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'Dark money' influencing City Council races, local politicians say

Colorado Springs election is Tuesday

'Dark money' influencing City Council...

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Some potentially big changes are coming to the Colorado Springs City Council.

Two of the current nine members are leaving after Tuesday's municipal election.

There are nine new candidates, four incumbents seeking re-election and one candidate without an opponent.

As the ballot count continues for the mail-in only election in the Springs, one of the most closely-watched races is in District 3, on the city's southwest side.

Former Councilman Richard Skorman and businessman Chuck Fowler seek to replace outgoing Councilman Keith King.

"I see this election as wide open," political scientist Bob Loevy said Friday.

For the first time ever, Loevy said, the council campaigns are being affected by "dark money" --  defined as campaign funds legally donated by special interest groups who aren't required to say who receives the money.

"I think with all of the dark money that's come in, the kind of incumbents who used to be easily re-elected in Colorado Springs are having really tough campaigns."

Councilwoman Jill Gaebler is one of those incumbents.

She agrees that dark money exists, and explains why it should matter to voters.

"You have the opportunity, with six council members changing over, to have a majority of council be responsive to a special interest group or dark money group, if you can get that majority elected," she said.

Fowler admits the presence of dark money in the campaigns but downplays its significance.

"I don't know who they are," he said.  "My campaign hasn't had any contact with them.  This dark money thing, I don't know how important it is.  But it is negative, and I'm not a negative guy.  I think most people will tell you that."

Loevy said most of the dark money is likely spent on direct mail advertising, and no more than $100,000 per candidate.

"I'd guess that I've received twice the number of glossy mail ads from the challenger of one race than I have from the incumbent," he said.  "For a City Council election, it's not efficient to buy TV ads.  But again, because of the nature of dark money, it's legal but hard to determine how much is spent and where it comes from."

Only 20 percent of the 261,000 ballots have been returned so far; it's unclear how that will affect the candidates.

City Clerk Sarah Johnson says participation in off-year elections might be better if the city elections would switch to November instead of April. 

"But that would require a change in the city charter, which is no simple matter," she said.  "It also depends on what other issues are on the ballot in any given election, or how dynamic the candidates are.  City Council elections normally don't create the interest a mayoral election does."

There could be as many as six new council members, radically changing the the council's perspective on important issues.

"I hope that doesn't happen," Skorman said.  "We need more experience on the council.  That's why I'm running.  Even the current council members haven't been there very long."

Fowler disagreed.

"I have enough experience from my profession and my life to bring to the council and make the community better."

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