Denvers Fair Elections Fund convinced some outsiders to join the 2023 mayors race

Millions of dollars in tax-payer-provided campaign funds are helping drive a stampede of candidates into the Denver mayor’s race ahead of the city’s April 2023 election.

Those public dollars are opening the door to outsiders who otherwise would not have the financial wherewithal to reach voters across the city, candidates and observers say.

As of Thursday afternoon, 23 Denverites had filed paperwork to run for mayor, an office held for the last 11-plus years by Michael Hancock. Nine of those hopefuls have joined the ranks in the last three weeks alone, including State Sen. Chris Hansen former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston and state Rep. Alex Valdez.

“It’s a lot of candidates and a lot of diversity,” Owen Perkins, said of the field of candidates, not just for mayor but City Council and other offices.

Perkins, who helms the campaign finance reform-focused organization CleanSlateNow Action, led the 2018 campaign for Referred Measure 2E which overhauled the city’s campaign finance rules and established the Fair Elections Fund program going into effect this cycle.

“I hear anecdotally there are a lot of candidates that would not be running without the fair elections act,” Perkins said.

Established with the support of more 70% of Denver voters in that 2018 election, the $8 million fund provides public dollars for candidates who agree to accept lower campaign contributions from donors. In the case of mayoral candidates, the maximum donation allowed for Fair Elections Fund candidates is $500 compared to $1,000 for those not participating in the program. Every donation of $50 or less spurs a 9-to-1 payout from the fund, turning $50 into $500 or $10 into $100.

In a video Perkins shared of a forum held at the former Park Hill golf course clubhouse in mid-November, former boxer turned mayoral candidate Aurelio Martinez said the Fair Elections Fund dollars are what got him to join the 2023 race.

“… It does level the playing field,” Martinez said. “For years and years past, it has always been candidates that buy the election simply because their funds, their war chests, are so huge that someone that is running who has good intentions, good ideas, they can’t afford to compete.”

One of the 23 mayoral candidates who have filed paperwork to run this year, Anna Burrell has already withdrawn from the race. But the active list of would-be mayors could yet grow. Former Denver police chief Paul Pazen and City Auditor Timothy O’Brien have not ruled out running.

Other factors beyond public financing are likely contributing to the ever-growing field. It is the first time there will be no incumbent running for mayor since Hancock, now term-limited, was first elected in 2011. That year, 10 candidates were certified for the ballot, the most in any municipal race since at least 1975, city election officials confirmed. That group was whittled from a list of 20 people who filed candidate paperwork, according to the elections division.

The 2023 field will eventually narrow too. Candidates must turn in a petition with 300 valid signatures by Jan. 19 to be certified for the ballot. Those who do not meet that threshold may still opt to try their luck as write-in choices.

An open seat is one thing but the Fair Elections Fund is a new wrinkle for 2023 and its impact is clearly being felt.

Terrance Roberts has a higher public profile than many of the outsider candidates in the mayoral field.

A former gang member turned anti-gang activist, Roberts’ trial and ultimate acquittal in an attempted murder case stemming from a rally he was set to hold in the Northeast Park Hill Neighborhood in 2013 is the subject of the documentary film “The Holly.” The movie sold out showings at the Denver Film Festival this year. Jurors found Roberts acted in self defense.

But Roberts has never held elected office before. He and his supporters felt a pivot to ranked-choice voting, in which voters select multiple candidates in order of preference, would have given him a shot at contending with people with more established political careers. But even without that reform, matching public funds have been a critical support for his campaign thus far.

“I still chose to run because of the fair elections process,” Roberts said. “We felt, even though ranked-choice was not implemented, the Fair Elections Fund would help get me enough capital to compete with establishment political candidates and it’s doing just that.”

Campaign finance records show that Roberts had raised a little more than $17,000 as of the end of September. But he has also received $51,165 from the Fair Elections Fund as of the last disbursal on Nov. 15, giving him a combined total of more than $68,0000.

“We feel like it’s not enough but it’s going to be enough to get me to the next quarter and for me to survive to get on the ballot which is what really matters,” Roberts said. “If I had to go off the $17,000 I initially raised I wouldn’t even be in the conversation but I am still in the conversation.”

Lisa Calderón knows that it takes money to run for mayor in Denver. She ran in 2019, coming in third among six candidates in a year in which Hancock won a third term in a runoff.

That cycle, Calderón raised just over $166,000, city records show (not including independent expenditures made outside of her campaign). Hancock meanwhile raised more than $2.9 million.

She has yet to collect a check from the Fair Elections Fund, but Calderón is getting contributions from small donors as she mounts a second outsider campaign for mayor this cycle.

“It is a game changer. It was a huge factor in my decision to run again, knowing how difficult it was to raise money the first time,” Calderón said.

Fundraising has typically taken up at least half of a candidate’s time in Calderón’s experience. While still time-consuming, the promise of public matching dollars means she can spend more time talking to constituents, attending forums and otherwise meeting with voters. The fund not only gives her a better chance to spread her message across the city but it also gives her supporters more of a sense they are on an equal playing field with donors capable of giving thousands, she said.

“We are talking to people who have never given before to political campaigns. It is astonishing to them to see their money grow,” Calderón said. “And they really feel like investors in the future of the next mayor of Denver and that is exciting to see.”

Calderón has a criticism of the fund. It’s one that has been voiced by other candidates in the race. Established candidates with track records of raising big dollars and winning elections are participating in the fund too and drawing down dollars that could go to more grassroots campaigns.

Between the mayor, City Council,  auditor and clerk races, 73 people had filed formal candidate paperwork as of Thursday, the elections division’s site shows. Of those, 58 people have signed up to participate in the Fair Elections Fund including 16 registered mayoral candidates. Each mayoral campaign can collect as much as $750,000 in matching money, creating a real possibility the $8 million fund could be tapped before the final payments are made in March.

Jesse Lashawn Parris was a regular participant in the public comment portion of City Council meetings before announcing his mayoral candidacy. The activist vented his frustrations about bigger-name candidates participating in the Fair Elections Fund during a council meeting in October.

“They are literally stomping out all the grassroots candidates,” he said.

As of the Nov. 15 payment round, Herod was the mayoral candidate that had collected the most money from the fund, $157,592, matching donations from 493 people, city records show. Kelly Brough, the former head of the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce and chief of staff to then-mayor John Hickenlooper, was second with $135,494 matching money from 312 donors.

Candidates with access to wealthy donors and corporate money choosing to participate in the Fair Elections Fund is a good thing, said Wendy Howell, state director for the progressive group the Colorado Working Families Party. Howell and the party backed the 2018 fair elections ballot measure. She previously worked for the New York City office that manages public campaign funds there, one of the programs on which Denver’s was modeled.

“They see it as a political liability if they don’t. They don’t want to be seen as the big-money candidates and I think that’s a victory for the social change that was made,” Howell said of even big-name candidates participating. ” People are going to learn this year how transformative public matching funds are in terms of who can win these races.”

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