According to the court, the facts from Fort Collins show the teachers union crossed the legal line in its 2004 campaign activities.
On July 20, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that the Colorado Education Association (CEA) and its local affiliate the Poudre Education Association (PEA) illegally helped state senate candidate Bob Bacon’s campaign. The illegal assistance was crucial to Bacon’s 2004 victory, which gave the Senate Democrats a one-seat majority.
In essence, Bacon skirted campaign finance restrictions by outsourcing the costly services of volunteer recruitment and literature distribution to CEA and PEA. The CEA dispatched then-employee Ryan Wulff from CEA headquarters to Fort Collins in August 2004 to organize volunteers and to perform other duties to help elect Bacon. Records indicate that Wulff and Bacon had regular conversations about campaign activities.
Most significantly, Wulff and other union officials orchestrated the disbursement of thousands of Bacon for Senate leaflets at two October 2004 events: the “Great Pumpkin Rally” and “Halloween Hike.” The candidate personally attended both events and thanked the volunteers, which included non-PEA members.
At the Great Pumpkin Rally, volunteers received targeted lists of voter households and went out to knock on doors. If no one was at home, PEA’s instructions urged volunteers to write a message as from the candidate himself: “Sorry I missed you! Bob Bacon.” If asked questions, volunteers were instructed to say that Bacon himself would come by later to answer them.
PEA’s written instructions implied that important voter information was shared between PEA and the Bacon campaign.
Evidence also showed that Wulff picked up the thousands of pieces of Bacon for Senate literature from CEA headquarters and brought them to Fort Collins. His work was performed at the union’s expense and, in violation of state law, not reported as a contribution.
Regarding the campaign literature’s presence at CEA’s offices, CEA lawyer Mark Grueskin told the court: “No one ever really is able to say where it came from or how it came to be there.”
Grueskin argued not only that CEA and PEA acted independently but also that their involvement was unreliable. He said that Bacon would have benefited had union officials and volunteers not solicited voters on his behalf.
“I think Bacon would have been better served had he put all that literature in an airplane and just dumped it out over the district someplace,” Grueskin told the three-judge Court of Appeals panel. He suggested that some PEA volunteers might have picked up their assigned literature and thrown it into the trash rather than delivering it to voters’ houses.
Yet union officials told their members a different story of their role in the fall elections.
“Our personal approach made the difference,” CEA Political Director Lynne Garramone Mason was quoted in the CEA Journal. “Our members were the largest group of people out in neighborhoods, and we were also key players in many powerful coalitions. Pooling our funds, people, and energy really worked.”
In 2004 as in previous elections, CEA leaders assisted many partisan campaigns with direct contributions as allowed under the law. To fund the candidates and parties, they raised 24 dollars a year automatically from each member’s paycheck (the rate has increased to 36 dollars a year). Members can apply for a refund if they know about the deadline and remember to turn in their request on time.
Union officials call the opt-out contribution the “Every Member Option.” They don’t ask members for the right to spend their funds on political causes. Most members have little or no say in which candidates their money supports, either directly through cash contributions or indirectly through coordinated campaigning.
The evidence of illicit activity in Fort Collins was uncovered by concerned parents Wayne Rutt and Paul Marrick. They filed the legal complaint in hopes of seeing a fair and honest election process.
Their persistent and courageous work could pay off in another way, too. Many CEA members who learn about the appeals court decision may be troubled enough to insist their union change the way it does political business.