LEVI TILLEMANN: The swamp comes to Colorado

Calling out the corrosive effects of big money and corruption in politics isn’t revolutionary. But these days, calling out one’s own political tribe is. Generally speaking, partisans are partisans. They help other partisans get elected and maintain power. Perhaps that’s why my decision to call out Democratic corruption has caused a stir.

Levi Tillemann

I’m an Obama administration alum, clean-energy entrepreneur and a progressive candidate running here in the 6th Congressional District. Last December, the No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Steny Hoyer, called me in for a meeting. In that meeting, he confirmed that he, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Jason Crow had been cooperating since before day one to ensure Crow would be the nominee. Together, they also deceived voters about the process. Multiple times, Hoyer asked me to get out of a race.

That kind of corruption happens all the time in Washington, D.C. That would have been the end of it, except for one thing: I recorded the conversation.

Last week that recording went public through a publication called The Intercept. It has been viewed almost a million times on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. It has started a much-needed conversation on the role of Washington insiders and big corporate money in choosing candidates.

The Hoyer tape pulls back the curtain on Washington’s swamp – and the people who are willing to be part of it. Personally, I was stunned by how explicitly Hoyer acknowledged and embraced the corrupt influence of big, early, organized money in primary politics. It’s a “smoking gun” that elucidates how a tightly-knit, unelected body of Washington operators use big donors and early money to rig primaries across America – and it’s one of the most vivid examples of the corrupting influence of money in U.S. politics in modern history.

Part of this is because Hoyer was shockingly frank. “A judgment was made very early on,” Hoyer said. Explaining that “I’ve been at this a long time,” and that it was the party’s policy to “get in strong, hard and early.” In my case, this is exactly what happened even as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee professed neutrality – and my opponent denied receiving support from Washington.

The contents of our conversation even shocked me – and I knew exactly what was happening. My campaign had been shadow boxing with the DCCC since before day one. Before I jumped in to the race, a DCCC representative told me that I would need to raise $2 million to win the Democratic primary. That seemed like an absurd amount. Surprised, I asked if anyone else was running, and they said “not really.” But as I left, I urged them to let me know if someone was considering a run so I could have a conversation with them and figure out whether it made sense for me to proceed. They finally admitted there might be one person, but declined to further discuss the matter, make an introduction or offer additional details.

But the DCCC was actively working behind the scenes. They were grooming a white-collar criminal defense lawyer — who didn’t even live in the district and had defended payday lenders, fracking companies and scam artists — for the race. By late spring of 2017, my campaign was regularly being told that the DCCC had chosen their guy, that he was receiving support, training and help with endorsements from the DCCC. But publicly both the DCCC and their candidate denied this.

The insider drumbeat was so intense that in June of 2017, I commented publicly on it to Roll Call – a political newspaper. “I think that the worst possible thing we can do … is attempt to clear the field,” I said. “That is not the logic of democracy.” A few weeks later, one of Jason Crow’s staunchest allies, the head of National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League Colorado, NARAL, coordinated a spurious Federal Election Commission complaint against our campaign – a complaint that has cost almost $6,000 in legal fees to respond to.

The next month, a local politico confided that the DCCC’s regional press spokesperson had been secretly undermining my campaign.

One of the establishment’s favorite slanders has been that I grew up as a rich kid, in a rich family. My father’s salary never cracked $70,000 and we were 10 brothers and sisters. So, we were not rich.

This all reached a crescendo last fall when Jason Crow was invited to “candidates week,” a soiree for chosen challengers to meet big donors. No other candidate in the district was invited. But still, the party maintained its façade of neutrality.

Close to a year after the DCCC began their efforts funneling staff, data and hundreds of thousands in donations toward Crow’s campaign, the DCCC designated that campaign as part of their “Red to Blue” program – which would entitle it to yet more money and resources. This was not an acknowledgement that the DCCC had been actively working to rig the primary all along. Instead, it was framed as a reward for the Crow’s stellar fundraising and organizing skills. The DCCC now has full-time field staffers with Crow’s campaign, they share polling data with him and help him secure endorsements.

The DCCC understand something that most people don’t: Success breeds success in politics. “Once you have money, it’s always easier to get money,” one old-school campaign manager told me. DCCC support generates a self-reinforcing narrative – making it easier for one candidate to raise money, hire staff, gain endorsements and ultimately win.

The system allows big donors, special-interest political action committees and unelected political hacks to effectively choose the makeup of Congress by getting in quiet, hard and early. In addition to the obvious ethical concerns, these tactics are also divisive and disillusioning. It means that every dollar raised and endorsement won by the Crow campaign is suspect. The DCCC’s strong-arm tactics also don’t appear to work. In 2016, the DCCC fielded 28 “Red to Blue” candidates against Republican incumbents. Only six won – and some, like Charlie Christ, had previously held statewide office. It’s an abysmal record.

Unless we put an end to this kind of meddling  — big money, controlled by a tiny elite and channeled into the coffers of candidates who are willing to play ball with Washington’s elite — is going to continue to drive our democracy. And it’s not just Democrats! That’s in large part why I decided to release a recording of Hoyer copping to this reality. The DCCC acts as a traffic cop for major donors. It both raises and dispenses its own funds, and directs big donors where to spend their money. With its national rolodex, Washington special-interest PACs and campaign committees, the DCCC plays a dramatic and outsized role.

In the wake of the original story on my race, one journalist called this Politics 101. I call it systemic corruption. Money follows money and endorsements follow money. And a secret infusion of early money and organization from the DCCC allows chosen candidates to benefit from all of the upside and none of the downside of being the insider’s choice. It’s a potent brew – generally powerful enough to steamroll all but the wealthiest and most connected contenders. In a nutshell, it’s what’s wrong with Washington and money in politics today. And that’s why I pulled the curtain back on my conversation with Rep. Hoyer. That’s why I’m still running – despite significant headwinds from the establishment and Washington, DC.

Levi Tillemann lives in Aurora and is a Democratic candidate for the 6th Congressional District in the 2018 election.