Feb 28, 2022 - News

Denver elections dominated by special interest money, analysis shows

Data: Denver Elections Division, Axios Denver research; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Expensive ballot fights and super donors contributed more than $32 million in the last decade to Denver candidates and campaigns, according to a first-of-its-kind Axios Denver analysis.

What we found: The major donors are interest groups and companies with huge financial stakes in election results and the money flowing into city politics hit new heights in the 2021 city election.

  • The Denver Scholarship Foundation emerged as the top donor, spending about $766,000 in two elections on initiatives that increased taxes to cover college scholarships for Denver-resident students.
  • Half of the top 10 donors targeted the latest election, with most spending big to promote the development of the National Western Center and Park Hill Golf Course.

What we did: The insights are gleaned from a new online database of more than 50,000 contributions made public Thursday by the Denver clerk's office.

  • The analysis of political donations back to 2012 revealed new details about who is seeking to influence city policies and billions in spending.

By the numbers: 44 organizations and individuals gave at least $100,000 in the last decade, our analysis found, and roughly double contributed at least $50,000.

  • Developers, business promoters and unions pumped the most money into the campaigns.
  • The donation totals are even greater when considering that candidates are governed by strict limits of $1,000 or less. Ballot measures can take unlimited cash and accordingly draw the largest donations.

Zoom in: Five people gave at least $100,000 to campaigns in the last decade — well more than the median contribution of $100, based on our preliminary analysis.

  • J. Landis Martin ($303,000): The Republican CEO and founder of Platte River Equity who supported Mayor Michael Hancock's 2021 bond package, opposed repealing the city's camping ban and backed a 2018 ballot measure for a college scholarship fund.
  • Ronald Williams ($244,000): The Denver business leader and former National Western Stock Show chairman backed a dedicated tax for the show and a bond package for new construction.
  • Michael Bloomberg ($150,000): New York City's billionaire former mayor and past presidential candidate supported a sales tax hike for college scholarships in 2015.
  • Pat Stryker ($141,000): This Fort Collins resident is heir to the medical device maker Stryker Corp who sent the bulk of her donation to a campaign for the National Western Center
  • Stacy Schusterman ($100,000): a philanthropist and chair of the Samson Energy Company, an oil and gas company with operations in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. She supported a sales tax for college scholarships.

Of note: Many also contributed huge sums through their companies, which are not included in these totals.

  • And name discrepancies in the database may leave out other donations.

This story first appeared in the Axios Denver newsletter, designed to help readers get smarter, faster on the most consequential news unfolding in their own backyard. Subscribe here.

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