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Billionaires, developers and dark money spend big on Denver mayor’s race


Billionaires, developers and dark money spend big on Denver mayor’s race

Mar 27, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Chase Woodruff
Billionaires, developers and dark money spend big on Denver mayor’s race
The Denver City and County Building at 1437 Bannock St. in Denver, seen on Aug. 5, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

The 2023 Denver mayor’s race is the first in which candidates could participate in the city’s new Fair Elections Fund, which aimed to level the playing field through the partial public financing of campaigns. But with the April 4 municipal election fast approaching, rich donors and unlimited super PAC spending are giving two contenders a clear advantage over the rest of the crowded field.

More than $1.7 million in contributions to an independent expenditure committee has vaulted former state Sen. Mike Johnston into the overall fundraising lead, more than tripling the amount raised by his campaign, which is subject to a $500 maximum contribution limit. Super PACs can accept unlimited contributions but are barred from coordinating directly with candidates and their campaigns.

The top donors to Advancing Denver, the super PAC supporting Johnston’s campaign, include LinkedIn cofounder and venture capitalist Reid Hoffman, hedge fund manager Steve Mandel and Colorado megadonor Kent Thiry, the former CEO of Denver-based health care giant DaVita.

Kelly Brough, former head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, has received nearly $1 million in outside help as well. Nearly half of the contributions to the group A Better Denver, which is supporting Brough’s candidacy, have come from the National Association of Realtors. Other top donors include the Colorado Construction Industry Coalition, the Apartment Association of Metro Denver and Denver real-estate developer Lloyd Fulenwider.

The super PAC funding means that with just over a week to go before election day, both Brough and Johnston boast well over double the financial support of their nearest rival, state Rep. Leslie Herod.

Herod, who has raised $332,496 directly from donors and supplemented that with $587,057 in Fair Elections Fund payments, has also received $200,000 in super PAC support from a group called Ready Denver. 

Nearly all of that total came from the Ready Denver Fund, a 501(c)(4), “dark money” nonprofit created in January, according to disclosure reports and records from the Colorado secretary of state’s office. The LGBTQ Victory Fund and LPAC, which supports LGBTQ women candidates for office, also contributed a combined $20,000 to Ready Denver.

Expenditure reports show that City Councilmember-at-Large Debbie Ortega has received over $120,000 in support from a committee associated with the Denver firefighters’ union, while Lisa Calderón, a progressive activist who placed third in the 2019 mayor’s race, got an $18,357 boost from the Colorado Working Families Party.

And a separate committee with a name nearly identical to the pro-Brough group — “A Better Denver!” — has spent $26,000 on behalf of state Sen. Chris Hansen, according to disclosure reports. Most of that came from the renewable energy advocacy organization American Energy Action.

Top outside donors

Under the Fair Elections Fund, which all but one candidate for mayor are participating in, donors contributing at any level up to $500 can elect to have the first $50 of their contribution matched at a 9-to-1 ratio. Candidates participating in the program agree to a maximum donation size of $500 and can only accept contributions from individuals and small-donor committees.

The fund has paid out more than $3.5 million to 13 different mayoral candidates in periodic disbursements since last November, with the last payments doled out on March 21.

But its impact has been increasingly diluted by the flood of outside money that has poured into the race in recent weeks. Independent expenditure reports show the vast majority of funds raised by the pro-Brough and pro-Johnston super PACs have been spent on pricey media ad buys in the Denver market, a potentially major boost as voters pick from 16 different candidates.

With the Fair Elections Fund and independent expenditures augmenting traditional campaign fundraising, the 2023 mayor's race looks set to shatter spending records. Outside groups spent a combined total of less than $1 million on behalf of incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock and challenger Jamie Giellis in the 2019 municipal election. Super PAC spending in 2023 has already tripled that figure, even before a probable head-to-head runoff election in the event that no candidate wins an outright majority next week.

Hoffman's contribution of nearly $800,000 to Advancing Denver alone exceeds the total raised by two pro-Hancock groups in 2019. A prolific donor to Democratic candidates and causes, Hoffman previously donated $1 million to a super PAC supporting Johnston's 2018 bid for governor.

Neither Hoffman nor Mandel reside in Colorado, according to campaign finance disclosures. Advancing Denver's largest local donor is Thiry, a frequent contributor to centrist political causes in Colorado, including 2018's Amendments Y and Z, a pair of anti-gerrymandering reforms. Under Thiry’s leadership, DaVita, a dialysis company founded in 1994, agreed to pay a total of $800 million in two settlement agreements with the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations of illegal kickbacks and billing practices.

Today is the last day Denver elections officials recommend returning your ballot through the mail. Voters can return their ballot through 24-hour drop boxes or vote in person until 7 p.m. on April 4.