'Not a good election', results, stress

Supporters of Issue 2C react Nov. 2 when it becomes apparent the ballot measure will fail.

Voters’ rejection of the city of Colorado Springs’ Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) measure broke Mayor John Suthers’ winning streak.

Since his 2015 election as mayor, Suthers has proposed or supported an array of winning ballot measures for funding roads, parks and stormwater drainage, with a total price tag of some $1.3 billion.

But this time, voters rejected the city’s proposal to double the TOPS tax and extend it for 20 years by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. Voters also defeated El Paso County’s request to keep $15 million in tax money collected above caps imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR).

City Council President Pro Tem Richard Skorman notes the election came amid rising inflation and higher utility bills and it “wasn’t a good election for any kind of increase in taxes.”

But Monument, Ramah and Calhan gained approval for higher taxes, as did the Security Fire Protection District. The city’s Briargate General Improvement District measure, which sought to add properties to the district, coasted to victory with a 65.5 percent majority, and the city’s measure 2D, to retain $20 million in TABOR money from 2021 for fire mitigation, won with 57.5 percent.

But Skorman made another observation. “People were energized for school board elections,” he says, adding that conservatives turned out in greater numbers than did moderates or progressives.

Indeed, the low-turnout election led to victories for school board candidates who oppose mask mandates and disavow efforts to achieve racial equity in three districts, though the orchestrator of a dark money campaign for them says the chief issue was academic performance, not cultural matters.

Suthers issued a Twitter message on Nov. 3 warning that the defeat of TOPS left the park system “in jeopardy of failing to live up to the standards our residents expect and deserve.”

He also said without more money, “the deficiencies in the parks system will be exacerbated,” noting a $270 million backlog of projects and maintenance.

Asked about the defeat breaking his winning streak, Suthers said through a spokesperson that the measure might have asked for too much and the “doubling” of the tax left voters with the impression “that this was a much larger financial impact than it actually was,” he said, also blaming “overly wordy ballot language.”

Suthers says he wants the Parks Department and TOPS supporters to try again for a smaller increase, noting that “the funding issues in our parks system are not going away....”

Skorman says one key is timing, considering officials in the region want to seek extension of the 1 cent sales tax for the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority in November 2022, and the city might ask for a hike in the Lodgers’ and Rental Automobile (LART) tax in April 2023.

Longtime parks and open space supporter Lee Milner says a better strategy might be to petition onto the ballot, probably in April 2023, rather than seeking a Council-referred measure. “The advantage of petitioning is you start a campaign early,” he says.

UCCS political science professor Josh Dunn says tax measures’ defeats likely stemmed, in part, from school board races that coaxed tax-increase-averse Republicans to the polls. Similarly, nearly 30 years ago, in 1992, H. Ross Perot, a conservative, ran as a third-party candidate for president and made his best showing in Colorado where conservatives also carried the statewide Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to victory, as well as Amendment 2, which denied equal rights to LGBTQ people, which was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996.

Drawing the most attention were races in Colorado Springs School District 11, Falcon School District 49 and Academy School District 20.

Springs Opportunity Fund (SOF), a conservative, Republican-connected independent expenditure committee, pumped $180,000 into slates of three candidates in each district. That’s almost as much as the combined total of $190,542 raised by all candidates themselves in those three districts. (SOF backed two winning candidates in the April City Council election.)

The $180,000 came from Colorado Springs Forward (CSF), a 501(c)4 that doesn’t have to report its source of funding unless donors specify their contributions are to be earmarked for electioneering, thus earning the label “dark money.”

CSF, headed by businessman Phil Lane, is composed of local businesspeople who have consistently donated to ballot issues and candidate campaigns in Colorado Springs.

All of the CSF-backed candidates won. Those were: in D11, Sandra Bankes, Al Loma and Lauren Nelson; in D49, Jamilynn D’Avola, Ivy Liu and Lori Thompson; in D20, Tom Lavalley, Aaron Salt and Nicole Konz.

With the election of those candidates, D11’s board was flipped from a liberal majority to a 5-2 majority of conservatives; D20 flipped from a 4-1 liberal majority to a 3-2 conservative majority, and D49’s conservative majority was more solidified, says Daniel Cole, with Cole Communications of Colorado Springs, which ran the SOF campaigns.

He says he’s not averse to being labeled as a conservative, but the campaigns focused more on academic performance than hot-button issues such as mask-wearing, which was never mentioned in SOF’s messaging. He acknowledged that Critical Race Theory was mentioned in campaign materials. CRT, which posits, in part, that racism is culturally ingrained despite anti-discrimination laws, has sharply divided communities.

But the election was more about academics, Cole says, noting:

• In D11, 38 percent of students were proficient in reading and writing, and 31 percent in math, based on 2019 testing. The 2021 numbers were worse during a time after schools used distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

• In D49, 48 percent of students were proficient in reading and writing, and 34 percent in math in 2019. Those numbers fell in 2021.

• In D20, 60 percent of students were proficient in reading and writing and 50 percent in math in 2019. The math score fell in 2021.

“Not only are these schools producing terrible results in reading, writing and math, but they’re also responding to terrible results by focusing on equity,” Cole says. He says that nearly all scores in 2019 and 2020 in those three districts show Black and Hispanic students performing below the numbers for all students.

Cole says the campaign targeted all voters, not just conservatives, and “went nine for nine.” While he says it can’t be known whether those candidates would have won without the dark money boost, “It’s impossible for an outside effort like ours to carry a bad candidate across the finish line.”

Anthony Carlson, who ran campaigns for D11’s debt issue, which failed, and the city’s 2D, which passed, says seeing dark money infiltrate politics at the school board level is new in El Paso County.

“This is a brand new thing,” he says. “If this type of money is coming to school boards, people need to be aware of that. People can be their own judge of whether that’s good or bad.”

Tiana Clark, who lost her race in D20, says via email the dark money was disruptive in what should be nonpartisan races and deepened division.

“The outside funds bought their own interests and not the actual needs of our schools,” she says. “I am proud knowing that my supporters came from believing in me and my message without having to be bought.” 

Disclosure: Indy owner and founder John Weiss supported the TOPS campaign. Director of Events Jenn Cancellier serves on the Trails & Open Space Coalition board of directors.