Look around Denver. It’s clear. New construction is king in the Mile High City. And it’s not just the landscape developers are dominating. It’s politics, too – to the chagrin of long term Denverites no longer able to pay rent, no longer able to recognize a city that has lost its Queen Annes and Denver squares to oversized boxy condos.
Mayor Michael Hancock and most City Council members seem to be ignoring anti-development rumblings. The flood of cash that developers are throwing at local candidates may be drowning out the grassroots complaints that Denver is no longer affordable.
A new report from Colorado Ethics Watch shows developers, consultants, lobbyists and lawyers are playing a key role in funding local elections – and possibly swaying candidates away from the voters’ will.
Contributions to candidates running in the 2015 Denver municipal elections totaled $4,626,951.65, with 26 percent of donations coming from corporations and Political Action Committees, the report states.
Mayor Hancock – who ran for re-election against no funded opposition – received the highest amount of corporate and business donations at $372,659.51.
Denver’s Election rules are too lax for wealthy and corporate donors, Peg Perl, senior counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch told The Colorado Independent.
“What we’ve found is that 77 percent of money that came to candidates that wasn’t from individual citizens came from corporations and businesses,” Perl said. “That is a big chunk of the money that is going to support candidates.”
Unlike state and federal candidates, politicians running in Denver can receive direct corporate funding.
“We all know that no one is allowed to give bribes, and we’re not saying that any politician is taking bribes,” Perl said. “I think the most important thing is that Denver citizens need to know who is supporting different candidates and who is attempting to influence their vote. Our current system of reporting does not give that information in a usable form to the voters.”
Candidates are not breaking the law when they take these corporate donations, Perl said. But Colorado Ethics Watch is concerned about the influence large donors have on local politics.
“I hear anecdotally from citizens all the time, ‘All of our City Council people are in the pocket of developers’ or ‘developers run this city.’ What I think people don’t realize is that developers are actually allowed to give money,” Perl said. “People aren’t aware that companies can just cut checks and give them to candidates’ campaigns, because that’s not the norm at the state or federal level.”
Take Hancock, for example. He has accepted huge donations from developers and made campaign calls from their offices. Even before his easy slide into reelection, he was stumping at the Statehouse in support of the homebuilder-supported construction-defects bill. This bill attempted to limit the rights of home buyers to sue for shoddy construction — which ultimately would benefit builders. The bill died in committee.
In the last city election, big money from corporate sources did not ensure big wins. Three of six candidates who received the most funding from outside groups lost, according to the Colorado Ethics Watch report.
Most outside spending came from two single-candidate PACs to support council candidates Halisi Vinson and Liz Adams. Both lost. Auditor candidate Chris Nevitt took in the most money from PACs overall. He lost too.
“Our democracy is not totally gone yet. That’s the silver lining,” said Perl of big money not guaranteeing a win. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen the single candidate Super PACs and big-money-in-politics tactics being used at a city level.”
Correction August 7, 2015: The original version of this article stated that PACs can give unlimited amounts of money to candidates. This is not the case.
Photo credit: Butterbean, Creative Commons, Flickr.