Rick Brainard’s election to the Grand Junction City Council and subsequent arrest for assault and harassment have appalled and galvanized City residents, but it’s also raised awareness of a sea change happening in Grand Junction politics right now that would otherwise have gone little-noticed. City Councilman Tom Kenyon alluded to it when he told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel the day after the election that “This election was very different” from others. “It was very organized,” Kenyon said, “It felt like they were out to get you. They raised a lot of money.”
Kenyon was right. This election was very different from previous local elections. That’s because, thanks to the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, a new group has appeared in town that has vowed to take a “proactive role” in setting local public policy. Translation? That group has vowed to take control of the City of Grand Junction. That group is the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce’s newly-created 501(c)4 political arm, the Western Colorado Business Alliance (WCBA), which exerted its muscle in the last election to seize control of Grand Junction’s City Council.
Getting Around IRS Rules
The Chamber, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization under director Diane Schwenke, decided that it wanted to expand away from its role of helping with economic development to actually calling the shots locally by taking charge of City politics. The problem was the Chamber’s IRS status kept it from being too political. To overcome this obstacle, in 2012 the Chamber formed WCBA to get around the IRS rules that prohibit 501(c)3 groups from exerting undue influence on elections. 501(c)4 groups like WCBA are legally allowed to pour unlimited amounts of money into influencing elections, and can do so without disclosing their donors — a secretive strategy now heavily used nationally by corporate-backed front groups and big corporations. This is possible now thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which opened the floodgates to corporations donating unlimited amounts of money to influence elections across the U.S., from the local level all the way up to the federal level. The Court’s ruling in Citizens United effectively says that money is speech, and the amount of money corporations spend on influencing elections cannot be limited. The problem local citizens now face is that the companies or individuals pouring money into our local elections don’t want anyone to know who they are, and by using WCBA, the Chamber can legallly keep them secret — and is.
The Chamber’s game plan is to hand-pick people like Brainard, who they believe are favorable to business, place them on local boards and commissions, and then promote them to policymaking positions by running them for local office. WCBA then takes the ball by financing the candidates’ campaigns with large donations from secret donors. The donors can be from inside the City, outside the City, outside the state, or even out of the country. Grand Junction citizens will no longer know who is influencing local elections, thanks to the Chamber’s secretive new arrangement with WCBA.
And the Chamber’s plan is working. Three out of the four candidates the Chamber ran in the last election won seats on the G.J. City Council. Brainard was one of them. He served on the Chamber’s board. Phyllis Norris is a past chair of the Chamber’s Board of Directors. Marty Chazen was also a Chamber-endorsed candidate, and Councilman Sam Susuras, who was not up for election but who has steadfastly backed Brainard through all his sordid misdeeds, is married to Lois Dunn, a real estate agent who sits on the Chamber’s board. Dunn is also a past chairwoman of the Mesa County Republican Party and belongs to a pro-oil shale development group that believes regulations protecting public health and safety are some of “the biggest dangers we face.” With its new influence over Council, WCBA will now work to “streamline regulatory processes” and “remove barriers to growth in the region.” That’s business-speak for removing consumer protections, getting rid of local rules and ordinances that do things like protect air quality and keep drilling rigs out of people’s backyards, and get rid of rules that assure sensible, orderly growth and other policies that protect public health, safety and the public interest.
The problem Brainard faces (other than the complete ruin of his reputation) is that the Chamber can’t keep its grasp on power here in town if he steps down before his swearing in. If Brainard had relinquished his seat on Council immediately after his arrest, as most rational people would probably have done, the press and media would have stayed out of his private affairs and moved on to the next big story. He probably would have been able to stay on all his prestigious boards, preserved the security of his cushy executive job at West Star Aviation, and, with his lawyer’s help, maybe even have gotten through his tawdry criminal arrest saga relatively unscathed. But, aside from being his own worse enemy by not being able to keep his own mouth shut, Brainard has been loyal to the Chamber to his own detriment. His reputation is shattered, not only in Grand Junction, but nationally. The press and media are now on top of every move he makes. The public is waiting to pounce on any mistake he makes. His disgraceful behavior, inadequate responses and weak PR moves (like his non-apology on TV and his inappropriate donation of his remaining campaign funds to the Latimer House) will be enshrined forever on the Internet and available worldwide just for the Googling, as will all the other information surrounding this disgraceful episode in Grand Junction history, which has his name all over it. If Brainard ever has to apply for a position somewhere else, he’s sunk.
Lessons Learned from the Brainard Mistake
With the election of Brainard and the other Chamber-backed candidates, G.J. citizens are now feeling the negative effects of the Citizens United ruling right here in their own backyard. The Chamber simply did not offer up candidates who are good for our City. In Brainard, Grand Junction citizens unwittingly elected an egomaniac with anger and control issues who now has a criminal charge against him, a situation that is embarrassing our City nationally and that will provide Council with months of distraction from City business. It will also end up costing taxpayers $45,000-$50,000 to get rid of Brainard, as well as thousands of hours of effort to organize his inevitable recall. The Chamber made an expensive, horrific mistake that will cost this town for a long time.
But all is not lost, because the citizens of Grand Junction have learned some important lessons through the Brainard episode that might just make this a better informed and more progressive town. Here are a few: Lesson #1: The Chamber of Commerce is the wrong entity to trust with picking candidates for Council. If the Chamber backs a candidate, vote for any of the ones they DO NOT endorse. Lesson #2: The candidates with the biggest signs and the most money behind them are probably not the ones who deserve to get elected or who will act in the best interests of citizens. Lesson #3: Know your candidates well and find out exactly where their money comes from, or don’t vote.
In the short term, the only way area citizens can wrench power back from the Chamber now is to un-elect Brainard AND Susuras (to end the Chamber’s majority on Council and reduce the Chamber’s influence over public policy locally) and from now on vote only for non-Chamber-backed candidates who refuse to take secret money from WCBA or any other funding source that refuses to disclose its donors.