Centrist Project plows thousands into Manitou mayoral race 

Big money Manitou

click to enlarge Manitou mailboxes received these flyers recently. - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • Manitou mailboxes received these flyers recently.
A small mountain town’s mayoral election in Colorado is the target of outside money from an unlikely source.

In recent days, residents of Manitou Springs, which has a population of about 5,000, have found at least three separate slickly produced flyers in their mailboxes promoting the incumbent mayor, Nicole Nicoletta, paid for by The Centrist Project Election Fund out of Denver.

Nicoletta is up for re-election on Nov. 7 and faces retired attorney Ken Jaray. Mail-in ballots went out Oct. 16.

“I don’t even think Manitou is like a small pond, we’re sort of like a puddle in the middle of the street in terms of Colorado politics,” says resident John Shada, a computer scientist who supports Jaray and found three of the flyers in his mailbox recently. “It was just curious to me that we would warrant (attention from) an outside group.”

Dartmouth professor Charles Wheelan founded The Centrist Project in 2013. The group began by trying to get independent candidates elected to the U.S. Senate. Earlier this year The Centrist Project expanded its attention to state legislatures and moved its headquarters to Denver.

The 501(c)(4) nonprofit is recruiting a crop of unaffiliated candidates to run for seats in the Colorado House and Senate in the upcoming 2018 legislative elections. If just a handful of unaffiliated candidates win seats in the statehouse, the group says, those candidates could control the balance of power and won’t be beholden to political parties.

But those legislative elections aren’t until next year. So why is The Centrist Project getting involved with an independent expenditure committee in a small-town mayoral race now — especially when the race for mayor of Manitou Springs is a nonpartisan election?

Basically, it’s an exercise, says Centrist Project director Nick Troiano.

Nicoletta isn’t a member of a political party — her opponent Jaray is a registered Democrat, according to the Secretary of State’s office — and The Centrist Project seeks to help elect such candidates to office, Troiano says. He called the group’s efforts in Colorado “a mixture of both trying to elect or re-elect good people to office, but also beginning to ramp up the electoral infrastructure that we’re building to have in place for state legislative candidates next year as well.”

Asked about the Centrist Project, Nicoletta stated via email that she had interviewed with the Centrist Project per their request, but had not received a direct donation from them or coordinated with them. She noted that Colorado law allows the group to support her as it wishes. Stressing her accomplishments as mayor, she stated, “This organization has nothing to do with our community as a whole. We are strong, independent minded and united to move Manitou Springs forward. I urge everyone to move away from the political rhetoric and instead focus on our shared community goals with respect for our future.”

Jaray, meanwhile, expressed outrage that an outside group would interfere in a nonpartisan election, saying they chose a candidate based solely on her lack of party affiliation. (He says the Project never contacted him for an interview.)

“I think it’s a nonpartisan race, specifically by the Colorado Constitution and our city charter, and I think it’s unfortunate, I really do,” he says.

Jaray says he is relying on friends and supporters and a door-to-door campaign to get out his message.

The glossy Nicoletta flyers in Manitou Springs have caused a bit of a stir in the small community — and not just with Jaray.

“It’s too much money for Manitou Springs,” said Donna Chambers who runs a store called La Tienda among the twinkling Christmas lights and curiosity shops that line the downtown strip. “Too professional.”

Troiano declined to say how much The Centrist Project is spending in the race — though many Manitoids suspect it’s in the tens of thousands of dollars. “Everything is going to be disclosed when we’re through the election,” Troiano says.

According to paperwork filed with the state, The Centrist Project Election Fund spent just under $7,875 for a mailing to support Nicoletta for mayor. To put that in perspective, Nicoletta raised a total of $1,058 for the race so far herself, according to her latest campaign finance report. Jaray raised $8,820. So that expense alone from The Centrist Project on behalf of the mayor leveled the playing field for sure.

All of the people who paid for the Nicoletta mailers are from Colorado, Troiano says, though he declined to name them. He said eventually their names will be disclosed.

The mayor of Manitou Springs landed on The Centrist Project’s radar as its staffers researched unaffiliated candidates running for office around the state. “Who we support really comes down to three things: They’re people of integrity with good character, they’re aligned with our principles and approach to government, and that they are credible and have a path to victory,” Troiano says. “Nicole certainly checks the boxes on all of those things.”

Manitou Springs is just one of multiple municipal elections where The Centrist Project is getting involved, Troiano says, though he declined to say where else the group is spending money and how much.

Last week, The Centrist Project Institute released a report calling unaffiliated voters and candidates Colorado’s “sleeping giant.” After surveying 2,000 likely Colorado voters in late August and early September, the group says it found 53 percent believed Democrats and Republicans are not working together to solve problems in Colorado. “Overall, 85 percent of voters indicated they would definitely, probably, or maybe consider supporting an independent candidate for the state legislature — including 82 percent of Republicans, 84 percent of Democrats, and 92 percent of independents,” according to the survey results, which had a +/-2.2 percent margin of error.

On a recent evening while out for a walk after work, Manitou resident Paula Walker said she’d only just begun to pay attention to the mayor’s race and recalled getting flyers about it in the mail. As an unaffiliated voter she likes the idea of more non-party members serving in public office.
“It’s a good idea just to have another voice,” she said.

This story first appeared in The Colorado Independent nonprofit newsroom.


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