Pass-the-hat fund-raisers are for suckers.
That might be the lesson from this year's municipal elections in Colorado Springs, in which many City Council hopefuls largely sidestepped the labor-intensive work of raising large numbers of small campaign contributions.
Instead, they sat back and watched special-interest money roll in.
An analysis by the Independent of contributions to Council candidates during the spring election shows that the seven winning contenders collected more than half of their donations from a single interest group -- one that has a direct financial stake in many of the City Council's decisions: the real-estate and construction industry.
And that's just the average. Several individual candidates who went on to win seats on the Council amassed far larger portions of their campaign war chests from real-estate and construction interests. Money from these interests accounted for at least 84 percent of all contributions to both Larry Small and Scott Hente, respectively; at least 83 percent of contributions to Randy Purvis; and at least 75 percent of contributions to Darryl Glenn, who did not win but was later appointed to fill the seat vacated by Charles Wingate.
The candidates spent the money on mass mailings, yard signs, billboards, and television, radio and newspaper advertisements -- designed to boost their name recognition leading up to Election Day.
Then, after being elected, they went on to make several significant decisions favoring the interests of developers and builders. Some of those votes directly benefited donors who contributed thousands of dollars to the council members' campaigns.
But when interviewed for this story, every single member of the nine-person council rejected the idea that "money buys votes." Some said they felt insulted by the question.
"I don't see that anybody sold their soul," said Councilman Tom Gallagher, who got at least 60 percent of his contributions from developers and builders.
People who have fought the Council on development issues and lost, on the other hand, say the developers' and builders' largesse at best arouses public suspicion that council members are bought and paid for. At worst, they say, the suspicion might be true.
"It represents the breaking point in representative government," said Walter Lawson, a local activist.
And Pete Maysmith, director of the Colorado chapter of Common Cause, an organization that advocates campaign-finance restrictions, says that to deny the influence of contributions on politics "is to look at the sky and declare it purple. It simply isn't reality. Those campaign contributions are made because the donors want to influence what is happening at City Hall -- period."
Though candidates must report all of their contributions to the City Clerk's Office, the reports don't readily yield information on how much specific interest groups are giving. Some donations come directly from businesses and organizations, but many others come from individual business owners and executives, who aren't required to disclose what companies or industries they represent.
Still, based solely on donors that the Independent was able to tie to the real-estate and construction industries, it appears that those interests poured more than $188,000 into council campaigns in the spring. That's more than one-third of the $524,000 that the 27 council candidates received in total donations.
If the developers and builders didn't create winners with their contributions, they were at least good at picking them. The majority of their contributions -- a total of more than $121,000 -- went to candidates who won.
The biggest single donor was the Colorado Springs Housing and Building Association, a developer group that forked over more than $25,000 to candidates, according to reports. Capital Pacific Holdings, a California company that owns a giant swath of land targeted for development in east Colorado Springs, known as Banning-Lewis Ranch, contributed at least $18,500.
Of all the money that developers and builders gave to winning candidates, more than half came from just seven major companies and organizations, when gifts from owners, executives and affiliates are included. They are the Housing and Building Association, Capital Pacific, Nor'wood Development Group, The Classic Companies, Case International and the Schuck Corporation.
Richard Skorman and Lionel Rivera appeared to have received the smallest percentages of their contributions from developers and builders, with Skorman at 28 percent and Rivera at 39 percent. The two distinguished themselves by raising vast amounts in small, individual contributions from other sources, something Rivera attributed to their lengthy involvement in city politics and community activism.
"Part of it might be that Richard [Skorman] and I have been on the Council for a number of years, and we probably have relationships that new council members don't have with a lot of different community groups," Rivera speculated.
In absolute dollars, however, Rivera received at least $20,000 from developers and builders, more than any other candidate. Skorman wasn't far behind, collecting at least $18,000.
Building planning power
The developers' and builders' interest in council races might seem obvious to anyone familiar with city government. Skorman estimates the Council spends at least half its time on land-use decisions -- such as deciding whether to approve or reject applications to annex, rezone or develop property, and passing regulations to guide the city's long-term growth and development.
Acting on advice from professional planners and the city's Planning Commission, the Council makes many final decisions on whether proposed new commercial, industrial or residential developments are in the city's best interest. In doing so, the Council weighs the impacts on neighbors, traffic and public safety, along with other factors.
Many of the Council's land-use decisions are controversial. Developers often grumble about the elected body demanding changes to their plans, while their critics, including neighbors who will be affected by new developments, frequently complain that the developments are being approved willy-nilly.
In effect, as one developer describes it, the Council has the power to approve, alter or veto multimillion-dollar business plans.
"Of course we are very interested in local politics," said Doug Stimple, CEO of the Classic Companies. "Essentially, we run our business subject to having five out of nine people [on] City Council approve any business plan that we hope to employ."
Developers appear to have more than the five people they need. Of seven candidates who were both endorsed and bankrolled by the Housing and Building Association, six are now on the Council: Glenn, Heimlicher, Hente, Purvis, Skorman and Small.
Cash chooses the champions
Though they acknowledge the direct financial interest that developers and builders have in many decisions, members of the Council unanimously dispute the notion that contributions directly influence their votes.
"There's never been an instance when Council was actually bought or swayed by anyone," declared Councilman Small.
Vice Mayor Skorman agrees.
"I wouldn't say there's direct influence," Skorman said. "I've never gotten a call, actually, from somebody saying, 'I gave you this money, and you better not vote against us.'"
Council members don't have much to gain personally from being "bought" by special-interest groups, Skorman argues. Members of Congress might be seduced by their fat salaries, gifts from lobbyists and the prospect of a hefty pension, but members of the Colorado Springs City Council earn a measly $6,250 per year and don't get invited to many fancy junkets.
"It's virtually a volunteer job," Skorman said.
Still, Skorman believes big donors might gain greater access to some council members. "They want to know that the doors are open, that their point of view will be heard," he said.
Only one council member, Margaret Radford, would admit that contributions sometimes cross her mind when voting on a development issue, though she insists it doesn't sway her.
"When Classic [Companies] is in front of us, or Nor'wood, do I know they gave me money?" Radford asked rhetorically. "You bet I do. Does it keep me from voting against them? No. But is it harder for me to vote against them? Yes."
Radford wasn't up for election this year, but she collected at least 39 percent of her contributions from real-estate and construction interests when she ran for Council in 2001.
Even if council members are honest when they insist that donors don't directly pressure them to vote a certain way, there are other ways to influence an elected body, says Maysmith of Common Cause. Simply by bankrolling candidates who share their worldview in the first place, special-interest groups can help catapult candidates into office who will support them on most issues.
Whether it's local, state or national elections, candidates who raise the most money are more likely to triumph at the polls, Maysmith notes. And in Colorado Springs, it's the big bucks from developers and builders that tend to give certain candidates the upper hand.
"The problem of money in politics is that it dictates, all to often, who can even run, and then of course, who wins," Maysmith said. "If you spend more money than your opponent, you are statistically anywhere from 85 to 95 percent more likely to win."
Good for you, good for me
A few council members concede Maysmith's point to varying degrees, agreeing that contributions from developers and builders might at the very least have an impact on the makeup of the Council.
And to the extent that such contributions actually decide races, the consequence would be a developer-friendly council.
"Of course they're not going to give money to a candidate that's going to vote against everything that they stand for, and everything that they consider to be good business," said Councilman Jerry Heimlicher, who received at least 62 percent of his money from real-estate and construction interests.
But even so, the developers aren't just greasing the skids for themselves -- they genuinely believe that what's good for their business is also good for the city as a whole, and vice versa, several council members said.
"Their economic fortunes are tied to the future of Colorado Springs," said Councilman Hente, who is a developer himself. "If Colorado Springs does well, they'll do well."
Some also point out that developers and builders gave large amounts to Skorman. Often described as the lone moderate on the Council, Skorman has in the past supported environmental and historic-preservation regulations opposed by developers.
Skorman himself says he's not sure what to make of the developers' backing. It's possible the donors were just "hedging their bets," wanting to stay on his good side because he was expected to win re-election, Skorman speculates. On the other hand, he notes, developers and builders also supported him the first time he ran for office.
"I think they know that I'm somebody who will be accessible and listen to their side," Skorman said. "A number of them said that they didn't agree with me all the time, but that they respected my viewpoint, that they knew I made decisions in a thoughtful manner."
Ultimately, several candidates say the perception of undue influence from donors doesn't worry them, because they don't believe money decides election outcomes.
Heimlicher notes that in the mayoral race, former Councilman Ted Eastburn lost to Lionel Rivera, despite raising far more money than Rivera did.
"If money elects candidates, then why didn't it work in his case?" Heimlicher asked.
And in the race for four at-large Council seats, Tom Gallagher finished first despite raising less money than several of his closest competitors.
Rivera and Gallagher, however, were the exceptions among April's winners. In all other cases, the candidates who raised the most money won.
Developers defend democracy
Whatever the politicians say, voters and donors alike clearly believe contributions influence politics, Maysmith argues.
In Colorado, voters have twice passed statewide referendums to limit contributions to candidates for state office. "If people didn't think it was a problem, they would have voted no," Maysmith said.
And, Maysmith asks, if big-business donors didn't think their contributions benefited them, why would they bother giving? They're in business to make a profit, not to fund political campaigns, he says.
Leading local developers, however, say they disagree.
"I think it insults the integrity of the people who are running for City Council, and us, to suggest that we could in any way buy influence," said Ralph Braden, a Nor'wood executive and chairman of the Housing and Building Association's political action committee.
According to Braden, developers and builders are simply community-minded folks who want to help the democratic process.
"The people that are involved in business are interested in making sure that we've got good government," he said.
In choosing whom to support, the Housing and Building Association doesn't take into consideration whether candidates are pro- or anti-development, Braden says.
"We just sit down and interview them and ask them questions related to what's going on with the city, and see if we feel they have an understanding of it -- if they'll bring a fair and balanced approach to their consideration of all the issues that they face."
But Stimple, of the Classic Companies, concedes that self-interest factors into developers' support for candidates.
"The City Council serves as the ultimate determiner of whether or not we are able to move forward on any given project, so of course we are very interested in seeing nine people get put on Council that at least are willing to listen," he said. "Do we participate in city politics in the hopes that we have a climate that is favorable for business? Yeah. I mean, there's no secret -- we tend to support pro-business people."
But self-interest isn't the sole factor, Stimple adds. "Part of the reason we give is because we're concerned about the overall direction and vision of our community."
Classic Communities contributes at least 50 times more to local charities than it gives to political campaigns, demonstrating that the company doesn't just give out money hoping to get something in return, Stimple says.
Representatives for two other developers that make significant campaign contributions, La Plata Investments and Capital Pacific, did not respond to interview requests for this story.
If the proof is ultimately in the pudding, council members and donors say there's plenty of evidence that they're not in anybody's pockets.
More than one council member pointed out that in August, the Council voted 8-1 against a proposed new residential subdivision near the Colorado Springs Airport, to be built by Zephyr Development. Zephyr and one of its consultants on the project, Berge-Brewer & Associates, had given money to council candidates' campaigns.
The Council's members -- with the exception of Darryl Glenn -- found that the area wasn't suitable for homes, in part due to airport noise.
"If we were just going to be pawns for the guys that donated the money for the campaigns, we would've voted for it," Heimlicher said.
Purvis -- who served on the Council from 1987 to 1999 before being elected again this year -- says he's voted against developers' interests numerous times. Asked to specify such instances, however, he said he couldn't talk about them because they were "quasi-judicial" matters, meaning that the Council's decisions could still be subject to litigation.
"I really don't think, even after the fact, that I can comment on such items," he said.
Stimple, of Classic Companies, says it's "ridiculous" to accuse the Council of being a rubber stamp for the developers. The Council drives a hard bargain in approving development plans, typically demanding significant concessions from developers, he says.
"We don't get everything approved that we want approved, by any stretch of the imagination, and we get beat up pretty good in the process," Stimple said.
Still, several high-profile decisions have gone the developers' way since April.
In July, the Council unanimously approved a new ordinance that would allow developers to lock in certain development rights for parcels of land for up to 20 years. The ordinance drew fire from critics who feared that developers might use it to pre-empt future development regulations.
Developers didn't merely support the ordinance -- Braden, of Nor'wood, personally proposed it, with the specific goal of applying it to Nor'wood's Wolf Ranch project, a future 7,000-home subdivision on the far north side of the city. La Plata, meanwhile, actually wrote the initial draft of the ordinance.
In September, the Council killed a proposed ordinance that would have protected scenic views of Pikes Peak from the Pioneers Museum downtown. A proposed expansion of the County Courthouse across the street from the museum was threatening to block the view, and the ordinance was backed by both city staff and the Council's own advisory boards. But it failed after running into strong opposition from developers and builders, who called it a "taking" of private property rights.
Among those opposing the ordinance were Nor'wood and Classic, which have partnered to possibly build a convention center and hotel a few blocks west of the Pioneers Museum. The view ordinance potentially could have limited the height of the hotel.
Lawson, an activist who fought for the view ordinance, said he had a hard time reaching some council members to argue his cause. But the council members he did speak with seemed to have been thoroughly briefed by the measure's opponents, he said. In the end, only Skorman and Radford backed the ordinance.
Last month, the Council unanimously annexed more than 1,500 acres known as Flying Horse Ranch, on the city's far north side. Classic, which sought the annexation, plans to build thousands of homes, offices, business and a golf course on the property.
Groups representing residents in Black Forest, just north of Flying Horse Ranch, opposed Classic's plan for the property. A main concern was that the plan called for high-density business development immediately across the road from existing low-density, large-lot residential neighborhoods.
"There's basically no transition whatsoever," complained Amy Phillips, chairwoman of the Black Forest Land Use Committee.
Opponents were also concerned about Classic's plans to grade a natural hillside, and about the proposed locations of road extensions through the annexed property.
Phillips says she didn't feel the Council really listened to opponents' concerns. The Council limited opponents' speaking time on the issue but gave Classic unlimited time to defend its proposal, she says.
"The way we were treated certainly makes it feel like the deck was stacked," Phillips said.
Frederic Herman, a neighbor of the proposed Flying Horse Ranch subdivision who also fought against Classic's plan, says he believes developers "own" the City Council.
"The city's got the best City Council that money can buy," Herman said.
Such perceptions were boosted last month by the resignation of a city planner, Alece Otero, who quit in protest, saying publicly that the city had become "developer-controlled" [see "Jumping Ship," Oct. 2, available online at www.csindy.com].
Critics will continue to watch the Council closely, as more matters in which campaign contributors have a significant stake come to the table in the near future. Classic and Nor'wood also want the Council to spend taxpayer money to subsidize their planned convention center. And to the dismay of local preservationists, Nor'wood has signaled its desire to buy and redevelop the City Auditorium, a city-owned historic landmark downtown.
Donation limits unfavorable
While no law limits contributions to City Council candidates in Colorado Springs, other Front Range cities have adopted restrictions to curb the influence of big-money donors.
In Fort Collins, a donor can give no more than $75 to any single candidate for City Council, and a maximum of $100 to a candidate for mayor. In Boulder, voters in 1999 approved a referendum that imposed a $100 contribution limit for City Council candidates. Boulder also provides matching public funds for candidates who agree to voluntary spending limits.
And under Amendment 27, approved by a two-thirds majority of Colorado voters last year, contributions to candidates for the state Legislature are limited to $200, while a donor can give up to $500 to a candidate for statewide office, such as governor or attorney general.
However, Colorado Springs is unlikely to see such restrictions any time in the near future, unless they're enacted by citizen initiative. Eight of the nine current Council members oppose limits.
"I think people should be able to contribute as much or as little as they want," said Glenn, echoing most of his colleagues. "I think it's a free-expression, First Amendment right."
Heimlicher suggested that those who worry about big donations from developers and builders, should step up to the plate and give more money themselves.
"A bigger story is, 'What's wrong with everybody else?'" Heimlicher said. "If we were to [impose] campaign limitations, I think we would wind up with a very small number of people contributing, because the general population has demonstrated they don't really give a damn about the election, because they don't put the money where their mouth is. They complain, they talk about the issues, but they won't support a candidate, even with a $10 check."
The only council member sympathetic to contribution limits is Skorman, who actually proposed such restrictions during his first term on the Council.
"I suggested it and got my head chopped off," he recalled.
Skorman says that although he doesn't believe big contributions actually buy direct influence, they might undermine the public's trust in the democratic process by creating the perception that politicians have been bought.
Skorman concedes that he might personally benefit from contribution limits, because he has been more successful than any of his colleagues in raising large numbers of small donations.
Phillips, of the Black Forest Land Use Committee, agrees there's a need for reform.
Council members have a responsibility to protect the people's faith in the political system, but when their campaigns coffers are bursting with special-interest money, "it erodes the public trust, and as far as I'm concerned, that's the biggest problem," Phillips said. "All of them who have taken that money have violated the public trust."