If you hadn't heard of Western Tradition Partnership before, that may be a measure of the group's success. While publicly billing itself as "Colorado's largest and fastest-growing advocate of grassroots rational, pro-jobs environmental policies," the conservative Denver-based organization promises its corporate and private donors the ability to influence elections with absolute anonymity.
As noted in our main story, that approach has placed Western Tradition Partnership at the center of some extremely contentious lawsuits, one of which is now positioned to be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. But if its profile is going national — the organization recently changed its name to American Tradition Partnership and opened an office in Washington, D.C. — both Colorado and Montana will probably continue to hold special places in the organization's heart. Consider the following:
• Western Tradition Partnership was founded in 2008 by two Montana politicians-turned-lobbyists, former state representative John Sinrud and former congressman Ron Marlenee.
• The organization was registered that same year as a 501(c)4 nonprofit in Colorado by Republican operative Scott Shires.
• And, perhaps most impressively, current Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler served as lead attorney in the group's 2009 lawsuit against Longmont's Fair Campaign Practices Act.
Although Gessler had hoped to continue "moonlighting" for his old law firm after taking office, American Tradition Partnership's Donald Ferguson says he's no longer representing the group. "We don't need him right now, I guess," Ferguson says with a laugh.
Ferguson, who signed on as the organization's executive director in 2010, insists they do not argue for or against candidates. But there's significant evidence to suggest otherwise.
Western Tradition Partnership funded a number of election-time hit pieces against Democratic candidates for Montana's House of Representatives, Photoshopping one candidate's face onto a pirate's body. ("Will Hammerquist plans to raid school funds.") Another candidate is depicted as a radical-environmentalist-backed job-killer who wants to prevent your daughter, depicted as a young girl in a tiara praying in front of a modular home, from becoming a doctor when she grows up.
While Western Tradition Partnership's return addresses appear on those mailings, the Montana commissioner of political practices also connected the group to a number of materials not signed by the organization which depicted candidates as puppets and wolves in sheep's clothing. WTP, it determined, was "the primary force behind the design, creation, and distribution of the illegal campaign flyers."
Meanwhile, back home in Colorado, the organization sent out 11th-hour mailers last October targeting Democratic state Sen. Gail Schwartz, her face attached to Donald Trump's body with the tagline, "Gail Schwartz has two words for you... [name of addressee]... You're Fired!" Pete Maysmith, executive director of Colorado Conservation Voters, described it as "an obvious leading candidate for the most tasteless piece of mail so far in the 2010 election cycle."
What prompted the mailer is Schwartz's support for Colorado's renewable energy standard. Although U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has credited the voter-approved ballot initiative with having brought nearly 20,000 jobs to the state, Ferguson insists it has actually resulted in layoffs and hiring cutbacks.
"I mean, she sponsored a bill that hurts the consumer," says Ferguson, "so we asked people to call her and register their displeasure."
Such stances have only fueled accusations that the group's "grassroots" constituents are actually the oil, gas and coal industries whose interests they consistently represent. But American Tradition Partnership's executive director swears it's all about empowering the citizenry and "allowing consumers to pick for themselves whether they want solar or traditional."
"Many of our members have solar-powered homes," insists Ferguson. "But their point of view is that we freely choose this, and we would never force anyone to make this decision."