Election 2017

Divisive fliers cause candidates in heated Denver school board race to come together

PHOTO: Courtesy Tay Anderson
From left to right: Jennifer Bacon, Rachele Espiritu and Tay Anderson in City Park.

Three candidates locked in a battle for a northeast Denver school board seat came together in a show of unity Saturday after unsigned negative fliers appeared on the campaign trail, including one that sought to sow racial division.

The black-and-white fliers appear homemade and anonymous; unlike legitimate campaign literature, they do not say who made them.

They urge voters to choose Jennifer Bacon, a community organizer who formerly worked for Teach for America and has been endorsed by the Denver teachers union. Bacon said her campaign is not responsible for the fliers, which she denounced as negative.

Bacon and her opponents, Rachele Espiritu and Tay Anderson, met in City Park Saturday to make a minute-and-a-half-long video message that all three posted on their Facebook pages. Sitting together on a bench, the candidates took turns speaking.

Anderson: “…Outside groups have invested to support one candidate or another, and we are condemning hateful rhetoric from all outside groups…”

Bacon: “…We want to be sure that we are focusing on the issues that are important to each of us. At the end of the day, we’re all in this for our kids…”

Espiritu: “…We know that after Nov. 7 (Election Day) we will need to continue to stay focused on the interests of our students. When they do well, our community does well…”

In an interview, Bacon said the flier attacking Anderson is particularly disappointing. The flier says “Denver’s real black leaders stand with” Bacon, who is black. Anderson is also black and has been endorsed by the city’s first African-American mayor, Wellington Webb.

“My soul hurt,” Bacon said. “I’ve made it a point to not be divisive in the black community. That has come in the form of not disrespecting or denigrating Tay, no matter what I get from him.”

Bacon said she learned of the flier Friday when someone alerted her to a Facebook post about it by Anderson, a recent high school graduate who has run a social-media-savvy campaign. Anderson said he learned of it from Espiritu, who said she found one on the ground while canvassing in Five Points, and from neighbors who found them on their doors.

Another flier that surfaced in Stapleton attacks Espiritu, the incumbent in the race and the mother of two Denver Public Schools students. It says she “thinks that being a parent makes her an expert” but DPS families “deserve someone with real classroom experience.”

Combative rhetoric and contentious accusations have marked this year’s Denver school board election, although the fliers are the most personal attacks to date. Four of the seven board seats are up for election, which means voters could flip the board’s balance of power.

All seven current board members, including Espiritu, agree with the direction of the district, which is nationally known for collaborating with charter schools and embracing school choice.

Bacon and Anderson have said, to varying degrees, that they’d like it to change.

Mailers sent by union-backed independent political committees urging voters to elect Bacon have tied Espiritu to President Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a school choice champion who also supports private school vouchers. Espiritu does not.

Anderson previously decried those mailers, as well, posting on Facebook that it was “disgusting” to compare Espiritu, an immigrant from the Phillipines, to Trump. In an interview Saturday, he questioned why Bacon has not done the same.

Bacon said that while she doesn’t think Espiritu is “a bad person (or) is someone who is trying to deliberately hurt her community,” she doesn’t agree with her policies.

“School choice and the competition-based model is a slippery slope,” Bacon said, adding that the policies the current board supports are the same as those pushed by conservatives.

“That’s why it’s scary,” she said.

Espiritu and other current board members have repeatedly denounced DeVos and Trump’s policies. Espiritu also has said she believes in allowing families to choose schools that are right for them from a variety of options.

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.

money matters

In election of big spending, winning Aurora candidates spent less but got outside help

Four new board members, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Marques Ivey, Kevin Cox and Debbie Gerkin after they were sworn in. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

A slate of Aurora school board candidates that won election last month were outspent by some of their rival campaigns — including in the final days of the race — but benefited from big spending by a union-backed independent committee.

Outside groups that backed the winning slate spent more overall during the campaign, but wound down as pro-education reform groups picked up their spending in the last period right before the election. Those efforts were not enough to push their candidates to victory.

According to the last campaign finance reports turned in on Thursday and covering activity from Oct. 26 through Dec. 2, Gail Pough and Miguel Lovato spent the most from their individual contributions.

Together Pough and Lovato spent more than $7,000 on calls, canvassing and consulting fees. Both candidates were supported by reform groups and had been reporting the most individual contributions in previous campaign finance reports.

But it was the slate of candidates endorsed by the teachers union — Kevin Cox, Debbie Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey — that prevailed on election night.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $12,756.32; $12,328.81
  • Lea Steed, $1,965.00; $1,396.16
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $7,418.83; $3,606.12
  • Kevin Cox, $2,785.54; $2,993.07
  • Miguel Lovato, $16,856.00; $16,735.33
  • Jane Barber, $1,510.32; $1,510.32
  • Debbie Gerkin, $4,690.00; $4,516.21
  • Marques Ivey, $5,496.50; $5,638.57
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

The slate members spent varying amounts in the last few days before the election. For instance, Cox, who won the most votes, spent $403 while Ivey who recorded the fewest votes of the four winning candidates, spent $2,056.

Most of the slate candidates’ spending went to Facebook ads and consulting fees.

The four also reported large amounts in non-monetary contributions. Collectively, the slate members reported about $76,535 in non-monetary contributions, mostly from union funds, to cover in-kind mail, polling, office space and printing. All four also reported a non-monetary contribution in the form of a robocall from the Arapahoe County Democratic Party.

Other financial support for candidates, through independent expenditure committees, showed that the group Every Student Succeeds which was backed by union dollars and was supporting the union slate, spent less in the last days than the reform groups Raising Colorado and Families First Colorado which were supporting Pough and Lovato.

Overall, the independent expenditure committee groups spent more than $419,000 trying to sway Aurora voters.

Incumbent Barbara Yamrick failed to file any campaign finance reports throughout the campaign.

This story has been updated to include more information about in-kind contributions to the union-backed candidates.