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Focused on balancing the candidate field, Denver's Fair Election Fund starts disbursing money to candidates

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Posted at 5:26 PM, Aug 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-16 19:43:30-04

DENVER — On Monday, the City of Denver started disbursing taxpayer money to candidates running for office in the 2023 election.

The money comes from the Fair Election Fund, which voters approved with 70% support in 2018.

“It's something that folks definitely wanted, and so we're proud to be administering it,” said Lucille Wenegieme, a strategic advisor for the Denver Clerk and Recorder.

The initiative allocates $8 million from Denver’s general fund to match individual donors up to a point. Candidates who sign up for the program agree to contribution limits and to only accept money from individual donors and small donor committees. Those running for mayor, city council, clerk and recorder, auditor or judge can apply for the fund.

Proponents of the idea say this shift will help candidates focus more on policy priorities and less on finding big donors that they are later beholden to.

“This incredible equalizing effect that makes wealth and access to wealth no longer a prerequisite for running for office,” said Owen Perkins, president of Clean Slate Now Action.

Perkins hopes the change will result in more voter engagement but also shorter fundraising timelines.

“People could get that fundraising out of the way early, get the match, get everything they need and then just focus on the voters and focus on the ideas focus on the policy,” Perkins said.

So far, of the 44 people who have filed paperwork to run for office in the 2023 election, 33 have qualified for the fund. All 13 city council seats, as well as the mayor’s seat, are up for grabs in the upcoming election.

Monday’s payout will go to 15 candidates who met the qualifications to receive the first payout. Part of the requirement is for candidates to collect a certain number of small donations. For mayoral candidates, that’s 250 donations. The minimum amount for the rest of the candidates is 100 contributions.

The first $50 of each qualifying contribution will be matched.

Once the minimum contribution amount is met, the city will begin to match the donations at a nine to one ratio up to the cap. With the fund, a 9-1 match means that $10 would realistically result in the candidate receiving $100, a $50 contribution would result in $500 total for the candidate and so on.

For mayoral candidates, the most that they can receive from the fund is $750,000. For an at-large city council candidate and the clerk and recorder, the cap is $250,000. For all other eligible offices, the cap is $125,000. The cap applies no matter how much a candidate raises.

City council candidate Travis Leiker is one of the first candidates to receive money from the Fair Election Funds. He’s also receiving the highest amount of any candidate — $138,733 — after raising the most.

“When you do the math of what I have raised from contributors, as well as the Fair Elections funding, all told, that's about $211,000. That surpasses what the two current at-large members raised the entire election cycle in 2019,” Leiker said.

Because of the fundraising and match, Leiker believes he is well positioned for the next nine months of campaigning to hire organizers and get his message out. He says the Fair Election Fund has changed the strategy for candidates.

“It certainly is pushing me to work harder and build as much of a base of support as I can across the city,” Leiker said.

The city is giving out nearly $1 million in the first round. With so many candidates who have already announced their intentions to run, the fund could run out of money, though the clerk’s office says it’s not considering that yet.

“We're not currently worried about maxing out the fund, that $8 million. That's the total size of the fund right now that covers the disbursements and the administration,” Wenegieme said.

If the money does run out, there are two options — campaigns would be freed from the lower contribution limits they had agreed to, or city council could be asked to put in more money from the general fund.

The next round of payments for candidates will go out in October.