• Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
Supporters of a bill from Colorado Democrats on paid family leave bill rally outside the Colorado Capitol on April 9, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A dark money Democratic powerhouse is fueling a potential ballot initiative to require paid sick leave.

Sixteen Thirty Fund put $500,000 into Colorado Families First, an issue committee that is aiming to put the measure on the November ballot, according to new campaign finance reports filed this week. Sixteen Thirty, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donors, spent nearly $11 million in the 2018 Colorado elections in part to benefit Democrats.

The new campaign reports from January through April 29 show big cash being raised by issue committees aiming to support or oppose November ballot initiatives.

So far, the only other backer for the paid family leave initiatives is The Fairness Project, a group funded by the Service Employees International Union Workers West. The project spent about $7,000 to pay for web development for Colorado Families First. The union-backed nonprofit lists paid family leave in Colorado as one of its four 2020 priorities, along with limiting payday loan interest in Nebraska and expanding Medicaid in Missouri and Oklahoma.

Democratic lawmakers originally hoped to pass the program during the legislative session, but the coronavirus pandemic and opposition from the business community curtailed the plan. Instead, Colorado Families First will try to gather nearly 125,000 valid signatures to put a measure to voters. It is currently considering three different options but will pick one to move forward.

The return of Sixteen Thirty Fund to a ballot campaign is no surprise. In 2018, the group spent $3.5 million to defeat a property rights initiative promoted by the oil and gas industry. It also funded a successful measure to limit interest charged by payday lenders.

The group also spent heavily on super PACs supporting Democratic candidates, particularly in state Senate contests. It had hired a lobbyist to work on supporting the paid family leave and other bills in the current legislative session.

Supporters of a bill from Colorado Democrats on paid family leave bill rally outside the Colorado Capitol on April 9, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Out of state money flows in Electoral College fight

Elsewhere, other out-of-state interests continue to pour big bucks into a measure on the November ballot regarding the Electoral College. 

Colorado voters will be asked whether they want to overturn the law approved in 2019 that requires the state’s electoral votes to go to the winner of the national popular vote. Two-thirds of the $2.4 million raised by the Yes on National Popular Vote committee comes from California, compared with less than 1% from Coloradans.

Most recently, Josh Jones, a technology venture capitalist from Santa Monica, donated $70,000, while New York venture capitalist Jeff Horing, philanthropist Nancy Nordhoff of Washington state, and the Greenleaf Trust of Michigan each donated $50,000 to the effort. Nine other out-of-staters donated between $10,000 and $25,000 to Yes on National Popular Vote since the first of the year.

On the other side, about one-third of the $881,000 raised by Protect Colorado’s Vote, which is pushing the ballot question to overturn the law, came from Coloradans. That group raised only about $80,000 since the first of the year, including $25,000 from Boulder’s William Witter and $15,000 from Castle Rock banker Earl Wright. Four other Coloradans donated $10,000 each. 

Meanwhile, an issue committee supported by the oil and gas industry, Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence, raised nearly $3 million so far this year. The group has spent nearly $68 million since it was created six years ago to fight or support ballot initiatives that impact oil and gas development.

Occidental Petroleum donated more $1.2 million, Noble Energy and PDC Energy each put in $785,100, and DCP Midstream and Bayswater Exploration & Production each donated $87,233. 

A handful of potential ballot measures may affect the industry, but it’s not clear what the Protect group is planning for the 2020 election. The organization did not return a request for comment.

Democratic candidates lead in fundraising, primary contests will heat up

The new campaign finance reports also offer the first glimpse of legislative races in the 2020 election. So far, Democratic candidates and super PACs are outraising their Republican counterparts on both accords.

Democrats control the House and Senate after historic 2018 election wins, but the narrow two-seat margin in the Senate gives Republicans hope to take back control. On the House side, the party is hoping to close the 17-seat gap with Democrats.

Before the two parties face off in November, each will need to sort out some expensive primary contests on tap for the June 30 election. 

So far, incumbents are using their positions to raise larger sums than their challengers. The contribution limit in legislative races is $400.

The most expensive primary battles so far are on the Democratic side. 

  • In Senate District 31, based in Denver, Sen. Chris Hansen, a former representative who was appointed to fill a vacancy earlier this year, raised more than $72,000. He is being challenged by Democrat Maria Orms, a military veteran and engineer, who raised $17,000.
  • In another top contest, Rep. Steve Woodrow, who was appointed to replace Hansen in House District 6, has raised nearly $89,000. But two rivals also raised significant sums. Steven Paletz, a real estate and development lawyer, reported $60,000 in contributions, and Daniel Himelspach, a lawyer specializing in mediation, raised $75,000 with one-third of that a personal loan to his campaign.
  • On the Republican side, state Sen. Bob Rankin, who represents numerous mountain counties in Senate District 8, is being challenged by Debra Irvine, a Breckenridge artist. Rankin, a former state representative who took the seat after a vacancy appointment, raised more than $50,000 compared to her nearly $6,000.

Looking ahead to November, the two parties’ super PACs will play a large role in the races. Leading Colorado Forward, the political committee supporting Senate Democrats, reported $849,000 in cash at the end of April. Better Colorado Alliance, the Democratic group in the House, has more than $638,000 in cash.

The two Republican groups did not report their end balance because it’s not required for 527 committees organized through the Internal Revenue Service. The GOP’s Senate Majority Fund reported raising $361,000, and the House counterpart, Values First Colorado, reported $249,000.

Recent big-money donors to the super PACs include America Votes, a national organization aligned with unions, which gave $75,000 to Leading Colorado Forward and $37,500 to Better Colorado Alliance. 

The two Democratic committees also received $50,000 each from New Belgium Brewing co-founder Kim Jordan and $25,000 from personal injury lawyer Frank Azar. Azar also gave $2,500 each to the two GOP super PACs.

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...