The number of unaffiliated voters in Southwest Colorado is skyrocketing, but those numbers have not translated to tangible victories by Independent candidates on Election Day.
And there’s evidence that party politics reign as before.
Paul Jones, an unaffiliated candidate for the state House seat that includes Durango and Pagosa Springs, says his experience illustrates how Democrats, now with majority control of state government, use the political process to suppress runs by Independent candidates.
After running for La Plata County Commission in 2020, Jack Turner is exploring moving to the county’s west side and running as an Independent in District 1, but he doubts he would have entered the race, his first, if he had known the travails of Jones.
Turner came within 166 votes of a victory, losing 16,747 to 16,581 to Democrat Marsha Porter-Norton for La Plata County’s District 2 county commission seat in November.
Then there’s fellow Independent Charly Minkler, who was defeated in November by Democrat Matthew Salka in the District 3 La Plata County commission race, 18,058 to 14,723.
Minkler viewed running unaffiliated as the best chance to put a rancher from the east side on the county commission. Making it easier for smaller counties to vote by district would provide opportunities for rural residents to be better represented on the county commission, he said.
In 2018, Jones, who lives in Gunnison, ran as an unaffiliated candidate for state House of Representatives in District 59, which covers Durango, Pagosa Springs and a swath of Southwest Colorado. He came away disenchanted not by defeat, but by what he views as a political process weaponized to dissuade any Independent campaign for office.
He’s still dealing with a campaign-finance violation filed against him in October 2018 by Anne Markward, a member of the liberal activist group Indivisible Durango and a current vice chairwoman of the La Plata County Democratic Party.
The complaint alleges Jones’ campaign violated state election law by coordinating an event in Durango with Unite Colorado Election Fund, an independent expenditure committee of Unite Colorado, which recruits and educates people to run as unaffiliated candidates.
The complaint asks Jones for Colorado, his campaign committee, to return $4,900, the cost of the event, and be issued a penalty “at least double and up to five times the amount of its illegal contribution to Jones for Colorado.”
Jones said the event was an educational session guiding people on how to set up and run campaigns as unaffiliated candidates. He said the event offered no benefit to his state House campaign against incumbent Barbara McLachlan, a Democrat.
Markward said the complaint was filed for a legitimate campaign-finance violation, and she had not heard any word about the case in years. She directed questions about it to her attorney, Edward Ramey.
Ramey said the case has been dormant since November 2018.
According to Jones, former Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican, dropped all campaign-finance complaints filed for the 2018 election cycle as he left office in January 2019 after losing his race against challenger Jena Griswold, a Democrat.
But Jones said Griswold reinstated all campaign-finance violations against unaffiliated candidates – something he sees as an effort to harass Independent candidates.
“We have one party made up of a minority of voters in the state that holds all of the power,” Jones said. “They hold every state elected office, they hold the governor’s mansion, and they hold both houses of the Legislature, and they’re using the machinery of government, the bureaucracy, to suppress Independent challengers. I don’t think the Republicans would be any different, but it’s the Democrats who are in power.”
Suzanne Staiert, a deputy secretary of state under Williams, said she remembers trying to dismiss complaints against unaffiliated candidates, but doesn’t remember if that was accomplished or if the office was in the process of seeking a motion to dismiss the complaints when Williams’ tenure ended in early 2019.
“We were trying to resolve these complaints that involved very little money in a way that unaffiliated candidates would feel like they could get in a race without risking bankruptcy by being subject to targeted complaints by parties who don’t want them in,” Staiert said.
She said electoral reform passed by Democrats in 2019 on a party-line vote increased the amount of signatures unaffiliated candidates had to collect and shortened the time they had to collect those signatures go get on the ballot.
“There’s been kind of this ongoing effort, it seems by the parties to, and I guess I’ll say, really, by the Democrats, because that was a party line vote, you know, kind of have this concerted effort to not allow Independents to obtain fair ballot access and run campaigns in the same way. And I think that’s problematic, and they need to open that up, or they’re going to run into a constitutional problem,” she said.
Betsy Hart, a spokeswoman for Griswold, said in an email: “Campaign finance complaints and subsequent investigations are managed by our Campaign Finance Enforcement team and Secretary Griswold has no role in these proceedings. All campaign finance violation complaints are taken seriously and receive equal consideration, regardless of political party.”
Hart did not respond to a inquiry about Jones’ account that Griswold reinstated complaint proceedings against unaffiliated candidates after they had been dropped by her predecessor.
Turner said learning about Jones’ experience after his 2018 run, was eye-opening.
“This guy still has a complaint against him. They’re running up legal fees against him,” he said. “They want to crush anybody thinking about running against their predetermined candidates.”
Jones doubts he’ll run for office again, but he said he wanted to offer guidance he learned on the campaign trail.
The campaign finance complaint against him is under investigation by the office of Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat.
Jones finds his situation – being investigated for illegally coordinating a campaign event – ironic and a bit Orwellian. A Google search of Weiser and Markward indicates she was on a host committee for a Durango event for Weiser in the home of McLachlan.
Lawrence Pacheco, spokesman for Weiser, said in an email the campaign-finance complaint against Jones is an active case, and the office could not comment about it.
Jones said: “I’m a wildlife biologist. I understand, if you poke a bear, it’s going to come after you. What I didn’t understand was it was the whole forest that was going to come after you.”