By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff isn’t wasting any opportunities in igniting a campaign that’s been perceived by critics as getting off to a slow start. In light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week opening the door for unlimited campaign spending by corporations and labor unions, Democrat Romanoff sounded a familiar note by asking all opposing candidates to follow his lead in resisting special interest campaign donations.
“Return the money you’ve taken from political action committees and don’t take any more,” Romanoff challenged his Senate opponents at a press conference outside the Capitol on Tuesday.
From the onset of his campaign, Romanoff has said he will resist donations from PACs and fundraising bundlers. Although Romanoff isn’t the only candidate who hasn’t accepted PAC money, he’s the only one to openly resist it.
Sen. Michael Bennet reported receiving over $600,000 in PAC contributions in 2009. Spokesman Craig Hughes said Bennet would not entertain the notion of returning that money.
“Our candidate is not going to return the PAC donations we have received and we’re going to continue to get as much support as we possibly can — that’s financial, that’s volunteers — to win this race,” Hughes said.
Romanoff’s refusal to accept PAC money has resonated with Colorado voters, the candidate said. He reported Tuesday that over 2,300 individual Coloradans donated to his campaign in the election cycle’s fourth quarter — 600 more than what Bennet reported. Official fundraising numbers are scheduled for release by the end of the month.
Bennet has far outperformed Romanoff and the GOP candidates in fundraising as fourth quarter reports trickle in. His campaign reported that Bennet raised $1.6 million in the fourth quarter election cycle, increasing his total on hand to $3.48 million. Romanoff has yet to release his fourth quarter totals. In the third quarter he raised $292,689.
GOP front-runner and former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton led all GOP challengers in third quarter fundraising and added somewhere just below $550,000 in the fourth quarter. Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, unlike Norton, has yet to receive a PAC contribution.
Romanoff framed his Tuesday press conference using the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC to call out opposing candidates. By a narrow 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court overturned decades of campaign finance precedent restricting independent expenditures and direct electioneering by corporations and labor unions. Those groups can now spend endless amounts of money to support or oppose a candidate using various forms of advertisements.
Romanoff said he wants to protect current state campaign finance laws. He warned rival candidates that by accepting PAC money, special interest noise would grow louder than the voices of citizen voters.
“The people of Colorado should be able to elect our own senator,” Romanoff said. “We may not be able to stop outside interest groups from interfering in our elections, but we don’t need to put out a welcome mat. Let’s tell the insurance industry and the drug companies and the Wall Street banks, don’t tread on Colorado.”
Bennet’s camp also views the Supreme Court’s decision as a problem, said Hughes.
“Michael has spoken out very clearly and forcefully that this Supreme Court decision could allow for more special interest inputs in politics, which he opposes, and is very aggressively looking for anything he can do within the Senate to try and restore any sanity to this process,’’ Hughes said.
It’s unclear how Colorado law will change under the Supreme Court’s ruling and when that will happen. Secretary of State Bernie Buescher indicated that a number of changes are inevitable.
“The Supreme Court has already issued their decisions and it looks pretty blatant that the Colorado State Constitution is now out of compliance with that decision,” said Rich Coolidge, Buescher’s spokesman.
Coolidge used, as example, Section Six of Article 28, which states it’s “unlawful for a corporation or a labor organization to provide funding for electioneering communication.”
To save the state money accumulated from lawsuits challenging Colorado laws, Buescher is moving to align state laws with the newly revised federal laws, Coolidge said. On Monday, Buescher called a meeting with an advisory committee of attorneys representing Democrats and Republicans and various interest groups. From that meeting Buescher was able to draft some questions for the Supreme Court that will be delivered by Gov. Bill Ritter or the Legislature.
“The main issue (Buescher) is looking at is trying to be frugal with the state’s money. We want to look out for the taxpayers,” Coolidge said.
Romanoff said some Republican lawyers might sue to overturn additional state campaign finance laws not addressed in the Citizens United decision. Laws that prohibit corporations and unions from making direct contributions to political candidates are in danger, Romanoff said.
“To suggest that Citizens United forces us to overturn that law is a grotesque misinterpretation of that law,” he said.
Richard Westfall, a lawyer in practice with the Denver law firm of Hale-Friesen, LLP, and treasurer of the state’s Republican Party, said Romanoff’s chargers are typical for a primary candidate using scare tactics against the opposing party to “score points.”
“For Andrew Romanoff to so quickly dismiss this as a ‘GOP effort’ is something I’d like to fundamentally reject out of the block,” said Westfall, who attended Buescher’s meeting. “There are various interests, including corporations generally that are very concerned about this. And we’re talking to people who have no affiliation whatsoever with the Republican Party who are equally concerned with the fact that state law has bans on corporate speech.”
Westfall said several groups, including Republicans, still plan to sue the state if state officials don’t move fast enough to revise federally contradicting laws.
“We’re already in an election year. Shouldn’t we have clarity earlier in this year as possible so people understand the ground rules?” Westfall asked.
Some other campaign finance provisions also may be called into question but Westfall didn’t specify.
Norton said she supports any move to lift current campaign finance laws.
“The Supreme Court ruling is another step in the direction of eliminating unconstitutional curbs on political speech. The Court now needs to finish the job by removing the restrictions on our state and local political parties so they, too, can enjoy their first amendment rights of political speech and free association,” Norton said. “There is a fine line in our democracy between unjust censorship and ensuring fair elections, and I believe the McCain-Feingold Act crossed the line into censorship in several key areas.”
Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck reflected a similar sentiment. Campaign spokesman Owen Loftus said Buck is “against any impediments on the first amendment rights of any Americans.”