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The Aurora Municipal Center, photographed March 13. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Story first appeared in The Unaffiliated

The partisan proxy battle for political control of the mayor’s office and city council in Colorado’s third-largest city is nearing $2 million, with much of that money being spent by conservative groups that don’t disclose their donors. 

Municipal elections in Aurora are technically nonpartisan, but conservatives currently control city government, which is unusual in the Democratic-dominated Denver metro area. 

That could change Nov. 7, when the Aurora mayor’s office and five city council seats are up for grabs. Groups aligned with Republicans are spending gobs of money to defend the conservative power in Aurora while organizations aligned with Democrats are hoping to reverse the political tide in the city.

Independent spending committees, or super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as long as it doesn’t go directly to candidate campaigns, had spent $921,000 on Aurora’s municipal election through Oct. 21.

That nears the $979,000 total spent just by conservative super PACs in the city’s 2021 election. It’s more than the $723,000 in spending by similar groups in the Colorado Springs’ municipal election in April but far less than the $6.8 million spent by political groups in Denver’s elections earlier this year. 

Two conservative groups account for 80% of the super PAC spending so far this year, and the bulk of those dollars are going to city council contests.

“Aurora being the third-biggest city in the state, it has a big interest for conservatives,” Michael Fields said. “The current city council and mayor have been doing a good job — and we have to continue the momentum.”

Fields is the treasurer for Aurorans for a Safe and Prosperous Future, a conservative committee that has spent nearly $365,000 on Aurora council races this year and $97,000 on the mayoral contest. 

That makes sense given that Aurora’s “weak mayor” form of government — the mayor’s role is mostly ceremonial outside of casting tie-breaking city council votes — means city council and the city’s manager almost effectively hold the levers of power. 

Aurorans for a Safe and Prosperous Future received $480,000 from Defend Colorado, a conservative political nonprofit. The Colorado Sun refers to Defend Colorado as a dark-money group because it doesn’t disclose its donors. Additionally, Fields is the leader of Advance Colorado Action, another dark-money political nonprofit.

Two years ago, a different group also named Aurorans for a Safe and Prosperous Future and run by Fields spent $603,000 to help three of five conservative candidates win city council seats. 

This year, the super PAC is sending mailers and other communications:

  • Supporting incumbent Mayor Mike Coffman, who is registered as a Republican and is former congressman, while opposing Councilman Juan Marcano, who is registered as a Democrat, in the mayoral contest;
  • Supporting city council candidates Francoise Bergan, Curtis Gardner, Stephanie Hancock, Angela Lawson and Jono Scott, all of whom are registered Republicans except Lawson, who is unaffiliated; and opposing council candidates Alison Coombs, Jon Gray, Brian Matise and Chris Rhodes, all of whom are registered Democrats. 

Building Aurora Together, another super PAC backing conservative candidates in Aurora, has spent $306,000 to support the same slate of city council candidates as Aurorans for a Safe and Prosperous Future. 

Ready Colorado, a conservative dark-money nonprofit focused on education issues, donated $200,000 to Building Aurora Together, while Our Community Our Future donated $100,000. The latter group is a dark-money political nonprofit that incorporated in March. Former Aurora Mayor Ed Tauer is the organization’s original registered agent.

One Main Street Aurora, another super PAC, has spent nearly $70,000 to support Gardner, who is running for reelection to his at-large city council seat. It has been funded by an $80,000 donation from One Main Street Colorado, a related dark-money political nonprofit.

A man stands at a podium with American and Colorado flags behind him
Aurora Mayor-elect Mike Coffman fields questions from reporters Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, during a press conference after his victory speech on the west steps of the Aurora Municipal Center, in Aurora, Colo. (Philip B. Poston/The Aurora Sentinel via AP)

Two super PACs are supporting the liberal slate of candidates in Aurora, but are spending far less than their conservative counterparts. 

Conservation Colorado Victory Fund has spent more than $13,000 to support Marcano in the mayoral race. It has also spent nearly $47,000 supporting Thomas Mayes, who is registered as a Democrat, and Coombs for the two at-large seats that are up for grabs on Nov. 7, and Gray, Matise and Rhodes for other council seats. 

The $113,000 the group has raised came from the national dark-money nonprofit League of Conservation Voters, as well as Conservation Voters Colorado, its affiliated super PAC, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal employees. Conservation Colorado Victory Fund has also received donations from a handful of individual donors.

Aly Ferrufino-Coqueugnoit, political director for Conservation Colorado, said local elections are important to the group, but she’s not worried about being outspent.

“So many of our issues, from oil and gas to transportation to affordable housing, are really being tackled at the local level, which is why we invest in municipal candidates in municipal races,” she said. “We know that our residents want action on climate — need affordable housing, need clean air and water in their city. And we’re working to support the candidates that we believe are going to best fight for on those issues.”

Earthworks Action Fund, a super PAC, has spent nearly $23,000 supporting Coombs, Mayes and Matise in the race for control of city council. The $30,000 the group has raised came from a national dark-money nonprofit of the same name. 

Conservative candidates are leading their liberal counterparts in fundraising on the individual campaign level, too

Conservative candidates in Aurora are also outraising their liberal counterparts on the individual campaign level.

Coffman had raised $244,000 through Oct. 21, the most among Aurora candidate’s this year, and spent $148,000. Marcano had raised $101,000 through Oct. 21, while spending $62,000.

A third mayoral candidate, Jeffrey Sanford, hasn’t reported raising or spending any money.

Fundraising in the Aurora City Council contests:

  • In the battle for two at-large seats, Gardner had raised $124,000 and spent about $81,000 through Oct. 21. He is trailed by Scott, who had raised $102,000 and spent $83,000. Coombs had raised $62,000 and spent $58,000, while Mayes had raised $50,000, including a $10,000 loan, and spent $37,000. 
  • Hancock, who is running to represent the open Ward IV seat, had raised $47,000 and spent $38,000 through Oct. 21, while Gray, her opponent, had raised about $8,500 and spent nearly $5,800.
  • Lawson had raised $33,000 and spent about $14,000 through Oct. 21 in her campaign to represent the open Ward V seat, while her opponent, Rhodes, had raised $10,000 and spent less than $7,000. Lawson is currently an at-large member of the council, but she’s term-limited in her seat. 
  • Incumbent Bergan had raised nearly $85,000 and spent about $58,000 through Oct. 21 in her bid to continue representing Ward VI. Her opponent, Matise, had raised nearly $94,000, with $66,000 of that his own money. He’s spent nearly $83,000.

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...