Wendy Norris is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado, and covers the Rocky Mountain West for RH Reality Check.
One doesn’t often encounter political campaigns that take a
vow of poverty but Colorado "personhood" supporters have blazed
virgin trails before. But that pledge may already be as tarnished as a forgotten
At an Aug. 25 press conference at a Denver area post
office, ultra-conservative religious activists kicked off another state
ballot measure as a thinly veiled attempt to ban abortion, hormonal
contraception, in-vitro fertilization and stem cell research by amending the
state constitution to provide legal rights to fertilized eggs. Supporters
boldly proclaimed Personhood Colorado would be the first all-volunteer campaign
in the state’s history.
That low-rent promise was delivered in the group’s third
quarter campaign finance report filed with the Colorado Secretary of State on
The campaign’s cash-on-hand balance was a modest $864.93
after paying a non-itemized expenditure of just $2.55 over the three months
when the group was preparing for its ballot hearing and cranking up its
To place the constitutional amendment on the November 2010
ballot Personhood Colorado must collect 76,074 valid signatures by Feb. 15. A
steep order for a group that has raised very little money and spent less than
the price of a fancy pants cup of coffee.
More curiously though, the third quarter expenses racked up
to mail call-to-action letters and petitions to a reported thousand campaign
volunteers who previously worked on the defeated 2008 personhood ballot measure
at the much-ballyhooed summer press conference remain unknown and undisclosed.
There was no record of photocopying, envelope purchases or
postage expenses on the financial report. Though the group’s Web site and
subsequent news stories are replete with photos of volunteers happily collating
packets and hauling tubs brimming with stamped envelopes into the post office.
Attempts to reach the 2010 ballot co-sponsors Gualberto
Garcia Jones, director of Personhood Colorado, and Leslie Hanks, a long-time
Colorado Right to Life activist, to determine who covered the estimated $1,000
cost of the mailing were not successful.
The peculiarities on Personhood Colorado campaign’s recent
financial disclosure form may very well be an oversight by fledgling activists.
Or it could point to a much more cynical attempt to thwart public
accountability by a well-oiled theocratic political machine.
If, in fact, the undeclared outreach effort expenses were an
oversight, it wouldn’t be the first time personhood activists have failed to
fully report their financial activities.
Personhood Colorado’s predecessor, Colorado for Equal
Rights, amended half of its 13 total reports filed during the active campaign
season to account for omitted donations and expenditures. The 2008 group led by
Kristi Burton, a then-19-year-old law student who launched the
first-in-the-nation ballot measure, was levied a small fine for campaign
finance violations for skirting the rules after a Colorado blogger lodged a
In addition to the reporting snafus, the parallels between
the two groups are remarkably similar. Both were founded in June — Burton’s
campaign launched in 2007 and Garcia Jones teamed up with Hanks in 2009. And
while both got off to a slow fundraising start, Burton raised $2,400, or four
times more than Garcia Jones by the end of third quarter reporting period.
Garcia Jones, a former legal adviser to the anti-abortion
fundraising powerhouse American Life League, was recruited to the renewed
Colorado effort by Hanks and anti-abortion activists Keith Mason and Cal
Mason, from Wichita, Kan., and Michigan resident Zastrow
moved to Colorado to work on the 2008 campaign with Burton. Following a 73-27
electoral drubbing at the polls, the duo founded Personhood USA in June 2009 to
launch multiple state efforts to pass constitutional amendments in 2010. Burton
is not officially involved with the renewed effort but has been feted by
American Life League as a rising star in the movement.
The new suburban Denver-based national group is organized as
a 501c4, an advocacy-oriented federal tax-exempt nonprofit organization, and is
not required to report its financial backing until January 2011 — months after
the election. A loophole in Colorado law does not require this particular
strain of political nonprofit to report its activities to state compliance
officials. When state legislators cracked down in 2007 on campaign abuses by IRS-designated
527 nonprofit organizations that ranged from allegations of money laundering to
deceptive advertising, political activists flocked to the less monitored c4
And it’s this uncoordinated nature of federal and state
campaign reporting rules that creates fertile territory for shadowy activities
and less than timely accounting to the public.
Luis Toro, senior counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch,
explained that state campaign finance rules on expenditures for issue campaigns
are murky at best. A new law to clamp down on petition circulation abuses
by issue committees was closely monitored by the statewide watchdog group after
allegations were raised in court that a variety of 2008 ballot groups were
defrauding voters on the actual intent of the proposed law in order to compel
them to sign petitions.
But serious transparency problems remain.
There is no legal requirement to either acknowledge or track
funds from so-called "friendly allies" outside the confines of the
state-based ballot groups’ own books.
Rich Coolidge, spokesman for the Colorado Secretary of
State, confirmed that issue committees are not subject to the same disclosure
laws as candidates, who face much more stringent rules on reporting independent
expenditures made by outside groups that can affect an election. Likewise,
there are no monetary limits on the amount of contributions issue committees,
such as Personhood Colorado, can accept from donors.
Case in point: Twelve days before Election Day 2008, the
lobbying arm of the American Life League dumped $200,000 into the Colorado for
Equal Rights campaign to push Amendment 48. Yet, other than an obscure major
donor report, the contribution never appeared on any of the campaign’s
The lack of accountability on who is truly financing the
reinvigorated personhood ballot efforts raises concerns that money could again
pour into the state from well-heeled national anti-abortion groups
without full disclosure to the voting public.
It goes without saying that national activists are again
using Colorado and other states as electoral proving grounds to challenge Roe v Wade since federal legislative
efforts have been fruitless.
"Now with Personhood Colorado, affiliated with
Personhood USA, we’re again seeing national interests at play," said
Monica McCafferty, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky
Mountains, a leading opponent of last year’s attempt to pass the first state
"Coloradoans should question if
Personhood Colorado really has the state’s best interest in mind. Access to
affordable health care is already tough enough for Colorado families. If the
initiative makes it on the 2010 ballot, Colorado voters will once again be
asked to weigh in on a deceptively worded ballot measure – written by
extremists with ties beyond Colorado – that would restrict or threaten access
to health care."