Both sides condemn the attack
As the November election approaches and the race for two county commissioner seats heats up, some candidates are finding out that concern over who takes the District 1 spot is not confined to the county line.
On Monday, September 22, an unknown number of county voters received a flyer in the mail attacking Democratic incumbent commissioner Paula Swenson for allegedly refusing to pay her taxes on time since 2002.
However, both Swenson and her opponent, Republican commissioner candidate Doug Sparks, agree that the charges are unfair.
“I pay my commercial and residential property taxes in July, like a lot of other people who have a tight budget in the spring, with interest and the late fee because I have no money in April,” says Swenson, who owns and operates a greenhouse in Gunnison.
Sparks says the attack was out of line, saying, “It was cheap shot and totally untrue.”
The flyer, which has a Loveland postmark, was traced to a group known as the Colorado League of Taxpayers that operates as a 527 group. The 527 designation refers to the section of the tax code that gives such organizations tax-exempt status. The Colorado League of Taxpayers has a Fort Collins post office box and was incorporated in 2006.
“It’s despicable,” says Sparks of the flyer. “This has done more damage to me than to [Swenson]. I’m the new kid on the block in the political arena and I didn’t even know that people did this.”
Officials from the county and state Republican Party deny knowing anything about the mailing or the group that sent it.
Cory Watt, secretary of the Gunnison County Republican Central Committee, says, “It is very disturbing to hear about this [flyer]. We have no clue about [the group that sent the flyer] and we’re finding out about them just now.”
For Sparks, the issue isn’t as much about the group that sent the flyer, but the flyer itself.
He said when he found out about the mailing, which was largely confined to the lower Gunnison Valley and covered the political spectrum, “My heart just sank—she’s my opponent, not my enemy… No matter what happens, the campaign will be tainted. I think that’s one of the reasons that people are disgusted with politics. Lots of good people don’t get involved and now I know why.”
The Colorado League of Taxpayers has been accused twice this year for unethical tactics. Both involved primary elections between Republicans.
A Colorado Springs Republican partially blamed the group after he lost a state senate primary, when the group launched a campaign accusing him of planning to raise taxes.
In a separate incident, a Weld County citizen filed a formal complaint with the Colorado Secretary of State on behalf of Weld County Commissioner candidate Mike Freeman, also a Republican. Freeman lost his primary after the league accused him of supporting a “$6 billion tax increase.”
In that case, the Colorado League of Taxpayers was initially found to be in violation of a section in the State Constitution that prohibits expenditures of more than $1,000 to political campaigns fewer than 30 days before an election without registering the contribution with the Colorado Secretary of State.
The flyers attacking Freeman were found to have cost the group $7,000. But after further review the complaint was thrown out because the flyer did not meet the advocacy requirement, meaning it did not instruct voters how to vote or who to support.
Similarly, the flyer mailed to Gunnison County voters did not direct voters to cast their ballot for Sparks, but attacked Swenson personally saying, “Paula Swenson and her liberal tax and spend hypocrisy is making taxpayers howl,” and other similar statements.
In a statement, Swenson says, “Groups outside of Gunnison County disseminated this personal attack on me. All of the Commissioner candidates have taken a pledge to avoid this type of mud-slinging. I will continue to honor that pledge.”
The Colorado League of Taxpayers could not be reached to comment on this story.