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Witwer co-authors book on Democratic power surge

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By Vicky Gits

Campaign reform and a surge of nonprofit corporation money are gradually undermining the traditional political system in Colorado, say Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer, authors of the new book “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”

The once-perceptible link between contributor and candidate is being blurred by a faceless network of loosely coordinated but wealthy cause-oriented organizations that don’t have to identify their contributors, the authors say. Transparency has been replaced by a screen of anonymity that’s all perfectly legal, they assert.

 

“The more money can’t be traced, the less we know. I’ve been rendered inept as a reporter. We should all be scared,” said Schrager, a political reporter for KUSA-TV Channel 9, the NBC affiliate in Denver.

Witwer is a former state representative from House District 25, which includes Evergreen and Conifer. Witwer, an attorney, served in the state House from 2005 to 2009, when he was succeeded by Cheri Gerou of Evergreen.

On Thursday, April 29, Witwer and Schrager appeared together at the Tattered Cover Lodo in Denver for a talk and book signing attended by about 150 people.

Witwer and Schrager teamed to write a concise but revealing and well-crafted tome detailing the strategy, known as the Colorado Model, by which the Democrats succeeded in taking over the statehouse in 2004, even as Republican George Bush was solidly winning re-election.

It was the first time since the JFK era that Democrats had been in control of both houses of the Colorado legislature, which for years had been a “red” (Republican) state.

That “amazing transformation,” in Witwer’s words, set the stage for the election of Democrat Bill Ritter as governor in 2006 and the Obama presidential win in Colorado in 2008.

The election of 2004 was a great day for Republicans nationally, on one hand, but in Colorado there was a “sea change and an unexpected turn of events,” Witwer said.

To put it simply, the Democrats got together and put unity over policy.

“They came to the table and agreed not to disagree but to win elections,” Witwer said. “If you wanted to talk about policy, you weren’t allowed to come to the table.”

Also underlying the switch from “red” to “blue” was Colorado Amendment 27, which, among other things, limited contributions from any one person or political committee to $500 for governor and $200 for state Senate and House candidates.

This drove the Democrats to create a “structure outside the party using (nonprofit) 527s” as vehicles for raising money and influencing legislation.

“It was perfectly allowable under the rules, and they did it faster and put more money into it,” Witwer said. Some of the organizations that were loosely allied under the network included the National Abortion Rights Action League, The AFL-CIO, Colorado Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood. Behind the 527s were a number of think tanks such as Progress Now and the Bell Policy Center.

Altogether there were 38 organizations in a sort of nonprofit consortium agreeing not to quibble about policy, just to elect Democrats on the assumption that Democrats were generally more aligned with their progressive views, Witwer said.

Behind the organization structure was the money structure, which is described in detail in the book.

Schrager and Witwer devote a chapter to each of the four major donors to the Democratic/progressive causes: Jared Polis, the independently wealthy U.S. congressional representative; Pat Stryker, the billionaire medical-device heiress from Fort Collins; Rutt Bridges, millionaire software developer; and Tim Gill, founder of Quark and gay rights activist.

The “Gang of Four,” as the authors call them, eventually created the Colorado Democracy Alliance, or CoDA, which served as an umbrella organization for nonprofits and a conduit for the people with money to donate to progressive causes.

It all gets most convoluted, but Witwer and Schrager do a commendable job in the book of explaining and documenting the transformation of Colorado politics.

Vanishing doorstep factor

For Witwer, a lifelong Republican, the model described in “The Blueprint” isn’t necessarily a good thing for democracy.

“Elections used to be about discussions between candidates and voters,” he said. “I think we have lost the doorstep aspect. Instead of a dialogue between candidate and voter, it’s a one-way street from an outside party to voter groups.”

Funneling funds through powerful political nonprofits serves to disguise the source of money that influences elections, Schrager said. (Nonprofits do not have to report the names of their donors.)

Witwer referred to the case of Durango resident Ellen Roberts, a Republican who was running for the statehouse in 2006, to point out how devious political speech can be under the new model.

An anonymous mailer went out attacking Roberts for supporting abortion rights. She blamed the conservative wing of her own party, but it turned out to be a Democratic attempt to undermine her Republican base.

“The irony is how campaign finance reform has created a huge and totally invisible network,” Witwer said.

Contact Vicky Gits at 303-350-1042 or vicky@evergreenco.com.