Campaign finance reform was a hot topic once again as seven residents testified about adding more rules and regulations for those hoping to win a seat on Thornton’s council at the March 22 meeting.
“There are very few limitations on campaign finance here in the city,” said Roberta Ayala, a former candidate for city council.
“It’s truly a nonpartisan issue,” City Councilor Julia Marvin said. “People want a functioning, transparent and trustworthy government and campaign finance regulations is one way we get that, we all really do want a democracy where we all have a voice and we want our elected officials to not be beholden to any particular special interest and held accountable to the voters.”
Marvin also said that local elections have smaller campaign funds than state and federal elections, so a large donation has greater weight because it takes up a larger percentage of the war chest.
Marvin and a group of residents want limits on campaign contributions, eliminating anonymous donations, public financing for campaigns, strengthening dark money coordination restrictions and adding teeth to enforcement policies.
Kate Miya, a Thornton resident, teacher and a former candidate for city council, noted in her public comment that if someone wanted to give one million dollars to a candidate, they could.
At a study session on March 8, City Councilor Adam Matkowsky said he would only be in favor of city staff investigating the matter if “a lot more than 50” residents were in favor.
Mayor Pro Tem Jessica Sandgren also said she was not in favor.
“I think there is already a lot of campaign reform,” Sandgren said. “I don’t support putting staff energy into this right now.”
Big donor influence
Owen Perkins, President of CleanSlateNow Action, thinks that a candidate’s campaign fund should be almost 100% from individual donors. Anything lower than that, he thinks a candidate starts to become influenced by big donors.
To achieve a higher percentage of individual donors, he points to Aurora who recently passed a referendum to put a limit on contributions, $400 per constituent for council members and $1,000 for mayor and at-large members. As well, no corporate donations are allowed.
“In the election before they passed reforms, they had one candidate who was over 90% from individuals and in the most recent election last November, I think it was six out of 13 candidates were over 90%,” he said.
CleanSlateNow Action completes reports on municipalities’ elections to find how much money a candidate receives, the percentage of individual donors, how much money the candidate put in their own campaign, and other statistics.
The process, he said, is very tedious and labor-intensive.
“Taking the information from a PDF and putting it into a way that you can sort it,” he said.
He said the reports are credible, and all the information is from the city clerk or Secretary of State.
The website lists the 2021 city council candidates’ percentages of individual donors: Karen Bigelow, 82.83%; Kate Miya, 79.79%; Roberta Ayala, 73.81%; Jessica Sandgren, 65.68%; Kathy Henson, 53.07%; Angie Bedolla, 44.66% and Tony Unrein 36.79%.
The total amount of money in the election was $186,458.99. The amount of money from individual donors was $121,760.92, which is about 65%.
Comparing other cities
CleanSlateNow Action also runs models that follow candidates’ money through different scenarios. Perkins ran models on 2021 Thornton candidates’ campaign funds using the city of Aurora’s donation limits and the Denver match donation program. In Denver, he said a matching program exists where a donation will be matched 9-1.
“If I contribute $10 to somebody, it’s matched with a $90 contribution from public funds to become a $100 contribution,” he said.
Perkins emphasized that the projections are speculative and rough.
“Candidates would presumably take a different approach to fundraising under the new system if it were in effect, i.e., emphasizing the importance of small-dollar donations, giving up the reliance on corporate and big-dollar donations, emphasizing in-city contributions,” he said.
The results are as follows.
Jessica Sandgren, total contributions $32,677. With Aurora limits, $11,110 and with Denver match $11,110.
Roberta Ayala, total contributions $18,513.99. With Aurora limits, $12,114.99 and with Denver match $68,274.99.
Tony Unrein, total contributions $33,325.99. With Aurora limits, $13,719.99 and with Denver match $13,719.99.
Kate Miya, total contributions $18,047.92. With Aurora limits, $12,769.54 and with Denver match $67,032.70.
Kathy Henson, total contributions $21,740. With Aurora limits, $15,290 and with Denver match, $31,035.
Angie Bedolla, total contributions $36,172, with Aurora limits $9,955 and with Denver match $9,955.
Karen Bigelow, total contributions $25,982.02, with Aurora limits $18,332.02 and with Denver match $32,237.02.
Perkins emphasized that he “wouldn’t recommend using the projections to make comparative judgments on the candidates, other than to illustrate the general picture of how reforms affect candidates who have been relying on larger donations and corporate donations vs. those who are relying on small-dollar donors from primarily natural persons.”