DENVER – Big campaign contributions are made to political candidates to buy access and influence for the donor. That statement, made by one of Ken Gordon’s professors during his tenure as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan in the 1960’s, is what first inspired the former legislator to fight for tighter campaign finance restrictions.
“Conservation is something I’ve always been interested in,” says Gordon, “And I remember thinking how self-evident it was that legislators backed by real estate developers and extractive industry donations would never do a good job protecting the environment.”
Over lunch at Zaidy’s Deli in Cherry Creek, Gordon speaks matter-of-factly about the huge sums of campaign money sloshing around the American political system, and the inherent danger he believes it poses to our democracy.
“We are going to see a $1 trillion political campaign in our lifetime,” says the 62-year old Democrat between forkfuls of Swiss-cheese smothered potatoes.
“Our political system is broken, it’s getting worse, and how we respond to that is going to affect every single human being on this planet.”
Gordon, who was first elected to the statehouse in 1992 despite shunning contributions from political action committees (PACs), now heads www.CleanSlateNow.org. The group, whose stated goal is to “get money out of politics by pressing candidates not to take special interest money,” is itself an independent expenditure committee.
It’s a contradiction not lost on the former Senate Majority Leader.
“There are a lot of ironies in this,” Gordon said, “I’m a 527,” referring to the section of the tax code under which the more loosely regulated independent political groups are organized.
Debate over the role of money in elections is nothing new here. Colorado has been ground zero for big money politics since the “Gang of Four” – wealthy liberal activists Pat Stryker, Tim Gill, Rutt Bridges and U.S. Congressman Jared Polis – helped to underwrite a Democratic Party resurgence during the last decade in what had previously been a reliably red state.
Gordon acknowledges that his position in support of tighter campaign funding rules has sometimes put him at odds with some in his own political party – particularly those he refers to as the “inner circle” of the party establishment. But he says he’s confident that most of the electorate is on his side.
“The vast majority of people of all political persuasions – probably 95 percent – want less money in politics and less influence buying,” said Gordon, “But you have to get past that inner circle – that 5 percent that has a personal economic interest in money politics – and that’s the case for both political parties.”
After finishing his potatoes, Gordon produces a list of major political contributors that reads like a “Who’s Who” of Washington, DC heavy-hitters. Among others, the list includes the American Bankers Association, Brownstein-Hyatt-Farber-Screck, CH2MHill, and the PAC’s of Lockheed Martin, the National Association of Realtors, and Xcel Energy.
The significance of the list, Gordon says, is that each of the donors has contributed to both liberal Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette of Denver and conservative GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs. Evidence, he says, that political contributions are at least as much about access as they are ideology.
“It’s bi-bribership,” says Gordon – making a play on the word bi-partisanship, “Special interest groups give money to both sides all the time. They even make contributions in uncontested races.”
Gordon calls political expenditures by “corporations, unions and other inanimate objects” an attack on democracy, and says of the Citizens United decision that invalidated restrictions on those expenditures as a violation of constitutional free speech protections, “The Supreme Court got it wrong.”
The decision, Gordon says, will necessarily afford well-heeled interests on the left and right an advantage when it comes to influencing the decisions of policymakers.
“Political equality is part of our national DNA,” he says, “Citizens deserve equal consideration from and access to their government. But this [Supreme Court] decision means that some people get a lot more access and consideration because they have a lot more money.”
Gordon concedes that campaign finance restrictions are “An infringement on freedom.”
“But freedom isn’t unlimited. You can’t shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” he adds, paraphrasing conservative Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
“We have to balance that [freedom] with the need to protect against damaging our democratic process,” he says.
Gordon also shrugs off the argument that disclosure and transparency, rather than limits on contributions and expenditures, is the answer.
“A lot of people making that argument are just people trying to avoid limits,” he says, “Disclosure and transparency are fine, but they don’t change the outcome or reduce the disproportionate influence that big donors have over elected officials.”
When asked about Gordon’s efforts, former Senate Republican Leader Josh Penry pointed out that many Democratic politicians who speak in favor of stricter campaign finance restrictions don’t necessarily live up to the rhetoric in their own campaigns. Ken Gordon, he says, isn’t one of them.
“Most liberals have no credibility on money in politics. They rail about the influence of cash, then wallow in majorities paid for by the likes of Pat Stryker,” said Penry, “Look at the President, he hated Super PAC’s – right up until he decided to anoint one. “
“I obviously don’t share Ken’s belief that more regulation will help,” added Penry, “But unlike most on the left, at least he doesn’t complain about campaign cash out of one side of his mouth while soliciting it with the other. Ken is sincere about wanting to reduce the influence of money in politics.”
As the waitress brings our check, the conversation shifts to Gordon’s unsuccessful campaign for Secretary of State, and the classic campaign ad that cast him swimming with sharks.
“They said it was unlikely that a shark would bite me, but told me to keep my hands close to my body and not to move them around too much,” Gordon deadpans.
Would he ever face the sharks, so to speak, by running for office again? Maybe.
“It’s possible,” Gordon says, “But it is very difficult for someone who wants to reduce the influence of special interests to be successful inside a system that is awash in special interest money.”
“For now, I’m more effective outside.”