In An Era Of Self-Funded Campaigns, Amendment 75 Aims To Even The Odds

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Photo: Primary voting June 2016 (AP Photo)
Lynn Torre completes her ballot at a polling center, on state primary election day, in Boulder, Colo., Tuesday, June 28, 2016.

Rep. Jared Polis has spent $22 million of his own money on his race for the governor's mansion. And in the Republican primary for the governor's nomination, Victor Mitchell loaned his campaign $3 million.

Big figures like these led a pair of former state lawmakers to sponsor Amendment 75, which voters will decide on this election.

The measure says that if a candidate for state office puts $1 million or more of their own money to their campaign, then every candidate in that race can accept up to five times the normal campaign contribution limit.

Right now, the maximum a supporter can contribute is $1,150. If the measure passes, that amount would jump to $5,750.

Former state senator Greg Brophy is a proponent of the measure. Common Cause executive director Amanda Gonzalez is against it. Brophy and Gonzalez debated the pros and cons of Amendment 75 for Colorado Matters.

Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. At a Get Out the Vote Rally in Boulder last week, US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont made a statement.

Senator Bernie Sanders: Today, in America, as all of you know, we have a corrupt campaign system which allows billionaires to buy elections. 

RW: Ironically, perhaps, one of the candidates Sanders was stumping for in Colorado was Congressman Jared Polis. The Democratic candidate for Governor has spent $22 million of his own money on his campaign against Republican Walker Stapleton. Figures like that led a pair of former state lawmakers to sponsor Amendment 75, which voters are deciding on this election. It attempts to even the playing field in Colorado. We're going to hear the pros and cons. Former state Senator Greg Brophy is a proponent. 
Welcome to the program. 

Greg Brophy: Hi. 

RW: And Amanda Gonzalez is a leader of Common Cause, a non-partisan organization that's fighting the measure. Hi, Amanda.

Amanda Gonzalez: Hi. Thanks for having me. 

RW: I want to say that Jared Polis isn't the only candidate in Colorado who has spent big money this election cycle. Victor Mitchell, who lost the Republican gubernatorial primary, loaned his campaign $3 million, while Walker Stapleton has spent $1 million. Greg Brophy, tell us what Amendment 75 would do, why you think it's the right answer in light of what some may consider excessive campaign spending.

GB: Well, Amendment 75 seeks to close this thing that the Denver Post called a millionaire loophole that 
was created in 2002 when Common Cause ran an initiative that amended our constitution establishing campaign finance laws in Colorado. And we're seeing the fruits of that now, that these new laws that establish the second lowest campaign donation limit in the country, for statewide offices in Colorado, give millionaires who can spend $20 million or $30 million a tremendous advantage over regular people who have to raise their money to run for office.

RW: So this would raise those limits for the other candidates in the race. Explain the mechanics of 75.

GB: It would actually raise the limits for everybody in the race if someone tries to purchase an election by putting a million or more of his or her own money into the race, and it would lift the finance limits from the current, very low level of $1150 per donation to what would be about equal to the national average of $5,619. We'd raise it to $5750.

RW: So to be clear, if someone spends a million dollars or more on their own campaign, the limits go up for everyone in the race in terms of individual donations.

GB: That's correct, yes. It has to be for everyone in the race or it would be unconstitutional.

RW: That is to say even the millionaire, in this case, would benefit from those increased limits.

GB: Yes, indeed.

RW: Okay. Does this apply to the primary, to the general, both, one?

GB: It would apply to all. Every candidate in the race at the time that the trigger occurs. So in 2016, Vic 
Mitchell, as you mentioned in the opening, would've triggered this for everybody in the race when he put $3 million in.

RW: This is for statewide office only, is that correct? Not congressional districts, for instance?

GB: Correct.

RW: Okay. Well, what do you object to most, would you say, Amanda, in this proposal?

AG: So Colorado, as Greg mentioned, really led the way in reducing our campaign contribution limits, and we think that the solution to the corrupting influence of money in politics is not more money in politics. And what this would effectively do is quintuple the donation limits that Coloradans can give.

RW: Why is that an issue? That is to say, if you are trying to even the playing field, at least you're making it more competitive.

AG: Well I don't think that most people would think that leveling the playing field would include increasing contributions that the so-called millionaire candidate can receive, right? That we're also increasing the contributions that that person could take in. Furthermore, most Coloradans don't have an additional $5,000 in their budget every election cycle to give to candidates, most people actually donate less than $250 to candidates. So what we think this would do would just increase the amount of money that wealthy people will be contributing to elected officials. 

RW: Yes, let's do the math once again. The current maximum a supporter can contribute is $1,150. If Amendment 75 passes and someone donates a million dollars to their campaign, it makes that a sort of self-funded donation that ratchets up to $5750. And you think that still puts rich influencers in the race over every day folk. Is that what I hear you saying, Amanda?

AG: Yes. I mean, I don't know about you, but I don't have an extra $5,000 that I can give to people running for office, and most Coloradans don't either. I want the voices of everyday people to be heard in elections and I think this is just going to increase the corruption in our elections.

RW: What would say, Greg Brophy, to some of what you've heard there from Amanda?

GB: Well, I would say this, that we are supposed to be having an election and not an auction. If you have a system in place that makes it so that a person can come in and put $30 million into a race, where it's $30 million versus $4 million, that's just not fair. I think that bothers most people in Colorado. They think that we should have fairness in elections and not this millionaire loophole that really does allow someone to buy the seat. Now, if you're one of those people who wanted to see Colorado have their first woman governor, you should be furious that this loophole allow Jared Polis to buy the democratic nomination for $11 million.

RW: I want to challenge a little bit this assertion that he has bought something. There are plenty of races in which big spenders have not won, I think primarily of Meg Whitman in California. It comes down still to people casting ballots in a primary. Are you saying, Greg Brophy, if you weren't wealthy, or if you were wealthy that is, you wouldn't spend your own money on your campaign?

GB: I may, and you know, I actually ran for governor. I bought a Powerball ticket while I was running for governor and I said, "Well, if I win this thing, man, I'm gonna have $20 million to throw at this governor's race." Of course I would, and I don't begrudge anybody their success or spending their own money. 

RW: It's funny because it sounds like you do. 

GB: What I begrudge is that they have such a tremendous advantage over the rest of us trying to run for office. That the most successful fundraiser under this existing regime was a sitting governor who raised $6 million. I do not believe in a state like Colorado, you can win a close election with $6 million versus $30 million. That's not fair. I think that strikes most people as unfair. Let's level this playing field. 

RW: To what extent is this a personal crusade for you, Greg Brophy? I mean as someone who has been a candidate, as someone who's been a state lawmaker? 

GB: I believe in good policy and I believe in fairness and so if that makes it a personal crusade, well, then I'll run towards it. 

RW: But I think you've been up against wealthy candidates yourself.

GB: I have, I have. When I was running in 2014, one of my opponents dropped $800,000 into the race. Not quite a million, but pretty darn close.

RW: Okay. It's interesting because both candidates for governor, Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton, support Amendment 75. Here is what Polis said to us when we spoke with him in September.

Jared Polis: On the margins I think it improved things, but I would be clear, it doesn't really change the fact that it puts too much influence in the hands of the wealthy and powerful. This is fine, there's no harm in this initiative, other than that it doesn't really address the core problem in camping finance, which is that the special interests are still favored.

RW: So Jared Polis doesn't think Amendment 75 is enough to solve the issue, but he is generally been in favor of it. Amanda Gonzalez, if this isn't the right first step, what do you think reform should look like?

AG: So I think what we can all agree on is that we, that everybody should have a voice in our democracy and that money shouldn't corrupt that, right. So our campaign finance laws are really complicated. They're tough to understand and it's kind of a rats nest, right. So what we need is comprehensive campaign finance reform, not this sort of piecemeal approach that doesn't actually get rid of the corrupting influence of money and politics. What it does is just increase the amount of money that wealthy individuals can continue to give. 

RW: Say more about that. It's a point you've brought up several times. What is it that you fear with that possibility? 

AG: So a couple things. So Amendment 75 triggers these increased donations, right, that individuals can give five times as much as they can currently give. Any time a candidate contributes over a million dollars to their campaign, anytime that they loan their campaign more than a million dollars and anytime that they direct or facilitate third parties to give a million dollars. And that's some pretty ambiguous language. So my first fear is that this is just going to happen throughout Colorado. That almost every statewide race is going to increase or have increase contribution limits of five times what they currently are. I worry about a candidate loaning themselves a million dollars just so they can trigger these increased contribution limits to themselves. 

RW: And sort of work the system? 

AG: Yeah. And I just also worry about quid pro quo corruption. That right now our contribution limits are pretty low and that's a good thing. That's something that Colorado voters wanted. And if I as an individual am handing a candidate five times as much as I'm currently allowed to give, I might have different expectations about what I'm going to get in return. 

RW: I should say that in Denver there is 2E on the ballot, which also has to do with campaign finance. I just wonder very quickly what you make of that?

AG: Yeah so Colorado Common Cause is supportive of 2E and what it would do is create funding for candidates who aren't taking corporate money and who are only taking smaller donations. So if an individual in Denver contributes $50 there would be a fund that would match that contribution by nine to one. Which would allow, we think, those smaller contributions to fund candidates that are grassroots, that are local, that individuals really support and want to see on the ballot. 

RW: Okay, so that apparently looks more like what you'd like to see statewide perhaps. Respond to those concerns Greg Brophy that Amendment 75 could be played. 

GB: Well we already have a system that is being played and as much as I appreciate my opponent's passion for keeping money out of politics, she has an offered no solution to keeping someone from buying an election in the way that we're seeing right now. I mean what we see is we have the, with the millionaire loophole, a candidate can purchase an Indy car while everybody else is stuck peddling a Flintstone's car for the election. That's not fair. It's not right. We should close this millionaire loop hole. 

RW: It's interesting you keep calling it the millionaire loophole, but isn't money a form of free speech and if you've got the money to lend your own campaign, are you saying that you shouldn't be able to do that? Fundamentally is that a change you'd like to see?

GB: Oh absolutely not. I think money is free speech and I think if you've earned a billion dollars you can spend it in any way you want to. 

RW: Why do you refer to it as a loophole? That implies almost something that should be closed. 

GB: It is a loophole and that is what The Denver Post called it back in 2002 when Common Cause put this into our constitution.

RW: Thanks for being with us. We appreciate both of your time. 

GB: You bet.

RW: You can say you're welcome. Or thanks!

AG: Thanks for having us!

GB: Always fun to come and talk with your audience. 

RW: You've heard from Amanda Gonzalez, Executive Director of Common Cause, a non-partisan organization that is against Amendment 75 which tries to even the playing field when there's a wealthy candidate in the race. Greg Brophy, helped create 75. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.