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$6 Million Dollar Democrats


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As the shrimp thaws in the microwave in Paula Noonan’s kitchen, former Colorado Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald warms up her sales pitch for the dozen people gathered in the hors d’oeuvre-laden den next door.

“I would rather (just) be me in this campaign than anyone else,” Fitz-Gerald says of her run for the Democratic nomination in the left-leaning 2nd Congressional District. “I’m not asking people to take a chance on someone they don’t know.”

Certainly not on this night.

The request for campaign contributions that Fitz-Gerald makes sounds more like someone selling sundaes to 6-year-olds than ice cubes to Eskimos. These are her people—old friends such as former Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas. The problem for Fitz-Gerald and for her two opponents in the 2nd CD Democratic primary is that friends or even mild acquaintances won’t come close to ponying up the payola needed to succeed Rep. Mark Udall in Congress.

In a nation gone mad with money in politics, this district, which includes Louisville, Broomfield, Lafayette and Boulder, qualifies for its own personal padded cell.

Fitz-Gerald felt she needed to resign from the state senate to raise the $2 million she thinks she needs to beat multi-millionaire techie Jared Polis and environmentalist Will Shafroth. Polis, a former Colorado Board of Education chairman, boasts pockets as deep—or deeper—than almost anyone who has ever run for office in Colorado. He’s committed to spend $2 million and more, if that’s what it takes to win. Shafroth, who once ran Great Outdoors Colorado, entered the congressional primary believing he needed $1 million just to compete. His personal estimate has ballooned to $1.5 million.

At $5.5 million to $6 million, the 2008 race will almost surely set a primary spending record in Colorado. It’s hard to find an archive for a national record in primary spending, but odds are this one will finish in the Top 10.

What you have is not a campaign on the issues. What you have is a series of cold calls to potential investors that resembles a boiler room.

Before heading for Noonan’s house, Fitz-Gerald has spent her day on the phone trying to convince strangers to give her money. “You don’t think I’m calling to socialize,” she says of her approach. Shafroth and Polis match Fitz-Gerald in time spent fund raising. “It’s four hours a day, five days a week,” Polis says, his voice tinged with the touch of inevitability. “It’s a means to an end,” adds Shafroth. “The end is to get your message out so you can perform in Congress and get done what people want to get done.”

The question is which people.

While Fitz-Gerald was wowing ’em at Noonan’s house, Polis was working a fund raiser in Chicago. Every one of the candidates admits that in a $6-million race, a significant portion must come from outside of the district they hope to represent and often outside of Colorado. With each candidate “having to raise $2 million,” says Polis, “I don’t expect anyone to raise the majority of money in the district.”

So the 2nd Congressional District becomes the paradigm of modern American politics—a multi-media extravaganza brought to you by people and organizations whose names you’ll probably never hear, and wouldn’t recognize if you did. “It’s the deep pockets that you don’t know” that actually pay for most of a big-time modern campaign, Fitz-Gerald admits.

That’s because “it’s all about TV,” explains former JeffCo DA Thomas.

Polis sure lost no time getting up a television ad featuring what he claims was a humanitarian trip to Iraq and what his opponents brand a campaign stunt.

So it will go until the Aug. 12 primary. Each candidate will spend more than most of us earns in a lifetime to get the chance to serve in Congress for two years.

They’ll obliquely blame the other person for the hemorrhage of cash. Fitz-Gerald talks about the “shotgun approach” to campaigning with unlimited resources, a thinly veiled reference to Polis. “These races are won going door-to-door, but you can’t be outgunned by your opponents,” says Polis, suggesting if he doesn’t spend millions, he’ll lose. “I wish it was different,” says Shafroth. “I don’t have the personal checkbook or the institutional support in this race,” referring to Polis in the former reference, Fitz-Gerald in the latter.

Before she begs her friends to dig into their too-shallow pockets, Fitz-Gerald sums up the standoff that has turned this primary and most of American politics into a profligate game of chicken:

“You can’t sit back and wish it was different and lose the race.”

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