HUDSON | Campaign reform proposal could transform politics in Denver — and beyond

Author: Miller Hudson - August 29, 2018 - Updated: August 28, 2018

Miller Hudson

Politics, like most avocations, functions in the shadow of myths. Perhaps the most popular is the notion that real social change grows up out of the grassroots — best captured by, “…if the people lead, then their leaders will follow” trope. There is a modicum of truth to this theory, courage always being in short supply among elected officials. However, upon closer inspection, we frequently discover the fingerprints of hidden actors.

Rosa Parks is a genuine American hero, deserving of all the accolades she received for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Birmingham, Alabama. But she was recruited by Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to challenge this bigotry, at least in part, due to her unblemished record as a citizen.

More recently, the TEA party rebellion against Obamacare in 2010 was promoted as a spontaneous outburst of voter rage. Perhaps not so much, we’ve learned since. The spittle-spewing storming of congressional town halls across the country was largely funded and coordinated by provocateurs paid by the Koch network. (It has always puzzled me why these establishment conservatives failed to recognize their new recruits didn’t like them any better than they did Obama.)

Nonetheless, you still find Margaret Mead’s observation, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” in the offices of campaigns on both the right and left. It bucks up volunteers and promotes optimism. Occasionally, it even proves true.

Currently purring along beneath the radar is a grassroots initiative that could transform Colorado politics during the next decade. Last week the Denver City Council quietly advanced a public financing proposal for municipal election candidates to an upcoming consent calendar. It arrives too late, alas, to impact next May’s campaigns. County Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson has notified the council that even if approved by voters in November, there will not be sufficient time to erect the regulatory scaffolding required to implement the proposal. Denver voters will have to wait until 2023. Since Johnson is departing her position early, we can presume this isn’t a case of incumbency protection; although both the mayor and returning council members are surely relieved they can continue to play by the old rules one last time.

The “Democracy for the People Initiative” emerged from the Clean Slate Now organization created by the late Denver state Sen. Ken Gordon following his departure from the Legislature. A small group of “committed citizens,” led by Owen Perkins and John Biggerstaff, attempted to collect sufficient signatures to place the proposal on last June’s primary ballot. They failed, but eventually secured the necessary signatures to make November’s ballot. This was a truly bottom-up, grassroots effort. Preliminary polling indicates public financing will receive overwhelming support. This brought City Council to the table. The original proposal needed to be cleaned up, correcting drafting oversights in the petition language.

To oversimplify, candidates willing to accept a 9-to-1 match for contributions up to $50, provided from a created fund, and then, in turn, refusing to accept individual donations exceeding half of the reduced limits available to candidates declining to participate, would be publicly funded by taxpayers. In other words, a $50 check would become a $500 contribution to a candidate. While there is more than a little voter resistance to underwriting political campaigns, there is a nearly universal and bi-partisan revulsion with the inordinate influence of those large contributors currently dominating campaigns. Support for reform among Democrats surpasses 80 percent while Republicans score in the low 70s.

Modeled on similar matching systems introduced in cities and counties across the country and now slowly creeping into state legislative elections, Perkins, a writer for Major League Baseball, reports activist inquiries from a dozen or more local governments throughout Colorado, including Aurora and Adams County. While results remain preliminary, New York City has provided matching grants for the longest period. Municipal elections now generate a far more diverse array of candidates than they have in the past. Many of these grassroots aspirants are now serving. Denver’s proposed matching system, if it had been in place in 2015, would have generated more dollars for 47 of 50 municipal candidates than they reported. Public financing proponents point to greater voter turnout, more lower income residents contributing to campaigns and candidates with more time to campaign in their communities rather than dialing for dollars.

Once Denver opens the door for public financing we are likely to see a number of local Colorado governments quick on their heels. In fact, implementation may occur elsewhere well before 2023. Neither would I rule out a statewide ballot question in 2020 proposing a public funding option for the Legislature. Like cockroaches political consultants will survive any change, but their campaigns won’t be the same.

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.