Jared Polis capped donations to his campaign for governor at $200 to declare he isn’t beholden to special interests.
His inaugural committee is a different story.
The Democrat is raising huge sums from moneyed interests and major political donors to pay for his inauguration Tuesday at the state Capitol and the inaugural ball featuring singer Cyndi Lauper that evening.
The top donors to the nonprofit organizing the festivities are contributing at least $50,000, with other tiers for sponsors at $25,000, $10,000 and $5,000, according to documents obtained by The Colorado Sun.
The highest donors will receive a package of special seats at the inauguration ceremony; VIP tickets to the inaugural ball and access to a “patron’s lounge level”; valet parking passes; and a special commemorative gift, the documents show.
The organization is pledging to voluntarily report all donors that contribute more than $1,000, but the cost for the event and the names of those paying the bill remain unknown ahead of the events.
Inauguration spokeswoman Mara Sheldon said Monday she didn’t “have any numbers or anything from the committee yet.” She said the information would be available at the end of January.
Major interests typically cover the inaugural bill
The fundraising arrangement is not uncommon.
Gov. John Hickenlooper used two nonprofit organizations to raise more than half a million dollars for each of his inaugurations, in 2011 and 2015.
For the second one, the hosts reported the major donors days before the event. Thirteen companies each donated $25,000 or more and 44 companies each gave $10,000 to help cover the event’s costs — amounts that the organizers released days before the festivities.
The event raised questions about special interests and corporation leaders paying for access to the governor. In 2011, Jenny Flanagan, the then-executive director of advocacy organization Common Cause, told The Denver Post: “People make contributions for a reason. It’s a way to curry favor with the incoming leadership.” Flanagan is now the deputy secretary of state, appointed by incoming Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who plans to attend the inaugural ball.
Similar questions are now expected to shadow Polis, who spent more than $23 million of his own money to get elected in November. The organization feteing the new governor is called Colorado for All, which serves as the theme for the event and appears in huge banners on the front of the Capitol for the inauguration ceremony.
Polis will take the oath of office in a ceremony that begins at 11 a.m. on the west steps of the Capitol, and his sold-out “Blue Sneakers Ball” takes place in the evening at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. The ball is named after the shoes Polis wore in the 2018 campaign.
The ball features two musical acts, Lauper and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. The public tickets to the event went for $35 to $75.
The co-chairs for the organization hosting the event are Robin Hickenlooper, the wife of the governor and a senior vice president at Liberty Media; Blanca Uzeta O’Leary, a former Democratic National Committee member; and Rick Sapkin, a prominent donor and the founder of Edgemark Development, a commercial real estate firm. Polis’ partner, Marlon Reis, is an honorary chair.
The organization is a 501(c)4 nonprofit, which can raise unlimited sums and doesn’t have to disclose its donors. No public money goes toward inauguration costs, and a Polis spokeswoman said the incoming governor did not help raise money for the event.
Any money not spent on the inaugural events, Sheldon said, will go to four nonprofits: the Governor’s Residence Preservation Fund; the Wild Animal Sanctuary, near Keenesburg; the Rose Community Foundation; and the STARS Early Learning Program, part of the Adams 14 Education Foundation.
Hickenlooper raised $765,000 for his second inaugural
For Hickenlooper’s 2011 inauguration, the nonprofit Colorado Can Do raised nearly $627,000, according to federal tax filings. The documents don’t indicate how much went to nonprofits. Large donors that year included oil and gas company Encana, Vail Resorts and others, according to media reports at the time.
In 2015, Hickenlooper’s Colorado Up! nonprofit committee raised nearly $765,000, according to tax filings. Of that, the committee donated $244,000 to three nonprofit groups: the Denver Biennial, the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative and the Denver Post Opportunity Fund for the Pedal the Plains bike ride.
Hickenlooper’s inaugural organization only disclosed the sources for $400,000, about half of the total donations for the event.
The Internal Revenue Service doesn’t require nonprofits to reveal their donors publicly, but Polis is pledging to do so.
He made the same pledge to disclose the contributors to his transition organization, Boldly Forward, but no donors have been identified yet.
Also, Polis is scheduled to attend Wednesday’s “The Purple Ball,” hosted by One Colorado and The Gill Foundation. The event is a fundraiser for One Colorado, a leading LGBTQ rights advocacy organization in Colorado, and honors Polis as the nation’s first openly gay man elected governor.
The event’s top-level sponsors are expected to donate at least $15,000 each, according to the invite, and all donors of more than $1,000 each will get the opportunity for a photo with guest Melissa Etheridge, a musician and gay rights activist, at a special reception.