Thornton City Councilor Julia Marvin has issues with the city’s campaign financing.
“We have no limits around campaign finance, I feel like our reporting is really outdated,” she said.
At a March 8 City Council planning session meeting, Marvin told fellow councilors that a group of about 50 residents is organizing around the issue.
One example she pointed out is that the deadline for a candidate’s first campaign finance report is in mid-October, after mailed ballots have started reaching residents.
According to the City of Thornton’s website, in 2021 the candidates’ first deadline to submit a report was Oct. 12. The next was Oct. 29, and then Dec. 2 was the last one. The website says a candidate can start campaigning at any time, as long as they file their candidate affidavit within 10 days of announcing their campaign. That includes fundraising.
“That’s a long time to go without reporting,” Marvin said.
According to Kristen Rosenbaum, Thornton’s City Clerk, the County Clerk’s office may mail ballot packets to voters not sooner than 22 days and no later than 18 days before the election.
In 2021, the packets were mailed October 11 through October 15, she said.
City Councilor Kathy Henson voiced support for reform and pointed to mail-in ballots arriving at folks’ houses before the first campaign finance report is due.
Marvin said there is also a lack of limits regarding campaign donations.
“Not having any limits or anything allows large donors and special interest groups to have a disproportionate level of influence in our elections and the rising cost of campaigning for office has prevented qualified citizens from running,” she said.
She wants limits on campaign contributions, as well as eliminating anonymous donations, public financing for campaigns, strengthening dark money coordination restrictions and adding teeth to enforcement policies.
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.
“I think there is already a lot of campaign reform,” Mayor Pro Tem Jessica Sandgren said. “I don’t support putting staff energy into this right now.”
Mayor Jan Kulmann said there was not enough consensus to move to item forward, however, Henson noted the residents interested in pursuing the issue are coming.
Experience with Campaigning
Kate Miya, a Thornton resident, teacher and a former candidate for city council, confirmed that 50 residents are organizing for campaign finance reform. Miya ran against City Councilor Tony Unrein and lost in 2021.
“Until you run for an office you don’t know how broken something is until you see that,” she said.
When she ran for the City Council, Miya said she was shocked by how much money went into local elections.
“If you wanted to give me a million dollars, you could,” she said. “That’s not the way I think that the system was supposed to be set up. It’s supposed to be more about electing people and giving people a choice, not who can you know, fill your mailbox up with the most flyers.”
More money means more name recognition through lawn signs, mailers and other advertising techniques, she said.
She pointed to the CleanSlateNow Action organization, whose mission is “to eliminate the corrupting influence of big money in politics and elections.”
The organization releases reports for municipal and state elections detailing where the candidate’s money comes from.
The organization’s report on Thornton’s 2021 municipal election showed that Unrein raised a total of $33,325.99 dollars, which included $7,000 from his own pocket, for the 2021 City Council election. Of that, 36.70% of the donors were from individuals.
Miya received $18,047.92 and contributed $200 of her own money. 80.89% of her donors were from individuals.
“To me, it looks like purchasing the seat and that’s not what’s supposed to happen,” she said. “Tony is a good guy, I’m sure. So I don’t want to disparage him in any way, shape or form. But when you look at the amount of money that he brought in and the average contribution for him was $640. My average contribution was about $70. It’s a big difference, especially when you start looking at where that money comes from.”
Reporting deadlines in Westminster and Northglenn mirror those of Thornton. Their first reporting deadline is Oct. 12, the second is Oct. 29 and their final is Dec. 2.
As to contribution limits, the City of Westminster’s website says “The Westminster Municipal Code does not specify any amount for contribution limits.”
The same goes for Northglenn, and both municipalities outline how all campaign contributions are required to be disclosed. Guidelines for disclosing contributions are: $19.99 or less do not need to be itemized, $20 or more must be itemized and include the name and address of the contributor, $100 or more must include the occupation and employer of the contributor, $1,000 or more must be reported within 24 hours of receipt and cash contributions cannot exceed $100.
Additionally, the Westminster City Charter states that any donation from a council member or their immediate family over $100 shall create a conflict of interest in regards to that councilor’s vote on any issue.
Northglenn candidates cannot accept contributions from corporations or labor organizations, foreign citizens, foreign corporations or governments, other candidate committees or anonymous contributors.
Miya echoed Marvin’s ideas to require the first reporting deadline to be prior to when ballots are received by voters and to put a cap on donations.
Owen Perkins, President of CleanSlateNow Action, described a public financing option, where the government helps fund campaigns. 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.
In Seattle, he said that every registered voter gets four $25 vouchers that can only be used for candidates who opt-in for public financing and turn down special interest corporate money.
With those vouchers, he said populations without any disposable income suddenly became a huge voting block that politicians began catering to.
“They started being empowered with the ability to make significant kind of campaign contributions,” he said. “The other result is that you get candidates who are much more diverse, who are younger or candidates of color, more women running as all them running and winning elections at a much higher rate than we’ve seen in the past when you get those kinds of reforms in place.”
As well, he suggests banning corporate and union contributions.
Perkins 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.
“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.
Getting on the Ballot
The process to put the item on the ballot, Miya and Marvin said, is difficult.
Both said the current council would not be in favor of acting on the issue. The city charter requires signatures collected from 10% of eligible voters within a 21-day timeframe for a citizen’s initiative.
“We’re looking at trying to gather something like 12,000 to 14,000 signatures in 21 days, and that’s pretty much impossible,” Miya said.
The group has not selected a date to begin and they are waiting to pinpoint a timeframe with the most city-wide events to start the clock.
“Let’s make it so that it’s an even playing field because my opponent doubled what I was able to raise. He’s a retired person and he has some connections and that’s all very well,” Miya said. “I’m just a working-class person, I’m a teacher, I’ve been involved in the city outside of just teaching, and I don’t think I really ever stood a chance.”