Polis sustains a PAC attack

Finger-pointing ensues

By John Schroyer
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

With less than two weeks left before Colorado’s primary election, the emergence of a brand-new 527, or independent political action committee, signals a new level of contentiousness and heat in the race among the three Democrats hoping to succeed U.S. Rep. Mark Udall in Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District.

The ad, which began airing this past week, attacks former State Board of Education member Jared Polis, alleging that he supports educational vouchers and wants to reform — rather than repeal — what it calls the “disastrous” policies of No Child Left Behind.

Polis vehemently denies both allegations.

“Polis has pushed for conservative ideas that undermine public schools, like backing a radical school voucher bill while serving on the state ed board, and funding multiple charter schools, and saying we should fix Bush’s No Child Left Behind disaster rather than end it,” the ad intones.

It then displays a phone number and asks voters to call Polis and ask him to “fix his education ideas.”

And on Wednesday, during an early taping of Fox 31’s current events show Colorado 2031 (airing at 10 p.m. Sunday, July 27), Polis confronted Fitz-Gerald directly about the issue.

When host Ron Zappolo inquired whether the trio should agree “not to beat each other up” but instead “raise the discourse,” Polis accused Fitz-Gerald of apathetically sitting on the sidelines as her political allies unfairly ripped into him.

“I’ve been attacked recently by some lobbyist friends of Sen. Fitz-Gerald, and we’re certainly going to respond vigorously,” Polis said.

When Zappolo pointed out that 527s operate independently of campaigns and that Fitz-Gerald has no control over the group behind the ad, Polis interjected, “She can absolutely tell them that it’s not helping her and ask them to stop … I’d like her to disavow these false ads that are distorting my education record.”

Then, when Zappolo asked Polis point blank if by responding vigorously he meant running more TV ads of his own, Polis dodged the question and repeated his intent to “respond vigorously.”

Before Zappolo could allow Fitz-Gerald to answer, Shafroth leapt in and, in keeping with the spirit of his recent endorsement by the Rocky Mountain News, said the exchange offered a perfect example of the reasons voters should choose him over either of his rivals.

“This is kind of what’s going on in Washington right now. The back and forth, the partisanship, the bickering is not really solving the kind of problems that our citizens want us to solve,” Shafroth charged.

For her part, Fitz-Gerald reiterated Zappolo’s point about the independence of 527s, and said only, “If something comes up, you just live with it.”

When asked after the taping whether she thought Polis’ question was unfair, she replied tersely, “He knows what you can do about 527s as well as I do, which is nothing.”

Polis continued on the warpath after the forum, however, and said he was “very disappointed” that she had declined to distance herself from the ad’s creators.

“It says a lot about her character,” Polis charged.

Controversy over the ad campaign began on Tuesday, when the Polis campaign first attacked the Fitz-Gerald camp over the ad and accused her of relying on “oil lobbyist friends” for putting the ad on the air.

Colorado Counts, the organization that booked the ad, is run by former Colorado AFL-CIO executive director Steve Adams. Adams has a longstanding pro-union record and maintains an extensive network throughout Colorado’s labor community.

When asked about the ad, he simply laughed at the claim by Polis staffers that “Big Oil” was behind it.

“I’ve never lobbied one minute for ‘Big Oil,’” Adams said, trying unsuccessfully to contain his amusement.

“‘Big Oil’ has not put a nickel into this,” Adams said.

Polis campaign manager Robert Becker, however, noted that Adams is a registered lobbyist for Colorado Communiqué, and that one of the company’s clients is British Petroleum Global (other clients include Wal-Mart, Citigroup, the Colorado Orthopedic Society and the Colorado Medical Veterinary Association, to name a few).

Adams responded by noting that Colorado Communiqué is a very large lobbying firm, and like any large company, all of its employees do not necessarily work on projects for every single client.

He said he spends “99.9 percent” of his time lobbying for Qwest and the Public Employees Retirement Association.

At first, the Polis campaign fingered Jep Seman, the head of government relations for the lobbying firm Corporate Advocates as the culprit behind the ads because Seman’s office address is the same as the one listed on the LLC registration on file with the secretary of state’s office for Colorado Counts. But after news reports debunked that theory and found that Seman’s office shares the same address with a host of other companies on the same floor of a downtown Denver building, Becker homed in on Adams’ link to BP Global.

“We got the wrong donor in the right office suite,” Becker said wryly, noting that both Seman and Adams have contributed to Fitz-Gerald’s campaign.

Seman has given Fitz-Gerald $1,250 in this election cycle, and Adams has contributed $1,500.

But the Polis campaign mix-up was enough to elicit charges of laziness from both Adams and Seman.

“They do some very shoddy work, is all I can say,” Adams said with a chuckle.

Seman added, “They obviously needed to do a little bit better homework before they put out their press release.”

He further scoffed at the idea that Fitz-Gerald could be bought by any special interest, and said his donations were not professional but personal.

“She’s certainly not in my or anybody else’s pocket,” Seman said. “I have a lot of respect for Joan. She’s a good thinker, a good consensus-builder. She’ll be a force to be reckoned with in Washington.”

A number of labor organizations have endorsed Fitz-Gerald, including the Colorado AFL-CIO, the Colorado Council of Teamsters, the American Federation of Teachers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Service Employees International Union.

The expenditure report from Colorado Counts on the Federal Election Commission Web site says the group collected $245,000 in July and spent $215,000 on July 18, just days before the ad began airing. According to the report, the ad was produced by Ikon Public Affairs, a national company with offices in Denver, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.

There have been only four donors to Colorado Counts, and all are either union donor organizations or renamed front groups for unions. One donor, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees special account, gave Colorado Counts $100,000. Another, PEA International, a front group for the Service Employees International Union, also gave $100,000. A third group, the Colorado State Conference of Electrical Workers Education Fund, a branch of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, gave $20,000. Lastly, the Colorado Public Safety Fund, a 527 created by the firefighter’s union, gave $25,000.

Speaking for the Polis campaign, Becker pointed out that the phone number in the ad is not for Polis’ campaign office, or even his home. It’s the number to a nonprofit Polis helped establish, Providers Resource Clearinghouse, in Aurora, which, Becker said, is an outfit that recycles and refurbishes old computers and donates them to schools.

Becker said the ad is a distortion of Polis’ position on school vouchers, asserting Polis’ only show of public support for any kind of vouchers for public schools was in a 2003 op-ed he wrote that favored a bill to establish a pilot program in Denver. But, Becker stressed, Polis withdrew his support when the bill was altered in the state Legislature.

Polis also has helped found several charter schools, Becker acknowledged, which he said Polis “wears like a badge of honor.”

Becker says to suggest, as the ad does, that Polis hasn’t been a serious critic of No Child Left Behind since its inception is “bullshit.”

“He has consistently been a critic of NCLB. He is a big believer that when it comes up for reauthorization next year that it needs radical changes,” Becker raged.

The ad continues to air, however, and when asked if more ads would be forthcoming against Polis, Adams simply said, “After such a unique reaction, I might go to big gas and oil and see if we can get them to beat up on them.”