Denver voters on May 7 will decide who takes the reins of an office that’s charged with carrying out major campaign finance reforms and a new public financing system that could transform future city elections.
Three candidates are running in the open race for clerk and recorder. Though the office’s duties may seem a little dry for campaign politics, the rest of city government and nearly all Denver residents depend, at some point, on its wide-ranging functions — including running Denver’s elections, issuing marriage licenses, keeping official city records and playing an important role in home foreclosures.
And it’s been just a dozen years since a Denver election meltdown spurred the elevation of the clerk position to an elected post, similar to most other Colorado counties. Amid calls for greater accountability, voters nixed the longstanding Election Commission.
Debra Johnson, the two-term incumbent, decided against seeking another term.
The trio of candidates who hope to lead the Clerk and Recorder’s Office come from varying backgrounds.
Peg Perl, the first entrant in the race early last year, is a public policy attorney who’s made a career as an ethics guru and campaign finance reform advocate. City Councilman Paul López, who has represented west Denver for the maximum three terms allowed, is seeking a new role in city government. And Sarah O. McCarthy, a longtime government administrator and preservation consultant, ran for clerk in 2011 — losing narrowly to Johnson in a close runoff — and is giving it another shot.
In the shadow of Mayor Michael Hancock’s contested re-election campaign, the tough-to-predict clerk’s race has gotten less attention. López has drawn on longtime union and community support to amass just over $100,000, while Perl has raised nearly $45,000 and McCarthy has collected just under $3,000 in campaign donations.
Mandate for campaign finance reforms
All three said their top priorities would include implementing the campaign finance reforms in Referred Measure 2E, approved by nearly 71 percent of Denver voters in November. Johnson has begun laying the groundwork within the office.
Called the Democracy for the People Initiative by its backers, the measure significantly lowers contribution limits for the 2023 municipal election cycle — including cutting the per-donor limit for mayoral candidates from $3,000 to $1,000 — and bars direct corporate and union donations.
The initiative also aims to amplify the power of small-dollar donations by creating the new Fair Elections Fund, drawing about $2 million a year from the city budget. Candidates who qualify would have the first $50 of each contribution matched 9-to-1 by the fund, inflating that donation to up to $500.
Johnson isn’t endorsing in the race, but she urges voters to evaluate the candidates’ ability to manage the office’s important functions competently. Stephanie O’Malley, her predecessor, has endorsed López.
“This is not a political position,” said Johnson. “You are an administrator and a manager.”
While each candidate brings different ideas, all three say they would build on Johnson’s modernization of the office, which has included digitizing an estimated 13 million records going back 160 years. A lingering shortcoming is a lack of online access to city contracts and many public documents that still require a fee for copies; Johnson says technology upgrades are needed, along with the laborious indexing of all those records.
As for the clerk’s Denver Elections Division, Governing magazine last year called it “a national model of reform for election security.” Elections are running much more smoothly these days — though all three candidates see room for improvements.
What sets the candidates apart?
Perl, 44, wants to make the online campaign-finance reporting system more useful to the public, and she sees an opportunity to combine campaign, disclosure, gift and related lobbying reports in one place for each Denver elected official.
When she was the senior counsel for the now-defunct Colorado Ethics Watch, Perl supported a public financing system similar to that sought by the initiative’s backers. Earlier, she joined Johnson among the groups and officials that pushed for the state’s 2013 Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act, which has resulted in the sending of mail ballots to all active voters before each election and the ability to register to vote through Election Day.
She previously worked in Washington, D.C., as an attorney advising the Federal Election Commission and the U.S. House Ethics Committee.
“This is really an extension of the things I’ve been doing throughout my career,” Perl said about the clerk’s office.
López, 40, says he would use the office to prevent “unnecessary foreclosures,” including by arming residents who face the risk of losing their homes with more information.
He also hopes to use the position — along with his background as a labor and community organizer — to increase voter turnout in the typically working-class and heavily minority neighborhoods where it lags.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in west Denver,” López said, adding that he wants to expand his focus citywide. “I’m running for clerk because at my very core, I’m a community organizer.”
McCarthy, 66, a longtime League of Women Voters volunteer, says that as clerk she would upgrade technology and streamline various services and databases to make them easier to use.
She would draw on experience that includes being a court administrator in Delaware, holding budget and policy positions in Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm’s administration, and nonprofit and private consulting work that has dealt often with local government.
McCarthy lauds Johnson’s leadership of the office since their matchup eight years ago, and she argues her experience would continue that progress.
“I believe it is an important position in the city that necessitates an experienced public administrator,” McCarthy said.