anger over mailers

Why Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos’s names — and faces — are all over this fall’s Denver school board races

Angela Cobián has spent much of her young career as a teacher and community organizer. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, the 28-year-old has advocated for justice for immigrants and spent two years teaching English language learners at a low-income northeast Denver school.

So when the political newcomer running to represent heavily Latino southwest Denver on the Denver school board saw an election campaign mailer that pictured her face alongside those of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, she felt “genuine shock.”

In an interview Friday with Chalkbeat, Cobián described being left reeling by what she called “a baseless and cruel assault on my public character.”

“As a young woman of color, I can’t think of a more hypocritical, absurd and inane attack on my identity,” she said. “I have in every single way lived out what the opportunity gap is in education. I have lived out what it means to be a young teacher of color in a very white-dominant space, teaching majority students of color. … I speak English and Spanish with pride. To see someone slap a black and white picture of me next to two people who are unqualified to lead our country, who are the embodiment of white privilege in Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump, is so frustrating. I feel powerless. I know what racism feels like, so this isn’t new. But I am deeply pained.”

The mailer was produced by a teachers union-funded independent expenditure committee whose registered agent, like Cobián, taught in a district-run school.

Its appearance this week represents an escalation in a rhetorical war over the priorities and direction of the state’s largest school district, with Trump and DeVos cast as central characters.

Opponents of the district’s policies signaled months ago they would seek to tie candidates who support Denver Public Schools’ reforms to DeVos, a billionaire champion of school choice. Supporters of the district’s agenda were ready with their own narrative: that their candidates would stand up to the Trump administration’s immigration and education policies.

All seven current DPS board members support the district’s strategies, which include giving families a choice from among district-run schools, charter schools and “innovation schools” that have autonomy but not as much as charters. DPS rates schools through a system that heavily weights state test scores, and recommends persistently low-performing schools be closed.

Four seats are up for grabs this fall, putting control of the board in play. Three incumbents are running, and newcomer Cobián’s positions are aligned with those pro-reform board members.

The mailer juxtaposing Cobián with Trump and DeVos was paid for by Every Student Succeeds, an independent expenditure committee bankrolled by funds of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and the Aurora and Denver teachers unions.

Here’s the other side of the mailer, which Chalkbeat received from multiple readers:

Chalkbeat school board election mail tracker
Get something in your mailbox about a school board election that deserves more scrutiny? Email pictures — and any other election coverage tips — to

As of Tuesday, the Every Student Succeeds committee had spent more than $350,000 on the southwest Denver race and board races in Aurora, Mesa County and Brighton, records show. Independent expenditure committees are barred from coordinating with candidates’ campaigns. In Denver, the committee is backing Cobián’s opponent,parent and real estate agent Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán.

State records identify Every Student Succeeds’ registered agent as Susan Pinkney-Todd, who worked as a teacher at Denver’s South High School from 2012 to 2016 and is a substitute teacher this year, according to records provided by DPS. She also formerly served on the board of the Colorado Education Association. Pinkney-Todd did not respond to a phone message or email on Friday.

The committee’s registered filing agent, former Colorado Springs Democratic state Sen. John Morse, an accountant, also did not respond to requests for comment, according to state records. (The flier identifies him as registered agent).

Chalkbeat provided a spokesman for the Colorado Education Association, of which the Denver union is part, with a detailed description of the mailer, and also relayed Cobián’s comments.

In response, the spokesman provided a statement from CEA political director Karen Wick: “There is a lot of money in the Denver school board races that come from non-disclosed sources that should be looked into,” it said. The union also provided a statement from the president of the Denver teachers union, Henry Roman, which read: “The education reform agenda is everything DeVos and Trump are all about and we need to put a stop to it.”

Backers of Cobián and the three board incumbents are angrily speaking out. On Thursday, former Democratic speaker of the House Terrance Caroll called attempts to tie candidates to DeVos and Trump “patently false and defamatory.” Another union-funded independent committee mailer drew criticism this week for a false statement.

Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said in an interview Friday that Cobián and the three board members seeking reelection are fighting to protect immigrants protected through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which Trump plans to end; to support LGBT students; and to provide “real public school options for kids.” The DPS board is unanimous in its opposition to private school vouchers championed by DeVos, and members also have spoken out against proposed federal budget cuts to education.

“Personal attacks are completely unacceptable,” Walmer said. “They are desperate lies that prey on people’s worst fears of the (Trump) administration.” To align those candidates “with someone as hateful as Trump is just unbelievable,” she said.

The union-funded mailer portraying Cobián as a kindred spirit of Trump and DeVos claims that “Cobián’s campaign is funded by groups with ties to Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, not to mention funding from the Koch brothers,” billionaires who are major supporters of conservative education reform efforts.

A small donor committee of Democrats for Education Reform had given $1,000 to Cobián’s campaign as of the last public filings. Meanwhile, a DFER affiliate called Education Reform Now Advocacy has been the sole funder this cycle of independent expenditure committee Raising Colorado. As of Monday, state records show that committee had spent more than $387,000 on the Denver school board races, and had hundreds of thousands of dollars more on hand.

As a 501(c)4 social welfare organization under the federal tax code, Education Reform Now Advocacy isn’t required to disclose its donors. District critics have decried the influx of such “dark money” into local races.

An email to Education Reform Now’s New York offices was not returned Friday. Walmer on Friday rejected any ties to DeVos and Trump and said “we have never taken money from the Koch brothers, nor would we ever.”

Several Raising Colorado mailers describe the candidates who support DPS reforms as a check against the agendas of Trump and DeVos. Here is one example:

Scott Gilpin, a co-founder of Our Denver, Our Schools, which opposes DPS reforms and is backing a slate of candidates who feel similarly, dismissed such attempts.

“The current school board can try as hard as they want to distance themselves from Trump and DeVos, but their actions speak louder than their campaign fliers,” Gilpin wrote in a text message. “Their votes to close schools, privatize education and expand high-stakes standardized tests are in lock step with Trump and DeVos.”

At least one mailer from the campaign of a candidate, at-large contender Robert Speth, draws a DeVos connection — in this case linking her to board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who Speth is seeking to unseat:

Denver’s school board race is not the first to feature attempts to tie candidates to Trump and DeVos. Union-funded groups unsuccessfully tried a similar tactic in Los Angeles earlier this year in the most expensive school board election in the nation’s history. Advocates of charter schools won a majority there for the first time.

Information voters glean from endorsements and literature that lands in their mailboxes can be influential in a low-turnout, off-year election with candidates who lack party labels, said Seth Masket, a political scientist and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.

“If people are trying to come up with a reason to support one candidate over another, there is a not a whole lot for them to go on without a ton of research, which most voters are not going to do,” he said. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Trump/DeVos-themed mailers will prove effective, he cautioned: Some voters might see it at an overreach.

For her part, Cobián on Friday said she wondering what the mailer tying her to two Republican figures she opposes vehemently would mean for her beyond the school board race.

“The practical side of me wonders what implications of this slander into the public record will have on my future career,” she said. “I am six years out of college and have spent those six years working public education and local politics, and I’m looking forward to a lifetime of service in organizing and social justice. Now I will wonder what the professional consequences are of these kinds of lies being in our Denver community.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified former state Sen. John Morse’s party affiliation. Thanks to Chalkbeat readers for pointing out immediately so we could fix. We also clarified the sentence about Education Reform Now Advocacy’s donors. To be clear: the identities of donors who support the group’s political activities are not made public.

dotting the i's

Group that supported Douglas County anti-voucher candidates fined in campaign finance case

The Douglas County school board on Monday voted to end the district's voucher program and directed the district to seek an end to the protracted legal case. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A political committee that supported a slate of anti-voucher candidates in the Douglas County school board race has been ordered to pay a $1,900 fine related to campaign finance violations.

Back in the fall, the group Campaign Integrity Watchdog filed a complaint against Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids that alleged the group failed to properly report donations and expenditures.  Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids is an independent political committee, which can spend an unlimited amount of money to advocate for candidates.

The Douglas County race was one of the most high-profile school board races in the state, and outside money from all sides flowed into the campaigns. The union-backed CommUnity Matters candidates won all four open seats, and as promised, they promptly ended the school district’s years-long defense of a controversial voucher program.

An administrative law judge ruled that some of the allegations in the complaint were not actually violations and that others were mistakes that the independent expenditure committee quickly corrected. For the most part, there was no intent to deceive the electorate, the judge found, and interested voters had ample opportunity to learn that teachers unions had donated to Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids and that the group had spent money on campaign materials.

But in one instance, the judge found that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids waited too long to report spending on digital communications sent in the weeks right before the election. That’s the violation for which the group must pay a $50 a day fee, adding up to the $1,900.

The complaint from the elections watchdog group, which has previously filed complaints against Democrats and Republicans, alleged that Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids:

  • Failed to report a $1 donation used to open a bank account
  • Failed to report a $300,000 donation from American Federation of Teachers Solidarity
  • Failed to disclose more than $50,000 spent on campaign mailers within the 48-hour window required when money is spent in the last 30 days before an election

The judge found that the failure to disclose the $1 donation for the bank account was not a violation at all because the amount was so small. The $300,000 donation, meanwhile, was reported as coming from American Federation of Teachers. According to the judge’s ruling, when someone on the union side tried to correct the entry, they accidentally made a new entry for American Federation of Teachers Solidarity, giving the appearance of an additional unreported donation. While the failure to report the full correct name was a technical violation, the judge wrote that little harm was done, and the mistake was quickly fixed.

The purpose of campaign finance law is transparency, the judge wrote, and that was accomplished “by disclosing the key fact that a large national union of teachers was attempting to influence the election.”

On the spending side, the independent committee erred, the judge ruled, in not reporting expenditures on mailers within 48 hours of obligating the money. However, most of the spending was reported soon after the committee received invoices and again more than a week before the election. And because the committee’s name appears on the mailers, there was little concern that voters would have been deceived, the judge wrote.

However, in one instance involving roughly $1,800 for digital communications, the group did not disclose until its final campaign finance report in December, well after the election. It was this violation that prompted the judge to impose the fine.

Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.