Emily Sirota will likely be the only Denver school board candidate this year to draw an endorsement from a man whose name has been floated as a 2016 presidential contender.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer was in Denver on Thursday for a Sirota fundraiser at a pizzeria. Her campaign suggested guests make contributions ranging from $75 to $200 to help fuel the home stretch of Sirota’s race against Anne Rowe for the District 1 seat representing southeast Denver.
Schweitzer, who also met earlier in the day with Gov. John Hickenlooper, admitted after his remarks to a packed room at Beau Jo’s Pizza on South Colorado Boulevard that he hasn’t studied the DPS board races or other candidates in the field.
But he said Sirota, who had worked until 2007 in his office of economic development, so impressed him that he wanted to give her campaign a boost.
“I know what a lot of passion she has for education, I know how effective she can be, and I know what tremendous skills she has in organizing people,” he said, “and that’s why I’m down here to support her.”
The endorsement by Schweitzer is hardly the only out-of-state influence at play in the campaigns for three of seven board seats, for which mail ballots are now in the hands of voters.
There’s also the money.
Sirota on Tuesday reported having raised $57,962 in monetary contributions through the reporting period ending Oct. 6. Slightly over $20,000 came from more than 80 addresses outside Colorado. At least six of those donors were members either of her family or that of her husband, radio talk show host David Sirota.
But a single $5,000 check came to Sirota from Leo Hindery, managing partner of InterMedia Partners, a New York-based media industry private equity fund. Sirota also received five additional checks from outside Colorado of $1,000 to $1,500 – including one from a family member.
Sirota campaign spokesman Kevin Paquette saw no negatives in the amount of money the first-time candidate – who moved to Colorado in June 2007 – received from outside the state.
“Emily’s outside cash contributions are all from family or friends,” said Paquette. As for the $5,000 from Hindery, he added, “The relationship is a personal one, between Dave and Emily and Leo.
“She does not apologize for any of the outside individual contributions she has received.”
A governor comes bearing gifts
In fact, Sirota received another infusion Thursday night – hand-delivered by the Montana governor.
Midway through his remarks at the fundraiser, Schweitzer said, “I brought something with me, and I’m going to reach into my pocket and I’m going to pull something out, and in this envelope, it is chock full of checks from people that Emily worked with in Montana.”
He did so just a few minutes after remarks from Denver City Auditor Dennis Gallagher, another Sirota supporter, who lamented “all the outside money and all the outside influences” coming into the DPS races.
Schweitzer passed Sirota a plain white envelope, adding, “It’s because we believe in Emily and we appreciate that you believe in Emily.”
And that wasn’t all. Schweitzer also brought along a replica of a customized plywood slate he said he uses to “brand” bills he refuses to sign with the word “VETO.” He auctioned it off Thursday night for $800. The winning bid came from Denver school board member Jeannie Kaplan.
“It’s for my husband, Steve. He’s always wanted a ranch,” said Kaplan, displaying it for friends after it had been inscribed and signed by the governor. “So when he gets his ranch, this will go there.”
By contrast, Rowe, Sirota’s opponent, has received just two checks from individual contributors outside Colorado, totaling $600. Rowe’s brother, a Berkeley, Calif., high school teacher, sent her $100. And a former colleague she worked with at the Colorado Children’s Campaign who now lives in Washington, D.C., pitched in $500.
“Ninety-five percent of the people donating to my campaign live in Denver, Colorado,” said Rowe, who had 256 individual contributors. “I am honored to have the support of so many different citizens who care so much about moving public education forward in Denver.”
Rowe’s campaign calculated that 60 percent of her $176,320 in contributions came from people within the southeast Denver district that she and Sirota both hope to represent.
“These are people who are actual voters in southeast Denver, and they have been willing to say, ‘I really support the direction we’re going’,” she said.
As for Schweitzer making the trip from Montana to stump for a school board candidate, he is hardly a stranger to the state. He attended high school in Cañon City and earned his bachelor’s degree in international agronomy at Colorado State University.
Thirty years after leaving CSU, Schweitzer earned praise for his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on American energy independence – so much so that Facebook pages sprang up touting his attributes as future presidential material.
The Sirota-Schweitzer ties date back at least a decade.
David Sirota, who hosts a show weekday mornings on AM 760 Colorado’s Progressive Talk, is also an author and blogger who in December 2004 wrote a positive profile of Schweitzer for the Washington Monthly. In the piece, David Sirota noted that in 2000 he worked as a campaign consultant for Schweitzer’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid.
Emily Sirota’s campaign literature prominently cites her employment as an economic development specialist for Schweitzer, describing her “key role” in developing a statewide effort to improve early childhood education.
That was affirmed Thursday by Montana state Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula, the Senate minority leader whose 2007 bill gave Montana full-day kindergarten.
“I’m delighted to hear that she’s a candidate for the school board down there because she’ll bring a lot of passion to it if she is elected,” Williams said.
Stand for Children gives $63,500 “in kind” to endorsed candidates
The leading fundraiser in the DPS races, with a record-shattering 546 individual donors, was citywide candidate Happy Haynes. The Haynes campaign raised $213,789 – but the dollars total wasn’t the primary thrust of a press release issued by her campaign on Tuesday.
Instead, it was that 437 – or 80 percent – of her donors were from Denver, and that 99 percent came from within Colorado.
All but $415 of Haynes’ money came from people living in the state.
Roger Kilgore ran a distant third to Haynes in fund-raising among at-large candidates. South High School teacher Frank Deserino finished second with $16,790. However, more than 90 percent of Deserino’s total was money he contributed to his own campaign.
Kilgore concedes that more than $2,000 of his $8,464 take came from friends and supporters outside Colorado – including his mother, in California, who pitched in $100.
But Kilgore sees Haynes as benefitting from a significant out-of-state boost.
“She was given $32,000 by Stand for Children, and that is a Portland, Oregon-based group,” said Kilgore. “They do have a local address so Happy … can say it’s a local organization. But the mailing address is a Portland, Oregon, address and the money is managed out of Portland.”
Stand for Children is a national non-profit with chapters in nine states, including Colorado. Its political committee, Stand for Children in Denver, donated $31,191 in non-monetary contributions – canvassing and staff support – to Haynes. The political committee also donated $15,663 in similar services to Anne Rowe and $16,657 in such services to Jennifer Draper Carson.
Draper Carson is challenging incumbent school board member Arturo Jimenez for the District 5 seat representing northwest Denver.
“It does give the appearance of outside interests,” Kilgore said, though he noted he was “impressed with the commitment level of the local parents who are involved with them” when he went for an endorsement interview with Stand’s Denver members.
Stand later endorsed Kilgore’s opponent, Haynes, as well as Rowe and Draper Carson.
Paquette, Sirota’s spokesman, also invoked Stand in talking about Rowe’s backing in the southeast Denver race.
“She’s received a contribution from Stand for Children, which is from Oregon, and you know they have a national agenda that they want to push,” said Paquette. “So just in terms of resources, absolutely, they are giving her money because she believes in them and they believe in her.”
Stand for Children in Denver, as a political committee, isn’t due to file a report listing contributors until Nov.1, Election Day. During Denver’s 2009 school board elections, the political committee listed numerous donors from outside Colorado.
Stand for Children Colorado advocacy director Kayla McGannon said support of Haynes, Rowe and Draper Carson is rooted locally.
“Stand Colorado’s staff is based in Denver and since many of us have lived in the state our whole lives, the quality of our public schools is a very personal issue to us,” she said.
“The same can be said for our members, who are local parents, teachers and neighbors, 12 of whom personally interviewed candidates running for Denver’s school board.”