Maybe it shouldn’t be this way, but money and political influence often determine who wins elections. There always are exceptions, but the candidates or causes with the most money and best political backing frequently have an advantage at the polls. Sometimes it’s a huge advantage.
But what happens when one side has the money, but the other side has the political influence? The May 5 referendum on whether Pueblo should “municipalize” its electric service may put that question to the test.
While the coronavirus has put a lot of things on hold, I haven’t heard any serious talk about canceling or postponing the election. Unless something changes, Pueblo County Clerk and Recorder Gilbert Ortiz plans to mail ballots to voters starting April 13, a week from Monday.
Then it’ll be up to Pueblo voters to decide whether to end the city’s contract with Black Hills Energy early and allow a municipal electricity provider to be established in its place. As pivotal moments in the city’s history go, this obviously is a big one.
So which side has the advantage in this election?
If you believe that money is the mother’s milk of politics, you probably would want to place your bets with the referendum’s opponents. Pueblo CARES, one of the groups urging a “no” vote on question 2A, has collected about $700,000 in contributions.
“I would guess that’s the biggest donation in the history of Pueblo for a city race,” former City Councilman Chris Nicoll observed.
Nicoll is on the other side, lobbying for a “yes” vote on the issue. He said there never was any doubt that the referendum supporters would have to run a grassroots campaign against a well-funded organization.
However, it might not be entirely accurate to cast the pro-municipalization crowd as the scrappy underdogs in this fight. After all, they seem to have ample backing from high-profile political figures, including Nicoll and Mayor Nick Gradisar.
Gradisar has been outspoken in his support for having the city take over Black Hills’ contract. In fact, he recently tried to draw the City Council into the fray by asking the legislative body to pass a resolution urging Pueblo CARES to disclose the source of its funding.
As a practical matter, the resolution wouldn’t have had any real weight behind it. The council doesn’t have the legal authority to compel Pueblo CARES to release that information; courts do.
But passing that resolution would have given the appearance, at least in some people’s minds, that the council also was supporting passage of the referendum. By a 4-3 vote, the council decided not to take a position on that issue.
Of course, the uncertainty created by the coronavirus will be a big X-factor in this race.
Steve Welchert, campaign consultant for the No on 2A campaign, said he believes turnout actually might be higher because people are cooped up at home. He was estimating a turnout of 25,000 to 28,000, based on similar city elections. But now, he’s thinking the number could be as high as 35,000 to 38,000.
“An election gives people a little more normalcy,” Welchert said. “Everyone’s at home and the ballots are on the kitchen counter, so why not turn them in?”
Which isn’t to say that both sides haven’t had to make adjustments to their campaign strategies. Obviously, door-to-door campaigning is out. Welchert said radio advertising is of limited value since most people listen to radio in their cars and fewer people are out driving these days.
On the flip side, people are spending more time in front of their television screens, so Welchert said his group is planning to move forward with an aggressive push in that area, starting with the “Blank Check” ad that began airing a few days ago.
Both sides still are putting up yard signs, which even people who are not driving much can see as they walk their neighborhoods for exercise.
Bring Power Home 2020, a pro-municipalization group, sent out a fundraising email Monday that said: “A larger internet presence, large Chieftain ads, TV commercials and billboards are needed, and they are out of reach at this point.”
However, in an interview later in the week, Dianne Danti, campaign coordinator for Bring Power Home 2020, said her group still is planning to do direct mail, television and radio advertising.
So what will determine the referendum’s outcome? Big money? Gold-plated political contacts? Or some other as-yet-unknown factor?
We’ll find out pretty soon.
Blake Fontenay is The Pueblo Chieftain’s opinion page editor. To suggest topics for future Prairie Politics columns, please email him at [email protected]