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Denver mayoral candidates pay consultants thousands of dollars, some of it from tax funds

Campaigns can lean on consultants for campaign infrastructure and messaging strategy to help them stand out.
Credit: KUSA
Denver City & County Building

DENVER — 9Wants to Know has found that 55% of all mayoral campaign spending so far this election cycle has been on consultants and staffing. 

Candidates have spent $379,282.36 so far on consultants. That is one-third of all spending by candidates captured in this data. 

At least a quarter of the consulting spending comes from tax dollars.

Denver’s mayor is in charge of managing a sprawling bureaucracy with a $1.6 billion budget and more than 11,000 workers, so it’s worth looking at how candidates have spent their campaign dollars so far.

Consultants can help those in the running strategize with exclusive insights on what voters could be looking for in their next mayor. The money shows who may have the ear of the person who will be Denver’s next mayor and how candidates chose to spend what people have donated.

9NEWS analyzed Denver elections spending data that runs from the beginning of January 2022 to March 1, 2023 and was downloaded from the Denver Searchlight program. 9NEWS spent weeks using various formulas to categorize the spending in focused buckets based off the couple of words a candidate’s committee used to describe the spending.

Phil Chen, assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver, said he’s not surprised by the candidates’ spending on consultants because they contribute institutional knowledge and quickly stand-up campaign infrastructure. 

“It’s reusing knowledge that already exists in a way that doesn’t require each campaign to build that kind of knowledge itself,” Chen said.

He said consultants contribute to a variety of tasks on a campaign, including:

  • Campaign manager
  • Opposition research or research on your own candidate
  • Focus groups
  • Data collection
  • Fundraising and identifying lists of potential donors

Chen said consultant spending is particularly helpful at the beginning of a campaign.

“I think a really useful point to use a consultant is early in the process when you’re trying to get your message refined and when you’re trying to stand out in a field of 17, now 16, candidates you’re really trying to make yourself different,” he said.

Six candidates spent most of their money on consultants. Of the candidates, Leslie Herod has spent the most so far -- $151,033.85 -- on consultants. That has been 59% of her spending. 

Credit: Zack Newman

Mario Nicolais, who does strategic communications and legal work for Herod’s campaign, said the figure may come from campaign personnel officially working as consultants and not staff. Herod paid $20,500 to Nicolais’ firm KBN Law. Nicolais said Herod believes in paying her people well. 

“That pays off in people going out and being invested in the campaign,” he said. “And working hard for the campaign.”

Nicolais said the relatively high spending is because Herod began her campaign in September 2022 and has been in it “a lot longer” than her competitors. But 9NEWS reported that numerous other candidates had filed their paperwork or announced an intention to run for mayor by the time that she did. 

Andy Rougeot is second in consultant spending. His campaign has spent at least $92,099.44 on consultants. A representative acknowledged receiving a query from 9NEWS but did not respond before deadline. 

About one of every four dollars spent on consultants has come from tax dollars. 9Wants to Know found $95,400 came from the taxpayer-bolstered Fair Elections Fund that has been used to fund consultants. Leslie Herod’s campaign spent $64,700 from the FEF on consultants. 

“The takeaway is the people of Denver enacted the Fair Election Fund to allow candidates to run the campaigns that they wanted to run and chose to run,” Nicolais said. “Whether it was spending on consultants or spending on mailers or spending on yard signs.”

Debbie Ortega’s campaign spent $30,700 in FEF funds. Rachel Caine, a spokesperson for the Ortega campaign, wrote in a message that the spending was a worthwhile use of the money. 

“Employment and economic opportunity for our hard-working team of staff and consultants is an excellent use of FEF funds, especially as they work to connect with voters across the city over the issues that matter to them most,” Caine wrote.

According to the Denver municipal code, FEF money can be used for anything related to the election. 

At least $1.2 million has been spent by 18 candidates vying for their chance to be Denver’s mayor. Each candidate decided to spend their money differently. Some have prioritized consultants and advertising, while others are focusing on staffing and events. 

There are 16 candidates remaining in the race after Tattered Cover CEO Kwame Spearman dropped out in March. The Denver Gazette reported that Colorado State Rep. Alex Valdez decided to end his bid for the job in January.  

Five of the candidates focused at least half of all spending on consultants. 

The inner consultant circle

Andy Rougeot's campaign gave $42,000 to Relentless Media LLC. Expenditure data shows the organization is based in Florida, and Colorado Secretary of State records show a local aspect is run by campaign staffer Matt Connelly. 

Leslie Herod’s campaign has spent more than $151,000 on consultants. The money went to tap into expertise from a variety of people, especially those connected to the various Hickenlooper administrations:

  • $24,500 went to Upstream 303, which is run by Wheat Ridge city council member and former John Hickenlooper staffer Val Nosler Beck. The organization claims to have worked on the campaigns of people running for Congress, state House, state Senate and county seats. Nicolais said the company played a crucial role in FEF donor compliance to correct any errors. 
  • $16,500.00 to HMS Communications, which is operated by Holly Shrewsbury. According to her website, she worked in communications for Colorado Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and John Hickenlooper when he was governor. Shrewsbury is Herod’s press secretary.

“I don’t think it’s ever a bad idea to go get the people who helped put a guy into the governor’s office and the United States Senate to come work for your campaign,” Nicolais said.

Some individual consultants have also amassed large paydays with certain campaigns. Herod's campaign paid the most money to Alvertis Simmons, a longtime Denver community activist with ties ranging from Wellington Webb to Sen. Michael Bennet. Herod paid Simmons at least $26,250 for consulting services starting in late 2022. The Herod campaign also paid Shawn Werner, a regional leader of the political organization EMILY'S LIST, $20,000 for consulting. The website for EMILY’S LIST said the organization aims to get more pro-choice women elected. 

Campaigns have used the “consultant” category to pay employees. 

  • The Chris Hansen campaign paid Emily Dowd, the deputy campaign manager, $17,375 for consulting. The address on a social media profile matches addresses listed in campaign expenditures. 
  • Andy Rougeot’s campaign paid Mason Riley, allegedly its Campaign Operations Manager, a total of $14,334.66 across 10 payments.
  • Debbie Ortega’s campaign paid Rachel Feinberg $12,000 for consulting. Feinberg is listed on Ortega’s website as one of the people to reach out to if anyone wants a campaign yard sign. 

"In the infancy of the campaign, as we were building our team, we worked with several consultants - some of which eventually became staff," Caine, the Ortega campaign spokesperson, wrote in an email. "Rachel Feinberg has been with the campaign from the beginning, initially as a public relations consultant and currently as the campaign's communications director."

Since Denver mayoral elections are nonpartisan, candidates also don’t have the advantage of their political parties lending infrastructure and expertise Chen said they normally would.

“It may be that you see even more reliance on consultants because the institutional knowledge that the party has isn’t as widely available to candidates in a nonpartisan race," Chen said. "Even if they do identify as Democrats the party isn’t necessarily going to pick sides in an election like this.”

Chen said candidates may not know if the cash spent on consultants was worth it until after the election.

“There’s lots of times that candidates spend money on something that just simply doesn’t pan out and help the campaign. That doesn’t make it wrong, it just might make it ill-advised,” he said.

Chen said candidates may win even if they are not the next mayor. Their presence could help push a particular issue to the forefront of the campaign.

Additional spending from Independent Expenditure committees supports a handful of candidates

Independent Expenditure committees are a vehicle that can also spend money to help a mayoral hopeful, but they are not allowed to coordinate with candidates. The money has mostly been used to help a couple of people with advertisement purchases. Nearly half a million dollars have been spent by these IE organizations so far. 

The largest spending by IEs so far was media buys in late February. A Better Denver shelled out $262,368.15 toward the end of February on ads supporting Brough. Ready Denver also spent $120,000 to support Herod. 

Other types of candidate spending

Despite being term-limited, current mayor Michael Hancock continued to spend more than $8,000 from campaign funds. The data shows that Hancock continues to spend money mostly on consulting for bookkeeping and compliance. 

Five other campaigns spent the largest share of their campaign dollars on staffing. Thomas Wolf has spent 57% of $63,611.12 spent so far on his election workers.

The only money candidate Renate Behrens spent was $408 on something called “transportation communication.”

View the raw data here.

> Reach investigative reporter Zack Newman at 303-548-9044. You can also call or text securely on Signal through that same number. Email: zack.newman@9news.com. Call or text is preferred over email.



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