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Dark and dirty 

Local attack ads are getting nasty again, and candidates say they have nothing to do with them

On the front of the mailer, a woman is lying on her back on a doctor's table, her white legs propped up so her hospital gown settles at the top of her thighs. Light shines along her pelvic region. Her hand rests on her belly.

She looks as though she's awaiting a pap smear, and the line along the top suggests as much: "No one likes going to the doctor," it says.

But this isn't a friendly reminder to schedule your annual exam, or a warning about the dangers of cervical cancer. It's a political attack ad, the back of which shows incumbent state Rep. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, with a leering expression and the words, "Politician Tony Exum is making it even worse." It goes on to attack Exum's votes on several bills, including one concerning the funding of the Colorado Health Benefit Exchange.

Abby Ferber, a professor of sociology and women and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, says the ad reminds her of a "toned-down" version of the imagery used in white supremacist publications, which preys on subconscious biases. She notes that Exum, who is black, is portrayed in a threatening manner, while the white woman on the front appears "at risk."

"It feels uncomfortable looking at this," she says, "and it feels negative even if you don't stop and process it."

Exum says he's seen the attack ad. It didn't strike him as racist, he says, just "very distasteful."

Those who find the ad offensive will have a difficult time determining whom to blame. Exum's Republican challenger, Catherine "Kit" Roupe, says she had nothing to do with it, and doesn't condone it.

It's a scenario that's becoming more and more common in politics these days: Attack ads are pumped out by tax-exempt political organizations that seek to influence elections, known as 527s (named for the part of the IRS code that applies to them). Barred from coordinating with candidates, 527s are backed by what's often referred to as "dark money" or "soft money" — limitless donations that are often hard to track back to donors.

The mailer about Exum came from the 527 group Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government, which targets liberal candidates.

Per Colorado law, contributions of $20 or more to a 527 that spends money on Colorado political activities have to be reported to the Colorado Secretary of State. But the problem is that disclosures often simply cite other funds, not all of which are tracked. In CCAG's case, a $100,000 contribution is shown from the Colorado Leadership Fund and a $250,000 contribution is shown from the Republican State Leadership Committee-Colorado Account, both of which are also 527 organizations.

The Leadership Fund does list contributions, from organizations as diverse as the Colorado Apartment Association and Humana. The State Leadership Committee lists no contributions or expenditures.

Wherever the money came from, the District 17 candidates are united in their opposition to the ad and others like it.

"I condemn both kinds of attack ads," Roupe says. "I have three out on me, and they don't make any sense whatsoever ... They have nothing to do with the merit of the candidates and what they bring to the table."

Exum agrees. "I don't do negative ads. I try to stay positive," he says. "But I know that that's a part of this political game that we're in, that the 527s on both sides are going to do their thing."

Republican Michael Schlierf, who is running against Democratic incumbent Rep. Pete Lee in District 18, has been a virtual punching bag for Priorities for Colorado, another 527. Portrayed as having backward views, Schlierf has been Photoshopped into 18th-century clothes and dubbed the "Flat Earth Society President," and pictured riding a T-Rex next to the headline "Still Stuck in the Past."

Lee says he had nothing to do with the ads. "I disclaim ads of that sort," he says. "Quite candidly, those are amusing and I think are fairly benign, but the ones that I really dislike are the ones that are degrading and inaccurate. As a matter of policy, I don't talk about my opponent at all [in advertisements] in the course of an election."

Eric Sondermann, a Denver-based independent political analyst, says 527s are double-edged swords for candidates.

On one hand, candidates lose control of the message they want to send, and 527s may "cross a line of negativity that many candidates would not cross on their own." On the other hand, he says, 527s have allowed candidates to keep their hands clean because they "are doing the dirty work that in years gone by candidates had to do for themselves."

The lack of transparency from 527s can also lead to some interesting consequences. At times, Sondermann notes, people and publications point to supposed shadow donors without any proof. Take an ad that's running against state Sen. Bernie Herpin, a Colorado Springs Republican representing District 11.

The ad, which has run on TV and the Internet, unfairly accuses Herpin of going on a $25,000 Colorado Springs Utilities junket. Herpin was a Utilities board member when he took a tour of the Southern Delivery System with dozens of others. His share of the trip cost less than $200.

The ad was paid for by Citizens' Alliance for Accountable Leadership, an independent expenditure committee funded by a 527, Mainstream Colorado, and by a consulting firm famous for getting Democratic officials elected on the national level, Adelstein Liston.

In a series of editorials, The Gazette has made hay out of the ad, blaming it on Herpin challenger Michael Merrifield and on money from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, despite the fact that the accusations against Herpin originated with the Gazette. While the Gazette always noted that the total cost of the trip was $25,000 (it later corrected that to $20,200), and that Herpin wasn't the only one who attended it, the paper singled out Herpin for what was portrayed as a wasteful junket in a series of articles.

It's Adelstein that the Gazette now says is a Bloomberg front. But Adelstein is a private firm that doesn't have to say how it's funded, and when representatives were asked via email if the firm received money from Bloomberg for the ad, they didn't respond.

It's possible that Bloomberg has contributed to these ads, but absent any proof, and with many other donors listed, it's a stretch to say he's responsible. And it's not fair at all to implicate Merrifield, who says his campaign has never received money from Bloomberg.

"I'm not a fan of negative ads," Merrifield says. "I believe in running a clean campaign."

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