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Stephany Rose Spaulding, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate speaks at an Indivisible Denver forum at Barnum Park in Denver on June 9, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

A lesser-known Democratic candidate in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race is getting national attention, but it comes as the campaign looks to regroup from the departure of two key strategists.

Stephany Rose Spaulding lost her statewide field director — the campaign’s highest paid employee — and fundraising consultant in a matter of weeks earlier this summer. Spaulding dismissed concerns and said she is rebuilding, but the campaign is short on money and fueled largely by volunteers.

Thomas Cavaness, the field director, resigned in July after he said the candidate violated his trust by secretly listening in to a phone call. He filed a claim Wednesday with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, obtained by The Colorado Sun, that alleges that Spaulding still owes him about $1,100 in unpaid wages and expenses. Spaulding told The Sun that “all back wages have been paid according to Colorado law.”

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At the end of June, Sean Diller, the campaign’s finance consultant, left because the campaign didn’t have the resources to mount a serious bid in the Democratic primary for a chance to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. “The campaign didn’t have enough people to do what she needed to be done,” Diller said in an interview.

This is not the first time Spaulding experienced a staff exodus. A month before the 2018 election, as she campaigned for the 5th Congressional District in Colorado Springs, three prominent aides resigned amid questions about financial improprieties.

The latest campaign shake up and ongoing dispute come as Spaulding’s campaign is getting its most exposure to date. The National Republican Senatorial Committee paid for a billboard last week that features a photo of Spaulding alongside Democratic U.S. Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. The tagline says Spaulding is “too liberal for Colorado.”

Ocasio-Cortez and Omar are frequent targets of President Donald Trump and conservatives. The billboard at 2251 S. Parker Road is part of a national campaign by Republicans to meddle in Democratic primaries and elevate candidates who would be weak opponents to Gardner.

In an interview, Spaulding said the billboard is shocking and suggested it was racist because Republicans were “singling out” women of color. Her campaign used the attack to raise money.

So far this election, Spaulding has raised less than $100,000 for the U.S. Senate campaign she launched in April. The total is far less than her better-known rivals in the race, which includes 10 other candidates and the potential for another as former Gov. John Hickenlooper considers a bid.

MORE: Here’s who’s running to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020 — and who’s thinking about it

Internal campaign dispute leads to aide’s departure

The total raised includes more than $37,000 she transferred from her unsuccessful 2018 U.S. House bid. Spaulding had just $25,000 in the bank to start July, according to the most recent campaign finance filings. 

Political director Shenika Carter said the campaign has hired another field director and is talking with another fundraising firm. Most of the campaign’s other aides are volunteers. Spaulding called the strategists’ exits “normal for campaigns.” 

“We were expanding and in the process of expanding someone resigned,” said Spaulding, who is the director of the Women’s and Ethnic Studies program at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. 

Cavaness, the statewide field director, joined the campaign after working for Gov. Jared Polis’ successful bid in 2018 and found Spaulding’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness compelling. Spaulding said he resigned because he wanted a new job in another state, but Cavaness said that’s not true. 

His departure on July 7 came weeks after a phone call in which he said Spaulding secretly listened and recorded the conversation. “I took that as a major invasion of privacy and violation of trust,” he said in an interview.

The call took place between Cavaness and a consultant on a campaign conference line, and when they asked others on the line to identify themselves, no one did. The two spoke openly about complications with the campaign’s voter outreach plan and internal campaign problems.

The campaign agreed to give Cavaness a final check of about $788 if he signed a severance agreement with non-disclosure requirements, according to a copy reviewed by The Sun. He refused and the campaign sent him a final check for $449.87. 

Cavaness said he is still owed about $1,100 and the campaign refused to accept a demand for wages, so he filed a complaint with the state. Carter, the campaign’s political director, said Cavaness is seeking pay for work he did not complete and reimbursement for expenses that were not authorized.

She said the complaint is an attempt to “exploit the campaign,” and suggested — without evidence — that he is working with Republicans to hurt Spaulding. Cavaness called the claim ridiculous.

The call that precipitated his departure also is a lingering point of contention. Cavaness said Spaulding told him that she recorded the call — a claim the campaign denies. 

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate and professor of women’s and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs Stephany Rose Spaulding speaks at Indivisible Denver’s candidate forum at Barnum Park in Denver on June 9, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

In his resignation letter, Cavaness confronted Spaulding about the recorded call, and she responded with a defense of her actions. She said she had the right to listen because it was a call for all members of the campaign. “So the claim that any of your rights were violated is false and I reject the accusation. Falsifying or even providing a rationale is unnecessary,” she wrote in the email to Cavaness reviewed by The Sun. 

Cavaness said Spaulding was not a party to the call and he referred the matter to the Colorado Springs Police Department for possible investigation. A department spokeswoman said Friday she was uncertain about the status of the matter.

On the day he resigned, Spaulding told Cavaness she was disappointed in his early departure but the two “part on good terms.” But in an interview, Cavaness said Spaulding’s actions and treatment of staff conflict with her public campaign statements in support of fair wages and treatment of workers. “I’ve worked for over a decade in Democratic campaigns, mostly in Colorado,” he said. “It matters to me that our candidates are honest and trustworthy.”

MORE: A breakdown of the latest campaign cash reports shows big money — and big spending — in Colorado

Spaulding aides from prior campaign recount similar grievances

Back in 2017, as Spaulding launched her unsuccessful congressional bid, two other aides experienced similar problems with the candidate.

Ethan Wade, who served as Spaulding’s initial campaign manager in 2017, told The Sun he had to file a demand for payment to get his final two weeks’ pay and nearly had to request an intervention by the state labor department. He said he left after about six weeks because of concerns about fundraising practices.

Caitlyn Libby also helped launch Spaulding’s 2018 campaign and later worked as a paid contractor. She said Spaulding wouldn’t take advice from political professionals and treated her poorly by making unreasonable demands and offering low pay. 

She said this contradicts the messages she shared on the campaign trail, particularly in courting union support. She said it took more than a month to get her final check and the amount fell short of what she said she was owed.

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

“I felt like she was bullying and infantilizing me,” Libby said in an interview. “She’s so inspiring when you hear her speak … and when you finally get this awesome job for a candidate that you really believe in, she abuses you.”

Both former campaign aides shared their experiences with The Sun for the first time after learning about Cavaness’ situation. Both left early in the 2018 campaign cycle, well before the public departures of three other staffers.

When told about complaints from former staffers from the 2018 campaign, Spaulding said it was “the first time that I’m hearing any of that.”

Spaulding said she has good relationships with former staffers and never heard complaints during the campaign. “We’ve never had anything come up against us in regards to paying people fair wages or anything like that,” she said.

John Frank

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.