This off-year’s biggest race in Colorado by a considerable margin is the recall election underway against the right-wing majority members of the Jefferson County school board. Gabrielle Porter at the Canyon Courier wrote an excellent story last week on the “outside” groups playing in this race on both sides. For those of us familiar with the interplay between candidates, independent message groups, and the money that makes it all come together, a lot of this story explains processes you know.
But there is something a bit odd, even for those of us who follow this game regularly:
On the incumbents’ side, a nonprofit group with conservative ties has funded television ads featuring [board member Julie] Williams that toe — but do not cross — lines that would require it to disclose finances…
Stephen Spaulding, Common Cause’s senior policy counsel and legal director, said that while he hadn’t seen the ad featuring Williams, political operatives frequently take advantage of vagueness in campaign finance law.
“When a candidate is appearing in a C-4 ad, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, people can decide whether it really is a campaign ad,” Spaulding said. “Voters can really easily suss out when something looks like a campaign ad and when the rules are being exploited.”
Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, said considering that Williams is not restricted by donation limits in this race, the nonprofit could have easily donated funds directly to her, and she could then have run a campaign ad with a call to action. [Pols emphasis]
“Games are being played. That’s what’s going on. … It’s not at all typical and sounds like somebody’s intentionally pushing the envelope to see how much they can get away with …,” Toro said. “There’s no reason they couldn’t have just given her the money or just run an ad that just says, ‘Vote for me’ … The only reason to do it that way is to avoid disclosure.”
What’s particularly strange about these ads featuring Jeffco school board member Julie Williams from the right-wing Independence Institute, a nonprofit charity that does not disclose its donors, is that they don’t have to be run through a independent group at all. School board races in Colorado are not subject to the same strict contribution limits that most other candidates must abide by. Whoever paid for these ads could have simply written a check to Williams’ campaign to produce them. Heck, they could have done the whole production of the ad as an in-kind contribution to Williams’ campaign. What’s more, the ad could advocate much more directly if it came from Williams’ campaign. By running this ad through the Independence Institute, its content is significantly hobbled.
Williams said the creators of the ads never talked to her about how much they would cost, and said she didn’t know how many slots were purchased.
“I was just offered the opportunity to do the commercial …,” Williams said. “I think, as a candidate, you’re not supposed to know some of that.” [Pols emphasis]
In any normal circumstance, as a candidate who is actually appearing in the ad, you would want to know these things–wouldn’t you? Williams’ response to questions about the propriety of the ad she appears in sounds incredibly bad, but part of it simply reflects the strange rules that govern this school board recall election–versus virtually every other kind of election in Colorado that involves candidates for office. Whoever is paying for these ads in support of Williams is doing it this way on purpose, so you’ll never know who they are. Because there’s no other reason to do it.
And if the funders don’t want you to know who they are, there’s usually a reason for that too.