It has funded, among other things, the controversial phone survey last month about Councilmember Karen Benker, which some have called a “push poll.”
It is not the first time that Western Tradition Partnership (WTP) has gotten involved in a Colorado election, and not the first time it has been accused of using negative campaign tactics.
But the group’s leaders maintain that they never campaign for or against any candidate. They say they are simply involved in education, advocating for issues and encouraging citizen involvement in government. They deny that the survey was a “push poll.”
And yet a Longmont group that they fund has been using their money to campaign against Benker.
Western Tradition Partnership is one of the plaintiffs in a recent legal challenge to Longmont’s campaign laws. WTP funds another plaintiff in that lawsuit, the Longmont Leadership Committee, which has been actively opposing Benker. A judge found largely in favor of the plaintiffs in an Oct. 21 ruling and granted a preliminary injunction that keeps the plaintiffs from having to abide by several of Longmont’s campaign-reporting requirements until the suit is decided.
It is the latest skirmish in a Longmont political war that has only escalated in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election.
Some say the Longmont race has heated up and attracted attention from outside heavyweights because it is a swing city, in a swing district, in a swing state.
In broad terms, the two main factions in Longmont have been described as backers of the liberal “gang of four” — council members who oppose megachurch LifeBridge’s development plan and Firestone’s annexation of land for that development on the east side of town — and those who side with the “old guard” conservatives who support that development and want Longmont to drop its lawsuits fighting Firestone’s annexation. The former has been painted as anti-business and “Boulder-ized,” while the latter has been characterized as pro-development.
The lawsuit filed against the city this fall by the group of “old guard” individuals and groups challenges the Longmont Fair Campaign Practices Act (LFCPA), which was updated this year after a special election in 2008, when “old guard” Councilmember Gabe Santos, who is running for re-election on Nov. 3, was victorious. He had received a $5,000 contribution from the Longmont Association of Realtors.
His opponents, including “gang of four” Councilmember Benker, cried foul and helped lead an effort to update the LFCPA so that contributors to political campaigns had to declare on political communications their identities and the amount they were spending, among other things.
Benker is running for re-election against Katie Witt, who has said that the anti-Benker efforts such as the alleged “push poll” were done without her knowledge, and Witt has condemned them.
Benker and one of her supporters have filed several complaints with the newly formed Longmont Election Committee, alleging that her opponents’ various mailers and phone calls violated the LFCPA. One of those complaints, alleging that the Longmont Leadership Committee did not file necessary paperwork within 72 hours, was reviewed Oct. 26 by the Election Committee, which fined the committee $600, according to the Longmont Times-Call. Another Benker complaint that is still pending claims that required paperwork was not filed for the alleged “push poll.”
The lawsuit, on the other hand, alleges that some of the new campaign contribution regulations are too strict and violate the First Amendment.
In addition to Western Tradition Partnership and the Longmont Leadership Committee, the plaintiffs are former Longmont Mayor Julia Pirnack, political activist and blogger Chris Rodriguez and the Longmont Association of Realtors. The plaintiffs argue that the act, and an article about the act in a city newsletter, have chilled free speech.
In granting the injunction, U.S. Senior District Judge Walker Miller ruled that the plaintiffs are likely to prevail in most of their claims. Scott Gessler, the plaintiffs’ attorney, calls the decision a “slam dunk,” while City Attorney Eugene Mei says the ruling leaves the bulk of the city’s act unchanged.
Donny Ferguson, Western Tradition Partnership’s director of public relations, issued a press release trumpeting the judge’s decision on Oct. 21.
“Longmont politicians can no longer use an unconstitutional law to harass people who want to publicly discuss real issues,” he said in the release.
Luis Toro, senior counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch, has a different take. “The whole point of the lawsuit they filed is so that people won’t trace where the money is coming from,” he says.
So what is this outside group that is suing the city and has provided the Longmont Leadership Committee with $6,269 of its $6,594 in contributions, most of which has been used to defeat Benker and put Katie Witt in office?
Western Tradition Partnership, a 501(c)4 organization, was founded in Montana in 2007 and was incorporated as a nonprofit in Colorado in March 2008. According to Colorado Secretary of State records, the registered agent who filed those articles of incorporation is Scott Shires of Aurora.
The Rocky Mountain News reported in June 2008 that Shires was given a year’s probation and fined $3,450 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor tax charges. The article says that Shires, who worked on the campaign of former Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bob Schaffer, was in business with William Orr of Parker, who was convicted of fraud and other charges in May 2008 after being accused of misleading investors and falsifying documents to secure a $3.6 million federal grant to study alternative fuels. Shires, who recruited Schaffer to serve on the board that Orr created to administer the grant, testified against Orr as part of a plea agreement, the paper reported.
According to stories published by The Colorado Independent, Shires was involved in a money-shifting controversy with the Trailhead Group in 2006, and has been accused of sidestepping campaign-finance regulations on other occasions.
WTP is described on its website as a “fast-growing grassroots organization dedicated to ‘Rediscovering the Treasures of America’ through rational, responsible natural resource development and land use policy, while freemarket-oriented solutions are developed for future needs.”
It has taken a decidedly pro-business, anti-government approach in several of the battles it has chosen. It opposes cap and trade and the imposition of a carbon tax, questions the idea that humans have caused global warming, fights government roadblocks to private energy producers and combats the government’s taking of private development, water or mineral rights from landowners without just compensation. WTP leaders say it was the LifeBridge land-use issue that piqued their interest in Longmont’s election.
In press releases issued in Montana and Colorado after the general election last year, WTP proudly declared that, due in part to the groups’ efforts, voters had said “no” to the “radical environmentalists’ agenda” in several races.
WTP in Garfield County
One of those races was in Garfield County.
According to a WTP press release, the group mailed tens of thousands of letters and other materials into key districts, targeting Democratic candidates Steve Carter and Stephen Bershenyi. Daniel Reed of WTP commented in the release that, “with only the early votes counted, anti-development apologists Steve Carter and Stephen Bershenyi and their extremist friends thought they had the race in the bag, but Election Day results showed the pro-responsible growth and development candidates won.”
According to reports, Shires was also campaigning against Carter in that race as the head of another group, the League of Taxpayers. In April, Shires was fined $7,150 for failing to file an election communications report for the $2,300 he spent to help defeat Carter, according to The Colorado Independent.
Carter, who was running for county commissioner at the time, told Boulder Weekly that WTP and the League of Taxpayers engaged in dirty campaign tactics.
“They go in and slime somebody and disappear,” Carter says. “They get paid for it by someone, but no one knows who.
“I can’t limit my disdain for that person,” he says of Shires. “He subverts the American way; he’s anti-American. It’s no different than stuffing a ballot box.”
Shires did not answer phone calls from the Boulder Weekly. Gessler, the attorney representing the Longmont plaintiffs, has served as attorney for at least one of Shires’ groups as well, according to media reports. Gessler, whose office address is listed as the principal street address for WTP in Colorado Secretary of State documents, is currently the only Republican running for Secretary of State. Gessler declined to provide an alternate phone number for Shires. He and WTP Executive Director Jacob Leis told Boulder Weekly that Shires is not involved in the day-to-day operations of Western Tradition.
Leis, who, according to The Colorado Independent is a former congressional staffer for Republican Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave, says Shires just specializes in regulatory compliance for WTP. When asked about Shires’ past campaign-finance issues, Leis says WTP has never had any problems.
“Western Tradition Partnership has never been convicted of any violations,” he says.
The alleged push poll was paid for by WTP and the Longmont Leadership Committee and conducted by the Virginia Institute for Public Policy. According to the Longmont Times-Call, the questions included, “If you knew that Karen Benker discriminated against a Christian church organization unfairly based on their religion, would that make you more or less favorable toward her?” Another asked, “If you knew that Karen Benker was in favor of limiting growth and private property development rights, how would that affect your vote in an election?”
A third question asked, “If you knew that Karen Benker misinformed voters about the Union Annexation Project [the LifeBridge development], costing Longmont millions of dollars in lost tax revenue, would that make you more or less favorable toward her?” The poll also included the question, “If you knew that Karen Benker claimed to have ended the special tax for the Clover Basin Fire District on her campaign literature, when in fact the elimination of the tax had not even appeared on the City Council agenda, would that make you more or less favorable toward her?”
WTP’s Ferguson says all of the questions posed are factual characterizations of Benker’s record, and that the poll was simply meant to measure voter reaction to different issues. Benker counters that several questions mischaracterize her record and lead voters to believe things about her that are just not true.
Benker says the question about discriminating against LifeBridge “is the one that makes me angriest.” She told Boulder Weekly that some have accused her of being anti-Christian, but she says her faith is very important to her. She grew up Catholic and is now Episcopalian. Benker says she voted against the LifeBridge issue solely because of what it would have cost the city.
In response to the question about limiting growth and private property development rights, Benker points out that she was in charge of developing a state economic development plan when she worked for former Gov. Roy Romer.
As for Clover Basin, Benker says, she took the lead on eliminating a dated, duplicative tax in that fire district, and that she voted in favor of a successful council motion in July to discontinue the tax. Her opponents, she says, are keying in on the fact that the final vote to formally end the intergovernmental agreement between the city and the district didn’t occur until this month.
Another question in the poll that Benker says targets her unfairly asks whether an unnamed City Council candidate wanting to “impose” unionism on local police and firefighters would make voters more or less likely to vote for the candidate. She says she voted to send a ballot question to the voters a couple of years ago regarding unions for police and firefighters, and voters approved it.
Ferguson, the PR chief for WTP, insists that his organization doesn’t “take sides on who gets elected,” and that the survey in question was “absolutely not a push poll.” He says it only targeted 434 voters, and push polls, by definition, are directed at a much larger segment of voters. There are 17,045 active voters in Longmont’s Ward 2, the site of the Benker/Witt race.
“If we were trying to change people’s minds, we would have called more,” he says.
Ferguson also maintains that the same scientific methods used in surveys like the Gallup Poll were used in the inquiry his organization funded.
Gessler and WTP chief Leis also deny that the survey was a “push poll,” primarily because of its small survey size. They say the poll asked about non-Benker issues and demographic data, and that its results were actually used to assess the effectiveness of messages, contrary to traditional push polls. Gessler describes the poll as “message-testing,” or measuring what arguments against Benker resonate well with voters.
Asked about another litmus test for whether something is a “push poll,” whether it is intended to affect voters’ attitudes toward a particular candidate, Gessler and Leis insist that it was more about issues than Benker.
“If it was an attempt to campaign, it would have been completely ineffective,” Leis told Boulder Weekly. Leis did not share the full list of questions or any of the results of the poll.
“Express advocacy and getting people elected is not what Western Tradition Partnership does,” Leis says. When asked whether the group disagrees with positions Benker has taken, he says, “We would have an interest in having her change her mind, but whether she gets elected is simply not what we do.”
‘Strong base of support’
Leis declined to identify the members of WTP’s board or give details on its membership, although he said it has a “strong base of support” in Longmont, numbering in the hundreds. He says the organization is not funded by any specialinterest groups or corporations. Leis says that while a handful of donors have given WTP more than $1,000, the average member donation is between $30 and $40. While it has been accused of dirty politics, he says, “We’ve never done anything underhanded.”
In addition to its Bozeman, Mont., roots, WTP lists a post office box in Denver. It lists its physical address as Gessler’s firm, as does another “old guard” contributor to the Longmont race, “Coloradans for Economic Growth,” which gave the organization “Longmont Citizens for a Brighter Future” $2,850 to support City Council candidate Alex Sammoury. WTP’s Ferguson is based in Virginia, and the organization lists a Roanoke, Texas, office on its website as well. Leis, who says he is the only fulltime employee of the organization, is based in Fort Collins. WTP’s director of communications, Brian Witt, whose phone number has a Montana area code, says he is no relation to Katie Witt.
Katie Witt has raised $15,735, more than twice as much as Benker, not including the money that WTP and other groups have spent on the race. Several prominent Colorado Republicans contributed to Witt’s campaign, including former Boulder Mayor Bob Greenlee, Colorado Christian University President and former U.S. Sen. William Armstrong, Colorado Senate Minority Leader and gubernatorial candidate Josh Penry, Congressional candidate and state Rep. Cory Gardner, and Claudia Beauprez. Edward Lehman, publisher of the Times- Call, is also among Witt’s contributors.
The amounts contributed to the Benker-Witt race pale in comparison to the coffers of No Blank Check Longmont, formed to fight ballot question 2C, which would allow the city to offer its residents telecommunication, high-speed Internet and cable television services. The group has raised $196,513, including a $150,000 gift from the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association.
For Benker’s part, she denies the rumor that she has been bankrolled by liberal groups ProgressNow and MoveOn.org. She says she has never received money from those two groups, although she acknowledges receiving advice and information from ProgressNow during her campaign two years ago.
Witt told Boulder Weekly that she had nothing to do with the WTP poll, and that she condemned it at a recent forum. Steve Monger, who is listed as the registered agent for the WTP-funded Longmont Leadership Committee, is listed among Witt’s contributors, but she says she hasn’t had any contact with him since the Boulder County Fair last summer, well before the poll was conducted.
“People give me money because they approve of what I do, not because I approve of what they do,” she says, adding that her reaction to the poll was, “Darn it, that’s too bad. I’m sorry that it offended people, but I had nothing to do with it.”
Monger did not return calls for this story by press time. According to campaign expenditure reports, his group has spent most of the money it received from WTP on mailed anti-Benker materials and lobbying calls.
Witt says she does not know what WTP is or what it does. “I can tell you, I’m no sock puppet of the Western Tradition Partnership,” she says.
Witt, who waged an unsuccessful Colorado Senate run last year, also denies claims that she is being groomed for bigger and better things in the Republican Party.
“I think there’s more interest in this race because of the lack of leadership these last two years,” she says. “I think people see that things are off track. The Republican Party has nothing to do with this. I’m not a party hack. I just want what’s best for Longmont.”
When informed about WTP and its funding of the poll and the Longmont Leadership Committee, Benker says, “I think there’s a shell game going on. I don’t think they can plead innocence.”