Toward the end of the Denver mayoral campaign, the funding for independent expenditure committees drew more attention than usual. Specifically, the media and Kelly Brough’s campaign lasered in on the millions given by billionaires to a group supporting Mayor-Elect Mike Johnston.

Despite the sky-is-falling rhetoric, philanthropic contributions like those — absent a self-interested quid pro quo impetus — are exactly what we should hope for in our elections.

To come to that conclusion, it is important to understand a few important points about campaign finance and elections. First, and foremost, the rallying cry to “get big money out of politics” will never be more than a tactic to work certain volunteers into a door-knocking, phone-banking frenzy.

Early in my career as an attorney specializing in campaign finance, one of the state’s most prominent political lawyers let me on in a secret. Mark Grueskin, a brilliant counselor who has not just worked in the system for decades, but created much of it, told me, “There are no stop signs for money in politics; there are only signs for right and left.”

It is a folksy way to sum up the political environment created by the U.S. Constitution. Effectively, money translates into speech via television and radio commercials, direct mail flyers, and social media campaigns. It is the price we pay for unfettered freedom of speech. That freedom is a bedrock principle for our democracy and worth every penny.

The marketplace of ideas is, after all, a market.

In fact, it has been the efforts to circumvent that principle that have given rise to outside money flooding campaigns. The only constitutional recourse is to limit contributions to candidates. But that incentivizes big donors to give even more to independent expenditures; the more limited the resources candidates have direct access to, the easier it is for outside organizations to swamp them.

Consequently, when Denver lowered its candidate contribution limits to $500 from $3,000, it may as well have sent out personalized invitations to political operatives running those independent groups.

Traditionally, that money has flowed from wealthy individuals, well-heeled advocacy groups and large companies that saw a direct return for their investment. Those came in the form of tax cuts or trade deals or government contracts.

It is no coincidence that the traditional monied alignment in Denver has led to developer-friendly interests. It is all a part of the game rules that have been followed to varying degrees for decades.


In this election, many of those folks lined up behind Kelly Brough. Her record both as a mayoral chief-of-staff and chamber of commerce head honcho made her a natural choice to fill that void. And she did. While Brough had an eleventh hour revelation about whether Denver was “for sale,” she had already benefited immensely from outside spending herself. 

Without her own supporters putting in more money than all the outside help received by the remaining 15 candidates (excluding Johnston) combined, Brough would not have made the runoff. Instead, they propelled her into the two-month mano a mano she just finished.

And good for her. She understood the game and played by the rules and figured out a way to advance.

Unfortunately for her, Johnston had a plan that upended the table. From his time as a state legislator through his work helming Gary Community Ventures, Johnston cultivated a group of ultrawealthy individuals who believed in his visionary approach to solving problems.

Effectively, Johnston preached a vision that aligned with the philanthropic view of megadonors like LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. Whether through compassionate solutions for unhoused neighbors to commercial social impact models, those donors understood supporting a like-minded individual would lead more effective, efficient change.

It is not like Hoffman — or other mega donors supporting Johnston — has some personal financial gain vested in Denver. He is a billionaire whose company would be unaffected by who sits in the mayor’s seat. But a mayor can help create a test case for a philanthropic vision. And a smart, capable candidate like Johnston could help sell that vision across the country. 

So Hoffman and friends put in so much money that it effectively shut off the supply to Brough. While Johnston’s supporters pumped even a little more into the runoff than the general ($2.49 million to $2.23 million), Brough’s dried up ($528,000 to $984,000). Those donors knew they would just be throwing good money after bad in a hopeless attempt to keep pace.

Johnston’s supporters invested in a philanthropic vision for change that could help change lives in Denver. They won’t grow incrementally richer, but may help make a difference for a lot of people. And if that is what they want Johnston to deliver in exchange for our help, then we are all better off for it.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq.

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