Editorial: Someone really wants this state lawmaker out of office, but Coloradans may never know who

Estimated read time 6 min read

Someone really wants Rep. Mike Weissman, a Democrat, out of office. Coloradans will probably never know who they are or why they are spending about $320,000 to support a different Democrat running for office over Weissman.

But we can speculate.

Weissman, who lives in Aurora, has spent the last 8 years in the General Assembly, standing up to corporate interests and lobbyists. And worse, he was effective at it, closing tax loopholes, defending workers’ rights, and reforming a broken tax code.

“When you do the kind of bills I’ve done you torque people off who have money and power,” Weissman said.

For example, in 2019 Weissman was part of a team that prevented the largest Colorado retailers from retaining an estimated $50 million in Colorado state sales tax revenue that was over and above what large stores like Target and Walmart actually spend to collect and remit sales taxes to the state.

In 2021, he helped restrict a multi-million dollar tax credit that was unnecessarily benefitting insurance companies. The legislation he helped draft required insurance companies to have a certain proportion of their employees in the state, rather than just a small regional office, before they could qualify for the tax benefit.

In 2022, Weissman tried to pass a law regulating the taxing authority and bond issues of developers in Colorado through metropolitan districts. His important legislation was blocked by a powerful lobby of developers and homebuilders.

He’s not the only Colorado lawmaker targeted by dark-money independent expenditure committees, but Weissman’s race stands out by the sheer scope and secrecy of the effort to keep him from moving to the Senate now that he is term-limited in the House. For example, State Rep. Elisabeth Epps, a Democrat who by comparison has been embroiled in far more conflict and controversy than Weissman, is facing about $50,000 of campaign mailers sent out by dark money groups opposing her re-election.

Already half a dozen campaign fliers have been mailed out in Senate District 28 supporting Weissman’s opponent Idris Keith, another Democrat in the primary who is seen as more pro-business and has been endorsed by chambers of commerce and other business groups. Keith cannot control what independent expenditure committees do in his race, nor can he coordinate with them under Colorado law.

“I’m certainly concerned about the money in the political system, big money, dark money, and the large sums of money,” Keith said. “I stated from the very beginning that this is why I accepted voluntary campaign spending limits. My opponent could have joined me in accepting voluntary spending limits, but he did not.”

Keith has voluntarily agreed to cap his spending to about $140,000, neither candidate has raised that much to date.

Weissman also is benefiting now from last-minute dark money pouring into the race, mostly from labor unions, land conservation and school groups, adding up to at least $180,000. Keith said some of those mailers are targeting him in unfair ways. For example, Keith supports a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, but mailers from dark money groups have said otherwise. Anonymous speech is often rife with lies and distortions.

Keith said the attention on spending that supports his candidacy is tinged by the dog-whistle implication that as a Black candidate, he is untrustworthy. We assured him that our concern is that special interests are going after Weissman because of his strong work to push for important reforms like those of metropolitan districts.

The mailers supporting Keith come from a group calling itself “Representation Matters” which is registered as an independent expenditure committee. The committee has also spent almost $90,000 on canvassers to go door to door in support of Keith.

Who is funding Representation Matters? Brighter Futures Colorado, a 527 political organization for federal tax laws, is. Brighter Futures Colorado disclosed on Colorado’s campaign finance reporting tool (TRACER) that it received almost all of its funding from a federal Super PAC called Democracy Wins.

That’s where the trail goes dark. Democracy Wins has only one name associated with it – Jay Petterson of Washington, D.C. – and as a Super PAC is not required to disclose donors until July, well after the primary election in a few weeks. A phone call and an email to Petterson were not returned. Democracy Wins does have a website. It targets Rep. Lauren Boebert – calling her an “American train wreck” — who is now running for Congressional District 4. The simple one-page website asking for donations says: “Defeating seditionists + electing democrats = democracy wins.”

Weisman is a Democrat and he’s certainly no supporter of the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt, so why would Democracy Wins toss at least $300,000 into his race?

In comparison, the independent expenditure group Colorado Labor Action spent more than $30,000 on mailers supporting Weissman and opposing Idris, and another $46,194 on canvassers to go door to door in support of Weissman. Colorado Labor Action reported that most of its donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education a non-profit corporation that is closely tied to the Colorado Education Association.

Conservation Colorado Victory Fund spent another $30,000 on mailers and Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, which is funded by an Oregon dark-money group, has spent $72,000 on digital ads and phone calls to support Weismann.

Weissman says he sees a distinction between a 527 like the long-standing teacher’s union and public lands advocates backing candidates and a brand new entity based in Washington, D.C., that hasn’t made a single FEC filing report of donations or expenditures. Like Keith, Weissman also can’t control what outside expenditure committees do in his race.

In general, we wish Coloradans could see who is trying to buy our hometown elections. Until Congress shuts down dark money groups that are tipping the scales of our elections anonymously, however, this will continue to be the game played by corporations, unions, and other big-monied interest groups.

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