Thursday, October 29, 2009

Montana-based org. pours cash into conservative coffers in Longmont City Council race

By Jefferson Dodge

A regional rightwing advocacy group with connections to Republican political powers in Colorado has taken a keen interest in a hotly contested Longmont City Council race.

It has funded, among other things, the controversial phone survey last month about Councilmember Karen Benker, which some have called a “push poll.”

It is not the first time that Western Tradition Partnership (WTP) has gotten involved in a Colorado election, and not the first time it has been accused of using negative campaign tactics.

But the group’s leaders maintain that they never campaign for or against any candidate. They say they are simply involved in education, advocating for issues and encouraging citizen involvement in government. They deny that the survey was a “push poll.”

And yet a Longmont group that they fund has been using their money to campaign against Benker.

Western Tradition Partnership is one of the plaintiffs in a recent legal challenge to Longmont’s campaign laws. WTP funds another plaintiff in that lawsuit, the Longmont Leadership Committee, which has been actively opposing Benker. A judge found largely in favor of the plaintiffs in an Oct. 21 ruling and granted a preliminary injunction that keeps the plaintiffs from having to abide by several of Longmont’s campaign-reporting requirements until the suit is decided.

The battlefield

It is the latest skirmish in a Longmont political war that has only escalated in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election.

Some say the Longmont race has heated up and attracted attention from outside heavyweights because it is a swing city, in a swing district, in a swing state.

In broad terms, the two main factions in Longmont have been described as backers of the liberal “gang of four” — council members who oppose megachurch LifeBridge’s development plan and Firestone’s annexation of land for that development on the east side of town — and those who side with the “old guard” conservatives who support that development and want Longmont to drop its lawsuits fighting Firestone’s annexation. The former has been painted as anti-business and “Boulderized,” while the latter has been characterized as pro-development.

The lawsuit filed against the city this fall by the group of “old guard” individuals and groups challenges the Longmont Fair Campaign Practices Act (LFCPA), which was updated this year after a special election in 2008, when “old guard” Councilmember Gabe Santos, who is running for re-election on Nov. 3, was victorious. He had received a $5,000 contribution from the Longmont Association of Realtors.

His opponents, including “gang of four” Councilmember Benker, cried foul and helped lead an effort to update the LFCPA so that contributors to political campaigns had to declare on political communications their identities and the amount they were spending, among other things.

Benker is running for re-election against Katie Witt, who has said that the anti-Benker efforts such as the alleged “push poll” were done without her knowledge, and Witt has condemned them.

Benker and one of her supporters have filed several complaints with the newly formed Longmont Election Committee, alleging that her opponents’ various mailers and phone calls violated the LFCPA. One of those complaints, alleging that the Longmont Leadership Committee did not file necessary paperwork within 72 hours, was reviewed Oct. 26 by the Election Committee, which fined the committee $600, according to the Longmont Times-Call. Another Benker complaint that is still pending claims that required paperwork was not filed for the alleged “push poll.”

The lawsuit, on the other hand, alleges that some of the new campaign contribution regulations are too strict and violate the First Amendment.

In addition to Western Tradition Partnership and the Longmont Leadership Committee, the plaintiffs are former Longmont Mayor Julia Pirnack, political activist and blogger Chris Rodriguez and the Longmont Association of Realtors. The plaintiffs argue that the act, and an article about the act in a city newsletter, have chilled free speech.

In granting the injunction, U.S. Senior District Judge Walker Miller ruled that the plaintiffs are likely to prevail in most of their claims. Scott Gessler, the plaintiffs’ attorney, calls the decision a “slam dunk,” while City Attorney Eugene Mei says the ruling leaves the bulk of the city’s act unchanged.

Donny Ferguson, Western Tradition Partnership’s director of public relations, issued a press release trumpeting the judge’s decision on Oct. 21.

“Longmont politicians can no longer use an unconstitutional law to harass people who want to publicly discuss real issues,” he said in the release.

Luis Toro, senior counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch, has a different take. “The whole point of the lawsuit they filed is so that people won’t trace where the money is coming from,” he says.

So what is this outside group that is suing the city and has provided the Longmont Leadership Committee with $6,269 of its $6,594 in contributions, most of which has been used to defeat Benker and put Katie Witt in office?

Read the full article at the Boulder Weekly

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