Sparks fly in CD 6

Anti-Coffman mailing, poll questioned

By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Protect Colorado Jobs was formed to fight on behalf of pro-business ballot initiatives this November, and against labor union initiatives. So why has the group taken sides in the primary battle among Wil Armstrong, Mike Coffman and two other Republicans in the 6th Congressional District?

That’s what some of the group’s backers want to know after a campaign mailing bashing Coffman was sent this week bearing the group’s name. Their members met last Thursday morning, July 31, with Curt Cerveny, a political consultant from the firm Politically Direct, who used the Protect Colorado Jobs name on the mailing without the support of many of the group’s financial backers.

Cerveny took “sole responsibility for that piece,” according to attorney John Berry, the group’s registered agent, and will resign as chairman of Protect Colorado Jobs.

“This brochure was in poor taste and was mailed to electors without properly conferring with the officers and members of Protect Colorado Jobs,” the group said in a statement sent to the Coffman campaign. “Curt Cerveny, the person responsible for this brochure, has since resigned so that Protect Colorado Jobs can continue on its mission to promote economic development and job growth in Colorado. We apologize to candidate Coffman for this incident.”

“I can tell you some board members are not happy about it,” Berry added in an interview.

Cerveny did not return a phone call seeking comment. Scott Gessler, a GOP election lawyer who represents the Armstrong campaign, was also said by a source to be involved with the mailing. When reached by phone, Gessler stated that, “I operate at the direction of Protect Colorado Jobs and don’t have the authorization to speak on their behalf. I am their attorney in a campaign finance suit against them.”

Cerveny has publicly expressed personal grievances against Coffman in the past. In November 2007, he spoke to The Statesman about being fired by Coffman during Coffman’s run for secretary of state.

“When he got back from Iraq we ran his campaign. It was a horrifying experience. I couldn’t compete with his micro-managing style,” Cerveny said.

One source said the financial backers from Protect Colorado Jobs behind the anti-Coffman mailing were “backers and supporters” of Armstrong, and said at press time that details of the relationship would emerge in coming days. If that information does come to light, it probably will come from the group’s own internal investigation, since most of Protect Colorado Jobs’ financial backers are publicly unknown.

The only candidate in the race who has received money from Cerveny is Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, to whom Cerveny has given $2,300.

Berry refused to disclose any of Protect Colorado Jobs’ financial backers, but did say he was investigating the financial source of the mailing. He said Cerveny probably didn’t pay for the mailing himself.

The group’s lack of transparency led opponents of the pro-business initiatives supported by Protect Colorado Jobs to file a complaint with the Colorado Department of State in May, after Protect Colorado Jobs unobtrusively funneled $288,000 into the Amendment 47, or “Right to Work” campaign’s signature-gathering effort. Protect Colorado Jobs is registered as 501(c) 4 nonprofit group, however, and is not legally required to reveal which individuals or businesses support it.

American Furniture Warehouse and Health One reportedly are contributors to the $288,000 raised by Protect Colorado Jobs. American Furniture Warehouse president Jake Jabs, however, is a Coffman supporter and has given $2,500 to the Coffman campaign. His company’s communications office did not return a phone call to ask whether he was upset about the anti-Coffman mailing sent in the name of Protect Colorado Jobs.

Meanwhile, Armstrong campaign manager Jack Stansbery said that although he was aware of the mailing, he had “no idea of the inner workings” of Protect Colorado Jobs.

The mailing reportedly tells voters to, “Call Mike Coffman and ask him to stop increasing his office’s budget,” to stop “compromising” on the state’s immigration laws, and to adopt strict policies at the secretary of state’s office to “prevent political influence.”

The mailer states that 20 years in political office have turned Coffman into a “big government professional politician” and contends that during his eight years as treasurer, that office’s budget increased by 33 percent, while during his two years as secretary of state, the budget increased by 29 percent.

Various newspapers clippings on the mailer point to various “scandals” involving Coffman, including one involving a partisan Web site run by former Department of State employee Dan Kopelman, as well as an article concerning accusations of undue involvement in the Coffman campaign by Department of State Chief of Staff Jacque Ponder.

Coffman campaign manager Dustin Zvonek said, “We always knew that something like this would come.” Meanwhile, even outgoing CD 6 Rep. Tom Tancredo jumped into the fray to condemn the mailing.

“I have stated on several occasions that I would not endorse a candidate in the 6th Congressional Republican Primary,” Tancredo said in a statement sent out by the Coffman campaign. “I will, however, speak out against what I consider to be underhanded attacks on any candidate by individuals hiding behind the shield of an organization from which, they hope to obtain “cover.’”

“Apparently such an attack was launched against Mike Coffman. It is my hope that, as we enter into final stage of the campaign, these types of attacks will cease and that issues will replace personalities as the dominant theme of the debate. If any candidate is found to be responsible for mailings or ‘push poll’ that try to hide the source of the activity I hope the voters of the 6th District will reject not only the message but the messenger.”

New polling numbers show dead heat between Coffman, Armstrong

Zvonek said it was clear the Armstrong campaign had shifted toward a more negative campaign strategy, particularly in a recent TV contrast ad airing frequently in the metro area. The ad contrasts Armstrong’s business background with Coffman’s long tenure as a politician and his involvement in controversies as Colorado secretary of state and treasurer.

The Armstrong campaign says those ads — along with a slew of high-profile endorsements — help explain surprising new polling numbers produced by their campaign showing Coffman with 33.8 percent of the vote, Armstrong with 32.5 percent, Sen. Ted Harvey, with 11 percent and Sen. Steve Ward, R-Littleton, with 8.4 percent. The remaining 14.2 percent of voters are undecided, according to the poll.

In other words, the poll puts Coffman and Armstrong in a statistical dead heat.

Critics, however, were quick to jump on the numbers, especially considering a poll conducted by the Coffman campaign in late May showed the secretary of state leading Armstrong by 28 points.

The pollster who conducted the survey defended it as completely impartial and said that there were no questions at its outset to sway respondents in Armstrong’s favor.

“There was no push poll. There was no lead-in question at all,” said Bruce Donisthorpe, of Sangre de Cristo Communications, a New Mexico firm.

Donisthorpe said the automated survey first asked voters who they would vote for if the GOP primary for CD 6 were held that day, and then listed the four candidates. Second, it asked who their second choice was. Third, the survey asked if the person had voted yet. Finally, it asked what the voters’ top issue was, Donisthorpe said.

Two polls were conducted among 1,500 known GOP primary voters, the first in mid-July, when the poll showed Coffman up by 10 points over Armstrong, then between July 24 and 26, which showed the statistical dead heat, Donisthorpe said.

Why did the Armstrong campaign go to a largely unknown firm in New Mexico? Donisthorpe says he got to know Colorado political consultant Walk Klein, who is advising the Armstrong campaign, during a primary race this spring in New Mexico. Stansbery said Dosinthorpe was “so accurate it was scary” in that state’s four-way congressional primary.

“It doesn’t help us at this point in a campaign to do message testing. And I think we’re taking a legitimate swipe at Mike on TV, anyway,” added Stansbery, who offered to play the automated poll for The Statesman, but did not deliver it by press time. “And the fact that Mike’s campaign won’t release any of his own numbers, post-May, is an independent verification of these numbers.”

Something’s got to give, though, because Zvonek, Coffman’s campaign manager, claims that six different people approached him at a recent Arapahoe County Men’s Club breakfast and told him Armstrong had been running a push poll — at exactly the same time Donisthorpe was running
his poll.

Zvonek says he was told the push poll asked voters “if they would be more or likely to vote for Coffman if they knew a Democratic governor would appoint his successor as secretary of state,” before asking which of the four candidates they would choose.

“I doubt they would run two group polls on the exact same day in the field,” Zvonek said of the Armstrong campaign, adding that it’s highly unlikely Armstrong closed a 10-point gap in just 10 days. “And if they were only down one point, they would not be so aggressive. Why would you all of a sudden go on such a vicious attack?”

Zvonek, for his part, offered to have the recipients of the push poll call The Statesman and confirm the claims about the poll, but no one called before press time. At the least, the truth will be known Aug.12, when the primary is held.

Candidates hold final big debate

The four GOP candidates seeking to replace Rep. Tom Tancredo also held their final large debate on Tuesday at an event held by Arapahoe Community College and the South Metro Chamber of Commerce. The debate was largely devoid of sparring among the candidates.

But not entirely. The candidates were asked what three programs they would cut to reduce spending, and Armstrong told the crowd he’d like to implement earmark reform to make them more transparent.

“I’m actually going to answer the question,” responded Ward, the state senator from Littleton when it was his turn, arguing that earmarks are a process, not an actual cut.

“I know you’re for earmarks, Steve. That’s a good distinction. You’re for earmarks, and I’m not” Armstrong said, before the two began talking over one another.

“This is such a straw man,” Ward said. “You talk like earmarks will solve a $600 billion budget deficit, and they won’t.”

“I know what it takes to get roads built, and you don’t,” Ward said. “And you need that experience when you get to Washington.”

Ward consistently gave more nuanced, and, some might argue, more progressive answers than his opponents, often eschewing opportunities to throw red meat to the partisan crowd. For instance, on a question about energy prices, Ward suggested the government mandate that automakers build cars with open fuel standards, so renewable fuels could compete with fossils fuels at the pump. Such a policy, however, could raise the price of cars in the short term.

Ward also called talk of abolishing the Internal Revenue Service a “gimmick,” while his three opponents all said they were in favor of downsizing or abolishing the tax-collection agency.

Ward stressed his executive experience as a mayor and county commissioner, saying he has built water systems, parks, highways and jails — all without raising taxes.

“I believe when you limit government, you need to make it work,”
Ward said.

Harvey, a state senator from Highlands Ranch, continued to present himself as the most proven conservative choice in the race, noting he’s the only person in Colorado history to pass an anti-abortion law, and the only candidate in the race who has run bills dealing with immigration and the Second Amendment.

“When you look at my record, you won’t have to guess what I would do in Washington D.C.,” Harvey said.

Armstrong, who showed a markedly stronger grasp of policy than he did at debates just a few months ago, impressed at least one voter. Joe Moran, who owns his own business in Centennial and was undecided before the debate, said Armstrong’s message of “changing the resumés of the people we send to Washington” had been effective.

“If there’s an overriding issue, it’s that we’ve got to get government smaller,” Moran said. “Overall, the one who impressed me the most was Armstrong. He’s not a career politician. To my way of thinking, that’s a big plus.”