Clash among powerful developers, dark money groups dominate Colorado Springs elections

Mar. 19—A clash among powerful developers and dark money donors has started to dominate the Colorado Springs mayoral and city council elections, with new mailers and ads over access to city water hitting TV and mailboxes in recent days.

For example, a new ad backing mayoral candidate Wayne Williams presents him as a defender of city water, while depicting another mayoral front-runner, Sallie Clark, as "in the pocket of" county land-speculators and opposed to the city's new water rule, which could limit annexation.

Another ad attacks Williams for his support of that same rule, which could give Norwood Development Group, the owner of 18,000 acres of Banning Lewis Ranch, more guaranteed access to city water. Both ads were funded through committees with untraceable donations.

The controversial rule requires Colorado Springs Utilities to have a 128% buffer of water needed to serve the city and any future land annexations. It has split developers based on whether they will benefit or not and they are now weighing in with campaign dollars.

Norwood Development Company, which will benefit heavily from the rule, is backing Williams and others companies that could see their property blocked from coming into the city are backing Clark.

The rule has already blocked the annexation of a large proposed development near Fountain. The company behind the project, La Plata Communities and its executive leaders have given about $11,000 to Clark since Feb. 1. La Plata Communities and its leaders also gave about $7,500 total to Williams, but those donations came in 2022, before the water rule passed. Norwood and people associated with the company gave Williams $11,000 through Wednesday.

Both Clark and Williams are experienced local politicians who have served on City Council and the Board of El Paso County Commissioners, and say that while they are taking campaign money from developers they have have stood up to them in the past.

A detailed review of campaign donations from the beginning of the race through March 15 shows Williams, Clark, Yemi Mobolade — the three top-fundraising mayoral candidates — and City Council candidates have all received generous donations from developers, construction companies and real estate agents, as the amount raised by candidates has soared into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Independent committees, with unknown donors, are also funding TV ads and mailers in the election's final weeks with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Such contributions concern Shelley Roehrs, spokeswoman with the League of Women Voters of the Pikes Peak Region, because of the potential influence donors could have once candidates take office.

"They are going to have the ear of that candidate," she said.

Some of the large and notable donors in the campaign so far have come from the Colorado Springs Forward committee, a group affiliated with a civic nonprofit, Norwood Development Group, the O'Neil Group, the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs, Schmidt Construction Inc., developer Danny Mientka and several new committees with ties to right-leaning groups that have not been active in previous elections.

Williams has seen more than $225,000 come in from developers or those with construction interests during the election, with the largest donations coming from Doug Stimple, CEO of developer Classic Homes, who has donated $52,000 to Williams' campaign; the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Political Action Committee, which has donated $50,000; and Schmidt Construction Inc., a paving and asphalt contractor, has donated $20,000 to Williams.

Williams has also received $255,000 so far from Colorado Springs Forward, a group that does not have to disclose its donors.

Clark has received more than $240,000 from developers or donors with construction interests. Her largest donors include $100,000 from The O'Neil Group; $110,000 in total from Ron Johnson, CEO of Central Bancorp; $25,000 from Tartan Partners; and $10,000 from La Plata Communities.

Mobolade, a political newcomer and one of the top three fundraisers, has also received more than $55,000 from developers this election, receiving donations of $10,000 from High Valley Land Company Inc.; about $21,7000 to date from Susan Pattee, a partner in the redevelopment of the Union Printers Home; and $10,050 total from Kevin Butcher, owner of commercial real estate company Strata Group.

Some of Mobolade's funding has also come from large donations from businesses, such as $10,000 from Jaxon Engineering and Maintenance, a military-grade engineering firm; about $15,710 from Vance Brown, the executive director of Exponential Impact, a business development support company; and $10,000 from Anthony Feltman, owner of Rocky Mountain Soap Market.

Norwood weighs in

Norwood Development Company promoted its preferred slate of selected candidates in an email soliciting donations for Williams and others.

"The mayor's race is in a dogfight with three or four of the 12 running. It is absolutely imperative that we support and elect Wayne Williams as our next mayor," Norwood founder David Jenkins wrote in the email.

Williams supported the 128% water rule that has already blocked a large property that would compete with Banning Lewis Ranch from annexing, although it is not the rule that Norwood originally told Mayor John Suthers that the company wanted to put on a ballot for voters to approve.

Jenkins said he expected the mayor's race to cost between $800,000 to $1 million and council seats to cost between $75,000 and $150,000 each. He encouraged donors to consider $1,000 donations to council candidates and $1,500 in the mayor's race. He also urged $10,000 donations to a nonprofit that would give to an independent expenditure committee.

Jenkins also encouraged support for city council candidates Michelle Talarico, Brian Risley, Lynette Crow-Iverson and David Leinweber.

In an response to the Gazette, Norwood's Senior Vice President Tim Seibert said he is a member of the Housing and Building Association Political Action Committee and that it offers to meet with all candidates, as do other civic groups in town.

"It is through that experience that we evaluate and support the candidates that we believe will keep Colorado Springs a city of opportunity now and into the future. We are steadfast in our commitment to support leaders that move our city forward," Seibert said.

Dark money flows

Three of those candidates, Risley, Crow-Iverson and Leinweber, were promoted as candidates that will protect the city's water supply by a committee known as Citizens for Responsible Leadership. The flyer featured similar language to an ad backing Williams, saying the candidates would prioritize residents over new developments in the county. That prioritization is inherent in the new water rule.

The ads backing Williams and the council candidates were paid for by two different committees, with Citizens for Protecting our Water backing Williams. Cole Communications manages both committees and both received donations from Defend Colorado, a nonprofit that does not have to disclose its donors.

Defend Colorado gave $100,000 to Citizens for Responsible Leadership and $200,000 to Citizens for Protecting our Water.

A group of the same name, Defend Colorado, has also been active in Denver's spring elections, backing a measure to lower sales and use taxes among other measures in the state capital. The committees cannot coordinate with candidates.

Daniel Cole, owner of Cole Communications, said the candidates the committees are backing would stay focused on the core functions of government, such as infrastructure, and would prioritize water for existing residents over county development. He said he does not expect the water rule to hurt county development.

Another committee, Colorado Springs for Ethical Government, purchased ads blasting Williams, according to Sixty35 Media. City campaign filings show the committee has received $200,000 from the Stand Against Monopolies LLC, a business with a Denver address. The Gazette requested comment from the registered agent for Stand Against Monopolies, but did not receive a response in time for this story.

Mayoral candidates respond

Williams said he has stood up to developers in the past and implemented policies in his recent tenure on city council that were not popular with the development community. He helped pass new fees on development to pay for new fire and police services to support growth, as well as a water resource fee on new development. The fee on homes will go up to $5,800 in July to help Colorado Springs Utilities purchase more water rights and build infrastructure to deliver that water to town.

On the water rule, Williams noted it is an improvement on previous rules for annexation that said Utilities should have enough water for the foreseeable future. With the ongoing megadrought on the Colorado River, the vague guidelines could block annexations entirely, he said.

Clark said she has a long history working to develop future water supplies for the city of Colorado Springs. For example, she worked with Pueblo officials to address their concerns about the water quality in Fountain Creek leading to establishment of the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District that laid a foundation for the new Southern Delivery System Pipeline to bring water up to Colorado Springs from Pueblo Reservoir. The pipeline is a key piece of bringing additional water from the Arkansas Valley that Utilities is currently working to purchase from farmers.

"I have always cared about future water resources," she said.

The new water rule is a "knee-jerk reaction essentially giving a monopoly to one developer," she said. As mayor she would set up a task force to study the issue more broadly, would involve state and federal partners and would take a close look at the dwindling El Paso County aquifers.

When it comes to taking money from developers, Clark noted she has never taken money from unknown sources and she doesn't make promises to those with development interests.

"I have never promised them anything except balanced, fair governance," she said.

Mobolade said the number and diversity of his donations, which included small monthly gifts, will help ensure he does not act on behalf of a few. According a data base built by Mobolade's campaign, he has received gifts from 681 donors, Clark comes in second with 305 donors and Williams is third with 182.

"I am accountable to everyone," Mobolade said.

To run a campaign with few large donors goes against the essence of a government for and by the people, he said.

As a top fundraiser, he said he could benefit from the conflict between Clark and Williams' backers.

"I feel like I am crossing the Red Sea between these two opposing forces and trying to pave a new way," Mobolade said.

Colorado Springs City Council races

In the City Council races, developers have given generously to candidates Risley, Crow-Iverson, Leinweber and Talarico, campaign finance documents show.

Included are donations from the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Political Action Committee, such as the $2,500 the organization gave to Talarico's campaign and the $5,000 each it gave to Leinweber, Crow-Iverson and Risley.

Among other developer donations, Crow-Iverson and Talarico both received $1,000 from the Apartment Association of Southern Colorado, while Norwood Limited gave $2,500 each to Leinweber, Crow-Iverson and Risley, documents show.

Classic Homes CEO Doug Stimple gave $5,000 to date to Risley's campaign, Platinum Group owner Ed Behr donated $2,500 to Leinweber, The O'Neil Group Company gave $10,000 to Crow-Iverson, and Ron Johnson of Central Bancorp gave $2,500 each to Talarico, Risley and Leinweber.

Leinweber acknowledged developers including Norwood are among his funders. Norwood also helped fund a group he founded, the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance.

When he comes to his role on council, Leinweber said he would "serve neighborhoods to make sure they have what they need."

Crow-Iverson promised to "make decisions that best reflect the needs of our community" if elected, including on any future review of the water rule.

"I will do my due diligence to understand all of the issues surrounding this ordinance from impacts to the city's water supply, future development and other aspects," she said. "As with any decision that will be made by the council, knowing that housing is one of our city's major challenges, I will work to understand how the council's actions may have an impact on the price and availability of housing."

Risley said his nine-year tenure on the El Paso County Planning Commission, including his current role as its chairman, demonstrates his "long and thorough record of making impartial and unbiased land use decisions, regardless of the applicant or circumstance."

Risley said he will be impartial if elected.

"In this campaign, I have received broad support from many business leaders from many sectors of the economy. None of the contributions matter when it comes to my moral compass and decision-making process," he said.

Talarico also acknowledged donations made to her campaign from developers like Norwood, Classic Homes and GE Johnson, among others, but said they would not affect her ability to lead District 3, if elected to that council seat.

"Every single dollar I've taken from any developer has come with the caveat from them, and from me, that I want to make sure you expect nothing in return for this other than my gratitude for your support, because campaigns are expensive to run," Talarico said. "... I have never been asked to do something special for anybody, nor will I do anything special for anybody."