign laws is clear. When voters understand that specific unions or industries are bankrolling campaign TV commercials to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, those sometimes hard-to-find facts shed critical context on an election. Nowhere like in American politics does “follow the money” take on the gravity it does.
On the other side of that are politicians, and the interests that fund them, who often don’t want the public to know who or how much is being spent to coax their votes. A good example are deep-pocket gun industries willing to pony up mountains of cash to defeat pro-gun-control candidates after a school shooting. The TV commercials combatting a candidate and paid for with gun-industry dollars often have nothing to do with gun control, a fact that usually makes voters consider the paid message.
The most consequential court ruling on the issue of corporate and union money in elections came in the landmark 2010 Supreme Court Citizen’s United decision. Although Supreme Court justices have generally defended campaign finance disclosure laws, a narrow majority of justices agreed in 2010 that restricting money spent by corporations and special interests was a First Amendment violation. Common sense and good judgment was lost in ruling that corporations are also people. The decision opened the floodgates to special interests paying big money to pull the strings on issues that pay them back handsomely on their political investments.
The big payoffs aren’t just on state and federal levels, however. Teacher unions, police unions, petroleum companies, homebuilders and many others know that there are millions and even hundreds of millions of dollars at stake when voters choose county commissioners, school board directors and city council members.
Aurora is no exception. For years, city lawmakers either looked the other way when the topic of campaign finance reform was broached, or they outright snuffed attempts to address it.
That changed this year when efforts driven primarily by councilmembers Nicole Johnston and Juan Marcano began a process to fix glaring problems. Proponents worked with Common Cause, a left-leaning non-partisan state and national organization that focuses on campaign fairness and transparency, affecting all candidates, parties and issues.
After months of work, the group created a package of changes, rules and regulations focused on limiting outside interests backing candidates and ballot issues, but mostly ensuring the public can easily discern who’s paying for advertising.
Coffman pushed against the changes. In a rare move, he offered his own proposal, outside the realm of what the position of Aurora mayor calls for. He lost votes to move his own measure forward and subsequent votes to gut parts of the proposal by Johnston and Marcano.
Last week, Coffman sued the city in an attempt to overturn the vote he lost in seeking to empower voters over candidates and big-money interests trying to buy influence.
To do this, Coffman joined efforts with The Public Trust Institute, who represents the mayor in the lawsuit.
“The organization is described by the firm’s legal director Dan Burrows as a “right-of-center public interest law firm” which takes cases pro-bono that “advance open and accountable government,” according to a story last week in The Sentinel.
This is the same group, closely aligned with the right-wing Independence Institute. Public Trust ginned up a phony ethics “scandal” last year against former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in an effort to throw his senatorial election to Republican Cory Gardner. The group is also behind lawsuits on behalf of big oil interests against Boulder and anti-tax proponents fighting Estes Park.
While the lawsuit is a mishmash of allegations, it focuses heavily on a part of the new Aurora law that seeks to keep local elected officials from using their influence to raise or move money to candidates for city council that they want to see get elected. The same goes for ballot questions.
“The most egregious part of the new law, that I’m challenging, strips me of my right to organize and lead campaigns for or against local ballot questions even when I’m not up for re-election and even when the local ballot question is not on a general election ballot when there are no municipal candidates on the ballot,” Coffman said in a statement he posted to Twitter. “Not only in this blatantly unconstitutional, but it has virtually nothing to do with campaign finance reform.”
He’s right and wrong. It absolutely keeps Coffman, and everyone on city council, from using their influence to raise money for or against measures or candidates only the voters should decide. The law in no way precludes Coffman from endorsing or backing ballot issues or candidates. Often elected officials become chief stumpers for issues like rec centers or open space bond issues.
Already, just about everyone on city council has already begun endorsing candidates for this fall’s municipal election, including Johnston and Marcano.
The new law, which is pretty much taken from state law, precludes elected officials in Aurora from leaning on their own political financiers to fund efforts to pass or kill ballot questions — or candidates for city council.
It’s not unconstitutional, as Coffman claims. It’s election law that’s good for the public.
You don’t have to be a studious political pundit to see that Aurora voters have moved further left each year, supporting not just progressive candidates, but causes as well. Coffman, a former Republican Congressman and career politician, narrowly won his mayoral contest two years ago against an unknown, liberal political newcomer.
How he expects to sell his allegiance to a nefarious, far-right political action group in an effort to force the city to spend taxpayer dollars defending Aurora against a suit he created that seeks to undermine transparency in election and campaign laws boggles the mind.
While much of this has moved past many Aurora residents, weary from election melodrama, the pandemic and, now, another ghastly mass shooting, it will certainly take front and center for voters should Coffman’s ploy be to hold up the election reforms in court long enough to sneak illegal campaign funding schemes into this year’s cycle.
This would be a good time for Coffman’s advisors to persuade him to drop the lawsuit and search for allies on the city council to pass any needed and acceptable amendments to the nascent law.
If dealings with The Public Trust Institute and similar groups have revealed anything in the past few years, it’s that exploding cigar schemes like this leave permanent scars.