Veiled political groups shape Senate races

Mudslingers revving up for 2010

By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Most Colorado Republicans admit it will be virtually impossible to pick up the three seats needed to take control of the Colorado Senate in 2008. The Republican goal, by most accounts, is to win back those seats by 2010 — just in time for the next round of redistricting.

But both the Republicans and the Democrats — who hope to keep their current five-seat advantage in the Senate — have begun laying the groundwork for 2010’s redistricting in 2008.

A spurt of activity by outside interests in the battleground races in Senate districts 19 and 23 show what’s at stake. Various political activists, working with 527 or 501(c)4 status, are spending profligate sums for attacks on all four candidates, outspending the candidates themselves by far.

SD 19 is considered a potential Republican pick-up, while the Democrats have set their sites on regaining SD 23.

The potentially most damaging attack so far was launched last week against SD 23 candidate Joe Whitcomb, a Democrat who is running against incumbent Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield. Whitcomb, according to the revelations, once had three restraining orders filed against him, which were later dropped.

The records concerning those restraining orders were filed 13 years ago — while Whitcomb was living in Alaska, no less — but somehow ended up on the doorstep of the Rocky Mountain News.

Whitcomb, a former Army Ranger, says the work and money expended to dig up obscure records about an obscure candidate in an obscure race shows how much Republican outside interests want to regain control of the Colorado Senate.

“I don’t think they give a whit about Shawn Mitchell or Joe Whitcomb or the state of Colorado,” said Whitcomb, who was clearly upset that someone had rummaged through his personal life.

Whitcomb says that between them, he and Mitchell have raised a total of about $250,000 for the race — but that millions have been raised “on the periphery on both sides.”

As to the restraining orders, Whitcomb says he was a 25-year-old Army Ranger stationed in Alaska who was near the end of his first marriage when he met a woman in 1996. Whitcomb says he lived with the woman for two months before being sent to Louisiana on Army business, and when he returned, she was gone.

Whitcomb says the first restraining order was filed in October 1995 after he left a rose and note on her car.

“Did I try too hard? Absolutely I tried too hard,” Whitcomb said. “For what it’s worth, doing the same thing won over the woman who is my wife now.”

The second restraining order came that November when he tried to collect rent money she owed him. Whitcomb said the third came that December, just before he left Alaska, after he tried to drop off some of her possessions at her work.

Those charges were eventually dropped. Whitcomb says the woman never even showed up in court.

In the Rocky article, the woman, who is quoted anonymously, says she was afraid Whitcomb was stalking her.

Whitcomb takes issue with that.

“I didn’t follow anybody,” he said, adding that he never had personal contact with the woman after they broke up. “This woman devastated me. I didn’t want to be anywhere near her.”

Mitchell, for his part, says he needs more information about the restraining orders before he decides whether it’s an issue he’d use in his campaign. But the Republican wouldn’t rule it out.

“Official documents in the public record, I think, certainly are fair game — and the voters can decide how useful the information is,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell himself has faced attacks in the form of a mailer sent out by the group Twenty-First Century Colorado, a 527 group which — records show — received more than $467,000 from liberal bigwigs Pat Stryker and Tim Gill this election cycle, and which spent $405,467 in the two weeks between Sept. 11 and Sept. 24 alone.

The group sent out a mailer showing empty combat boots captioned, “When veterans needed him most, Shawn Mitchell went AWOL.” The mailer said Mitchell “opposed millions of dollars in funding for the Colorado Division of Veteran Affairs and veterans’ nursing homes” and that “he even failed to support funding for homeless and disabled veterans.”

The mailer’s accusations, however, do not appear to be well-grounded. One of the votes cited was against the entire state budget, which Mitchell considered bloated. The budget for the Colorado Division of Veterans Affairs was only a small part of that budget. And Mitchell was on an excused absence when the vote was taken to restore money to the Veterans’ Trust Fund — his alleged failure to “support funding for homeless and disabled veterans.” Mitchell says he fully supported the bipartisan bill, which passed overwhelmingly.

Even Whitcomb said in an interview that he thought the mailer was misleading.

Given the actual record on his votes, Mitchell says he thinks it’s wrong to “find a parity between public documents [revealing the restraining orders against Whitcomb], and something that twists my votes into an alleged vote against veterans.”

“One is entirely legitimate, the other is entirely dishonest,” Mitchell said.

Whitcomb, however, doesn’t believe 13-year-old personal history is a legitimate campaign issue — and he hopes Mitchell keeps the campaign positive in its final weeks.

“Ask me if I think I could find out things about Shawn Mitchell’s personal life if I combed through it. Of course I could,” Whitcomb said. “I just don’t care.”

“If somebody does something in the public purview, then fine,” Whitcomb added. “But I think Republicans are really looking for a way for people not to focus on the economy quite so much.”

Besides the anonymous attack on Whitcomb, and the attack on Mitchell by Twenty-First Century Colorado, several other groups have also been in the mix in SD 23. Most prominently, the Western Skies Coalition, a Virginia-based 501(c)4 group, has run at least $143,000 in TV ads touting Mitchell’s positive record on renewable energy. The ads were countered by TV ads from Colorado Conservation Voters Campaign Fund, which stated that Mitchell’s record on renewable energy was poor, and that he opposed higher renewable energy standards and rebates to encourage conservation.

Whitcomb is pinning his hopes for an upset in SD 23 on the fact that 93,000 new voters have registered in SD 23 since 2004, which has a rightward tilt. The district, which contains parts of Adams, Broomfield and Weld counties, is currently 35 percent Republican, 28 percent Democratic and 37 percent unaffiliated.

Whitcomb also hopes he’ll be able to trump any personal attacks by incessantly walking the district and shaking the hands of its voters.

“I hope against all hope that, at the end of the day, that’s what they remember,” he said.

Senate District 19

Besides Mitchell, the Western Skies Coalition also has run TV ads touting Senate District 19 Republican candidate Libby Szabo — a development Szabo had nothing to do with. In fact, Szabo, a mortgage broker who is running against State Board of Education member and Democrat Evie Hudak, says she hasn’t even seen “her” commercial on TV because she doesn’t have cable.

Candidates can’t coordinate with 527s, 501(c)4’s or other such organizations, which leaves those groups free to draw their own conclusions about candidate alliances and to control the candidates’ messages.

On the other side of the aisle, liberal Twenty-First Century Colorado sent out a campaign mailer in support of Hudak that tied Szabo to the Western Skies Coalition. The mailer asserted that “big oil” is running campaign ads on Szabo’s behalf. The mailer cites an article in the Colorado Independent, a left-leaning online news organization, headlined, “Western Skies or More Brown Cloud” which states that Western Skies is “allegedly backed by big-oil money.”

Twenty-First Century Colorado also sent out a campaign mailing bashing Szabo’s responses to a survey from Colorado Right to Life, a pro-life group. Those statements seem to be more accurate.

The mailer says Szabo answered Right to Life’s survey by saying she opposed funding for Planned Parenthood and embryonic stem cell research and would support defining a “person” as existing from the moment of fertilization — in other words, that she supports Amendment 48.

It also says Szabo wrote that she would “oppose abortion at every opportunity.” Asked in an interview if that included cases of rape or incest, Szabo responded simply, “I am pro-life.”

The Republican Senate Majority Fund, meanwhile, has run positive TV ads on behalf of Szabo.

Hudak, a state Board of Education member for the 2nd Congressional District, has been targeted by a 527 called Coloradans for Change. The group, whose registered agent is GOP election lawyer Scott Gessler, and whose secretary and treasurer in 2006 was Bob Schaffer, Hudak’s colleague on the State Board of Education, has raised $80,000 this election cycle and has spent a little more than $31,000, according to campaign finance reports.

The mailer cites an Associated Press report that Hudak had the second highest personal expenses on the seven-person board, claiming $11,316 last year. The mailer portrays Hudak as dining in five-star restaurants, arranging for limo service in Washington D.C., spending four nights at an expensive hotel in Telluride and getting room service at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs on the taxpayers’ dime. It also says Hudak was reprimanded by the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee for the expenses, and that she was “wasting money that could have gone to
education.”

Szabo says the expenses are a legitimate issue.

“I believe that the taxpayer dollar should be held sacred,” she said.

Hudak has defended the expenses, however, because she says many of them were necessary in order for her to attend events around the state and country, and to be an active member of the board.

“My necessary expenses are reimbursed,” she said. “It’s an unpaid position. And I feel that I’m doing a very good job.”

Twenty-First Century Colorado, meanwhile, has run ads touting Hudak.

Hudak and Szabo are running for the seat vacated by term-limited Democratic Sen. Sue Windels. The northern Jefferson County district, which is made up of parts of Arvada and Westminster, is 35 percent Republican, 30 percent Democratic and 34 percent unaffiliated.

Like most of the other candidates, Hudak says she is trying to avoid all the negative noise in order to focus on getting her own message out.

“I’m concerned about getting a positive message about myself out to the voters, and hearing what their concerns are,” she said.