The political ads were so ubiquitous it was almost like it was a presidential election.
Sometime in 2011, as the citizens of Boulder were deciding whether to take the first step towards municipalizing the electric utility, Xcel Energy’s partner in anti-municipalization, the Boulder Smart Energy Coalition, paid to produce a series of “Harry and Louise” commercials warning residents against the dangers should they vote yes. In them, a couple squabbles over various power-related issues as the lights flicker on and off, bemoaning the higher prices and frequent outages wrought by municipalization. The wife constantly threatens to leave the husband and withholds sex because he voted to municipalize.
The commercials were seemingly everywhere, in the weeks before the vote.
It was part of a spending campaign on the anti-municipalization side that wound up totaling around $967,000. The pro-municipalization side, by comparison, via three groups — the Boulder Smarter Energy Coalition, the Campaign for Local Energy and Citizens for Boulder’s Clean Energy Future — spent a little more than $100,000. And yet despite the massive expenditures by Xcel and others (of that $967,000, $960,000 came from Xcel), Boulder residents approved the two measures by the slimmest of margins, kickstarting the municipalization process that continues to this day. And it was a massive grassroots effort from a small group of nonprofits that paved the way for the passage of the measures.
Steve Fenberg, executive director of New Era Colorado, mobilized around 300 volunteers and initiated a massive voter outreach campaign. He and his organization formed an issue committee, Boulder Smarter Energy Coalition — a jab at the anti-municipalization Boulder Smart Energy Coalition — and got to work.
“We got involved in a significant way [in] late summer 2011, July or August. Fairly late in the election cycle,” Fenberg says.
As he was watching both sides hash out their arguments, he realized the issue could potentially reverberate outside Boulder.
“It wasn’t just a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our community, it was a way to set an example of how communities could take things in their own hands,” Fenberg says. “We thought this was a pretty cool local example of how communities could do something and how it could be replicated across the country.”
New Era volunteers knocked on doors, made phone calls and registered and engaged younger voters, who typically don’t vote in off-year elections, Fenberg says.
But they weren’t the only ones knocking. The Boulder Smart Energy Coalition hired a group called Rocky Mountain Voter Outreach (RMVO) to go door-to-door to spread the anti-municipalization word. A man hired by RMVO, Landon Bain, wrote a letter to Boulder Weekly, published the week of the election, saying that he quit after he felt he was being asked to “spread lies.” An RMVO spokesman denied the allegations, pointing out that Bain had connections to New Era Colorado and accusing him of dirty politics, but it was a final salvo of sorts that marked the intensity of the election, which Boulder City Clerk Alisa Lewis would later say was the most expensive in the city’s history.
The election was conducted solely through mail-in ballots that year, and so the county had already counted many ballots by the time the voting deadline had passed. Fenberg had an idea that his group’s efforts would pay off the closer they got to election day, but the first round of ballots the county released showed a disheartening discrepancy in favor of the anti-municipalization side. Disheartened, Fenberg braced the troops for the worst.
“We kind of had this moment. We were like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s what this is going to be like,’” Fenberg recalls. “I gave a speech to the volunteers that they worked so hard; whether we win or lose, we all did something important.”
But at the group’s election party, as the votes came in, the votes in favor of municipalization began to climb, eventually surpassing those against. In the end, Issue 2B passed with 50.4 percent of the vote, and Issue 2C passed with 51.93 percent. New Era and its partners had secured a hard-fought victory, despite being outspent nearly 10 to 1 by Xcel.
The municipalization fight is far from over, as the 2011 vote ostensibly was just to give the city permission to explore municipalization options. Since then, there has been jostling back and forth over which substations the city must condemn, the city’s cost projections for energy pricing, which customers in unincorporated parts of the county would be roped into Boulder’s energy utility, and so on. Groups like New Era might have to mobilize once more for this year’s election. On Friday, June 28, an anti-municipalization group called Voter Approval of Debt Limits submitted 7,500 signatures to the city clerk in order to force another vote on municipalization in November.
Fenberg says it will be tough this year, as fighting to counter money in politics is always difficult when you’re the underdog.
“One thing that we always say, that we’re saying this time, is that Xcel is going to have the war chest, but we’re going to have the army,” Fenberg says. “The only way to fight money in politics is with people, so that’s what we’re going to do.”