Going dark

Tracking corporate PAC money in Colorado's 2024 primary


So-called “dark money” has entered the Colorado primary, with more than $1 million being funneled to local candidates from groups with undisclosed donors, including a charter school organization that has dropped hundreds of thousands into the race for the state board of education.

The bulk of spending has gone to support Marisol Rodriguez, a candidate for a seat on the state school board; District 2 encompasses Boulder County. Rodriguez, a consultant and mother of two school-aged children, is running against Kathy Gebhardt, a member of the Boulder Valley school board as well as state and national associations of school board directors.

Kathy Gebhardt, left, and Marisol Rodriguez are both vying for an open seat on Colorado’s State Board of Education.

‘No one is buying me’

As of June 17, a group calling themselves Progressives for Students and Teachers has spent $972,012 on phone calls, web and newspaper ads and direct mailers in support of Rodriguez and opposing Gebhardt, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Colorado Secretary of State. 

Progressives is an independent expenditure committee (IEC), which operates essentially like a federal super-PAC (political action committee). Unlike candidate committees, IECs can accept an unlimited amount of money from corporations and political organizations. Whereas candidate committees list the names of individual donors, groups who contribute to IECs or super-PACs do not have to disclose the source of their funds.  

One of Progressives registered agents is Kyle DeBeer, vice president of civic affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools. The organizations stated mission is to “shape public policy and opinion that favors charter school quality, growth, funding equity and facilities access.” Rodriguez also worked for the Walton Family Foundation, a major funder of charter schools, from 2008 to 2012.

Charter schools are independent of the established state school system but do receive government funding. Critics argue that they take away students and funding from public schools while not being subject to the same regulations and standards.

DeBeer and Noah Stout, Progressives’ other registered agent, did not respond to requests for comment. The IEC has spent more than $162,000 to oppose Gebhardt using direct mailers, according to state records.

Colorado Labor Action, a political group seeking to elect pro-union candidates, spent $42,632 on a mailer attacking Rodriguez and highlighting her connection to the Walton Foundation as well as the IEC spending supporting her.

In two interviews with Boulder Weekly, Rodriguez defended her candidacy and labeled the recent attention to her campaign — Colorado Sun, Colorado Times-Recorder and Forbes have all covered the spending — as “an orchestrated attack” from supporters of “establishment candidate” Gebhardt. Rodriguez says she was not recruited by anyone connected with the Progressives’ IEC, Colorado League of Charter Schools or the Walton Family Foundation, which she worked for “years ago.” 

“I’m not fighting for charter schools, so no one is buying me in this election,” Rodriguez says. “I’m not charter for charter’s sake; I don’t want to turn the whole system into charters. I didn’t choose a charter school for my own children.

“I do have a long history of working in the education space. I also have a history of holding charter schools accountable,” including through Insignia Partners, the contracting firm she owns. “My largest contract is with an authorizer that holds schools accountable and shuts down under-performing schools.”

Known and unknown

The influx of cash has made the board of education race the spendiest on Boulder County ballots and dwarfed what each candidate raised through their own respective committees.

Jovita Schiffer is challenging longtime representative Judy Amabile for a seat in the Colorado Senate.

Other candidates have received IEC money as well. Colorado Working Families Party, a chapter of the national progressive political party, spent $35,305 to support Junie Joseph’s re-election to House District 10 and Jovita Schiffer’s bid for Senate District 18, split evenly between the candidates. Two groups have spent a combined $243,095 since May to back Schiffer’s opponent, Judy Amabile.

One group is called Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, which is tied to Stand for Children, which advocates for “education equity and racial justice.” Its registered agents, Ryan Brown and Kara Dahl, both work for the organization. Neither Brown nor Dahl responded to requests for comment. The IEC is also supporting candidates Lindsey Daugherty (SD24), Mike Weissman (SD28), Michael Carter (HD36) and Yara Zokaie (HD52).

After three years as a state representative, Judy Amabile is running for a seat in the Colorado Senate.

Aside from its TRACER profile, no information was available about A Whole Lot of People for Change, the second group supporting Amabile’s campaign. The group’s stated mission is “to support pragmatic candidates … that believe in rebuilding Colorado’s middle class and strengthening our local economy.” They also supporting candidates in many of the same races as Better Schools: Carter (HD36), Ronda Fields (SD28) and Ethnie Treick (HD52). 

A Whole Lot of People’s registered agent, Stephanie Smith, did not respond to requests for comment.

IECs cannot coordinate with candidates, but are allowed to spend on their behalf even without the candidate’s knowledge. Amabile says she was not aware of the groups supporting her until being contacted by Boulder Weekly and wasn’t familiar with either group.

“I’m new to this, because I haven’t had a real primary” challenge, Amabile says. “I was like, ‘Who is running these digital ads?’”

Amabile also has received contributions through her leadership fund, which can receive up to $725 donations from corporations. In the past, companies like Anheuser Busch, Comcast and Pfizer have donated to Amabile. This year, J.P. Morgan is so far the only company who has contributed, a gift Amabile says she was also unaware of.

“Honestly, I don’t even remember,” she says. She believed the spending was related to a bill she sponsored last year that would have allowed credit unions to buy banks. Although that provision was stripped from the legislation, Amabile says she intends to run it again. 

“What they want is to know that you will talk to them, that you will listen to their concerns,” she says. “And I do. If I’m running an alcohol bill — which I did two this year that the industry opposed — I go out and have a meeting with them.”

Credit Unions for Colorado Communities spent $21,120 supporting Amabile’s candidacy. The IEC is affiliated with Go West, a credit union lobbying group.

Coverve Junie Joseph is running for re-election to her HD10 seat.

Leadership funds, the colloquial name for political committees, are common among elected officials, although candidates do not have to have held elected office to establish one. They are frequently used to contribute to fellow candidates. 

HD10’s Joseph also has a leadership fund, as does CU Regent candidate Elliott Hood and HD11 incumbent Karen McCormick. Pfizer, J.P. Morgan and Weed Man Lawn Care have contributed to McCormick’s fund in 2024. Joseph and Hood have not received any corporate donations this year. 

Higher power

In Colorado, local public school districts must authorize new charter schools, but the state board of education can overrule these decisions. That may explain the interest of pro-charter groups in the race. 

Education writer Peter Greene speculated in Forbes that Gebhardt’s election to the board would tip it in a more anti-charter direction. Gov. Jared Polis, a charter supporter, opposed a bill to increase transparency at charter schools; many of the ads paid for by Progressives’ IEC tout his endorsement of Rodriguez. 

Rodriguez characterizes her views on charter schools as “pretty similar” to Gebhardt. 

“I think the charter vs. traditional schools argument doesn’t do any good,” she says. “Charters have existed in Colorado for over 30 years. I believe in what communities want.” 

Gebhardt told Boulder Weekly she supports and has secured funding for charter schools. She was part of the BVSD board that declined to review an application for a proposed charter school, but says that was because at the time, they “didn’t comply with the Colorado anti-discrimination act” which includes things like protections for LGBTQ+ students.

The state board later denied that school’s appeal of BVSD’s decision.

Rodriguez says she would also deny a charter school if it did not meet state standards. She feels it’s important for the state board to have ultimate authority over charters to fend off conservative attempts to influence what students are taught.

“We have MAGA [and] Moms for Liberty infiltrating our school boards,” she says. “Our local school boards are the front line, I think, of our culture wars.”

Rodriguez lamented the focus on IEC spending which “I have no control over.” 

“I feel like who I am and why I’m running is getting lost,” she says. “It’s been really disheartening to feel like having children in the system is no longer important, having a child with special needs is no longer important, having spent 20 years working in education doesn’t seem to be important, having a minority voice doesn’t seem to be important anymore.” 

Read more Boulder Weekly coverage of the 2024 Colorado Primary Election

Kaylee Harter contributed to this reporting. Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include the most recent financial filings from June 17.


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