A small mountain town’s mayoral election in Colorado is the target of outside money from an unlikely source.
In recent days, residents of Manitou Springs, a hippy-dippy town of about 5,000 just outside Colorado Springs, have found at least two separate slickly produced flyers in their mailboxes promoting the incumbent mayor, Nicole Nicoletta, paid for by The Centrist Project Election Fund out of Denver.
Nicoletta is up for re-election on Nov. 7 and faces retired attorney Ken Jaray. Mail-in ballots went out Monday.
“I don’t even think Manitou is like a small pond, we’re sort of like a puddle in the middle of the street in terms of Colorado politics,” says resident John Shada, a computer scientist who supports Jaray and found two of the fliers in his mailbox this week. “It was just curious to me that we would warrant (attention from) an outside group.”
Dartmouth professor Charles Wheelan founded The Centrist Project in 2013. The group began by trying to get independent candidates elected to the U.S Senate. Earlier this year The Centrist Project expanded its attention to state legislatures and moved its headquarters to Denver.
The 501(c)(4) nonprofit is recruiting a crop of unaffiliated candidates to run for seats in the Colorado House and Senate in the upcoming 2018 legislative elections. If just a handful of unaffiliated candidates win seats in the statehouse, the group says, those candidates could control the balance of power and won’t be beholden to political parties.
But those legislative elections aren’t until next year. So why is The Centrist Project getting involved with an independent expenditure committee in a small-town mayoral race now— especially when the race for mayor of Manitou Springs is a non-partisan election?
Basically, it’s an exercise, says Centrist Project director Nick Troiano.
Manitou Springs Mayor Nicoletta isn’t a member of a political party— her opponent Jaray is a registered Democrat, according to the Secretary of State’s office— and The Centrist Project seeks to help elect such candidates to office, Troiano says. He called the group’s efforts in Colorado “a mixture of both trying to elect or re-elect good people to office, but also beginning to ramp up the electoral infrastructure that we’re building to have in place for state legislative candidates next year as well.”
Neither the mayor nor her opponent returned messages for this story.
The glossy, slickly produced flyers in Manitou Springs have caused a bit of a stir in the small community.
“It’s too much money for Manitou Springs,” said Donna Chambers who runs a store called La Tienda among the twinkling Christmas lights and curiosity shops that line the downtown strip. “Too professional.”
Troiano declined to say how much The Centrist Project is spending in the race. “Everything is going to be disclosed when we’re through the election,” he says.
According to paperwork filed with the state, The Centrist Project Election Fund spent just under $7,875 for a mailing to support Nicoletta for mayor. To put that into perspective, Nicoletta raised a total of $1,058 for the race so far herself, according to her latest campaign finance report. Jaray raised $8,820. So the outside spending from The Centrist Project on behalf of the mayor leveled the playing field for sure.
All of the people who paid for the Nicoletta mailers are from Colorado, Troiano says, though he declined to name them. He said eventually their names will be disclosed.
Some residents of Manitou Springs also got phone surveys in recent months asking their views about independent candidates.
The mayor of Manitou Springs landed on The Centrist Project’s radar as its staffers researched unaffiliated candidates running for office around the state.
“Who we support really comes down to three things: They’re people of integrity with good character, they’re aligned with our principles and approach to government, and that they are credible and have a path to victory,” Troiano says. “Nicole certainly checks the boxes on all of those things.”
Manitou Springs is just one of multiple municipal elections where The Centrist Project is getting involved, Troiano says, though he declined to say where else the group is spending money and how much.
“We haven’t gone out of our way to say a lot,” he says about the group’s locally focused influence.
This Thursday, Oct. 19, The Centrist Project Institute will release a report at The Denver Press Club based on a survey it conducted of 2,000 likely Colorado voters. The report “explores the opportunities and obstacles facing independent candidates in the 2018 election –– amid record high dissatisfaction with both major political parties,” according to a news release.
On Monday evening while out for a walk after work, Manitou resident Paula Walker said she’d only just begun to pay attention to the mayor’s race and recalled getting flyers about it in the mail. As an unaffiliated voter she likes the idea of more non-party members serving in public office.
“It’s a good idea just to have another voice,” she said.