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Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman speaks during a news conference about the state's efforts to protect the process of casting a vote in the 2020 general election in October 2020 in downtown Denver. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo)
Story first appeared in The Unaffiliated

The largest donor to a November ballot initiative asking voters to move Aurora to a strong-mayor system is a conservative dark-money group that has previously supported Republican candidates and causes.

Colorado Dawn paid $144,000 to collect signatures for the measure, according to a campaign finance report released Monday evening.

The political nonprofit based in Colorado Springs was one of just two donors to Term Limits and Empowering the Mayor for a Better Aurora, the committee supporting the measure, from May through July. 

The other donor was Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, who gave $10,000 directly to the committee, according to the report. Coffman, a Republican and former congressman, is up for reelection in November. If the measure passes and he is reelected, he would be the first Aurora mayor to lead the city under a strong-mayor system.

Coffman only acknowledged his support for the initiative after its supporters gathered enough signatures for it to be placed on the November ballot. He told The Colorado Sun in an interview last month that part of the reason he didn’t publicly support the measure sooner was because he wasn’t sure it would qualify.

The campaign finance report gives credence to the theory that Republicans are behind the city’s strong-mayor initiative and that they see it as a way to regain a foothold in the Denver metro area. Republicans have faced major losses across the state, including along the Front Range, over the past three election cycles, but the GOP has maintained some influence in Aurora through the City Council and mayor’s office, positions that are supposed to be nonpartisan.

Coffman dismissed the idea that the initiative could have positive impacts for Republicans in the Denver area.

“I just don’t think so,” he said last month. “Who knows who would succeed me. I have to get reelected as well. But I aspire, really, to avoid the partisanship.”

The mayor also said he would no longer be giving interviews about the initiative or campaigning for it and would instead be focusing on his reelection campaign. 

The proposal would move Aurora away from its City Council-city manager form of government, where the mayor is mostly a figurehead. Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo have strong mayors.

Colorado Dawn’s $144,000 in spending was an in-kind donation, meaning that the group directly paid for the signature gathering rather than routing the spending through the committee backing the measure.

Colorado Dawn is what The Sun refers to as a dark-money group because it doesn’t reveal its donors. The nonprofit, formed in early 2021, has donated $2 million to state-level committees. It also gave money to an independent spending group in the Colorado Spring mayoral contest this year.

In Colorado Dawn’s 2021 tax filings, Steve Durham, a Republican member of the Colorado Board of Education, was listed as the chairman. Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, was listed as the vice chair, and Josh Hosler, the former chairman of the El Paso County GOP, was listed as the treasurer.

Six of Aurora’s 10 City Council members voiced support Monday night for a resolution opposing the strong-mayor initiative. 

The council also discussed an ordinance that would limit future city ballot measures to a single subject. The ballot initiative proposing a strong-mayor system also reduces the term limits for the city’s elected officials from three consecutive four-year terms to two and adds an at-large councilmember. 

Opponents of the measure on Saturday filed a lawsuit against three of the campaign’s representatives and the city of Aurora, claiming that the initiative violates state and local election laws because its language is misleading and unclear, according to The Aurora Sentinel. 

Colorado Sun staff writers Jesse Paul and Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

Elliott Wenzler wrote about politics, water, housing, and other topics for The Colorado Sun from October 2022 through September 2023. She has covered community issues in Colorado since 2019, including for Colorado Community Media. She has been...