Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman has proven himself refreshing in the short time he has held his post. Most memorable so far in his tenure: the week he spent undercover living, eating and bunking with the homeless in Aurora and Denver a few months ago. He shared his frank assessment of life on the streets with the public afterward. He even took the time to pen a commentary about the experience for our readers. His unflinching observations culled wheat from chaff among the homeless, contrasting the many, truly needy who have fallen on hard times with those freely choosing a vagabond life of “camping” and alcohol and drug abuse.
Coffman’s views have rankled some in the metro area’s progressive establishment. That no doubt includes a wing of his own Aurora City Council, with which he has been at loggerheads over assorted issues. Indeed, his overall world view as a Republican heavyweight and retired U.S. Marine Corps officer doesn’t sit well with them.
The council members in question are themselves relative newcomers to political office, uniting behind a left-leaning, vaguely reformist and otherwise muddled agenda. One of their recent actions, however, comes across not as the work of the youthful idealists they appear to be — but more like a cynical attempt by old cronies to mute their opponents. In particular, Mike Coffman.
A council majority led by progressives enacted a sweeping, complicated new law last year purporting to reform campaign finance for local elections. The new campaign-finance rules — cobbled together by national activist groups and handed off to the council — imposes curbs on political contributions that eventually will backfire if history is any guide. The restrictions offer the usual allure of “getting money out of politics” while inadvertently pushing that same money into ever-darker recesses where the law can’t touch it, and where it can do the most damage. It’s a crazy quilt of convoluted clauses and definitions, adding 25 single-spaced pages of legalese to city ordinance books. Campaigns might have to raise more money, not less, just to pay their legal bills for navigating the new rules.
Much of the misguided measure is fodder for a separate debate. But certain provisions threaten a more immediate impact — arguably infringing on basic civil rights. Enough so that Coffman has gone to court. The mayor contends the law sharply limits his First Amendment right to advocate for candidates and causes and particularly for candidates he supports in council races this November.
With legal representation by the Public Trust Institute, Coffman argues in a motion for an injunction that he “is prohibited from doing anything effective for other political campaigns.” The motion continues, “He cannot encourage his friends and neighbors to donate to a particular candidate; he cannot help someone new to politics get his or her campaign committee off the ground; he cannot form an issue committee to support or oppose a ballot issue; he cannot share his donor list; he cannot even give other campaigns ideas about messaging or strategy.”
He is as good as muzzled.
The law hamstrings any candidate for Aurora office; that’s anyone with an active campaign committee, which almost all elected officeholders maintain while they serve in office. Assuming the comparative novices on council who supported the measure fully understood all its moving parts, why would they enact a measure to go after Coffman when it also could curtail their own ability to campaign for their favorite candidates? Maybe they fear his clout on the campaign trail that much, and will go to great lengths to neuter it?
As reported recently by The Gazette, members of the majority scoffed at accusations they’re out to get the mayor. Yet, his longtime headliner status and record as a warrior for Colorado’s center-right give him the ability to drum up significant support for candidates who could pull the council back from its recent lurch to the left. Coffman was no run-of-the-mill mayor even on Day 1 of his job. He served five terms in Congress and before that, was Colorado’s secretary of state; its state treasurer, and a member of the legislature in both the state House and Senate.
The council’s motivations aside, and however the courts end up ruling, Coffman is also simply challenging a bad policy. That’s a worthy pursuit in its own right.
As the Public Trust Institute’s legal director, Dan Burrows, told The Gazette, “Mike Coffman has a constitutional right to encourage his friends and neighbors to vote a particular way, to volunteer for other people’s campaigns, and to voice his opinions on the issues just like anyone else.”
It’s time to rein in so-called campaign reforms that only restrict the right to free speech.