A former state college president used his job to springboard to the heights of political prominence in Colorado.
Al Yates steered the Democratic takeover of the once reliably conservative state through the Colorado Democracy Alliance (CoDA), a secretive organization bankrolled by a handful of lefty millionaires and billionaires.
“The people who were funding this could be seen as the Allies in World War II; Al Yates was their Eisenhower,” said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a Colorado conservative think tank.
In 2004, Yates and his band of wealthy liberal Coloradans—later dubbed the “Gang of Four”—formulated their audacious plan to recapture both chambers of the state legislature for the first time in 30 years. Under Yates’ direction, the group poured record amounts of money into every local race, and despite President George W. Bush’s victory over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Democrats trounced Republicans at the local level.
“For the first time, independent expenditures poured in, hundreds of thousands of dollars in each district,” said former Colorado GOP chairman Dick Wadhams. “No one saw it coming.”
Jessica Peck was one of the candidates overwhelmed by the onslaught of Democratic money. Peck, then 25, was running a tight race with two-term incumbent state Sen. Sue Windels (D., Arvada) after a successful career as a Washington, D.C., aide to U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R., Maine).
“I actually had a fundraising lead when the legislature finished up in May,” she said. “But then all of the independent money, the union money started coming in. I ended up outspent five to one.”
Peck soon found herself outgunned in the district, despite an advantage in grassroots volunteers.
“We knocked on thousands of doors, but the Democrats and CoDA were able to consistently send out mailers—it was unprecedented,” she said.
The heightened presence of attack ads and campaign materials helped Windels secure a three-point victory over Peck, the tightest race of the cycle.
In 2002, Colorado amended its state constitution to include some of the strictest campaign finance laws in the country. Candidates and state parties were limited to spending $65,000 per state house race and limited individual contributions to $200 per candidate. The aim at the time was to curb the influence of money on politics.
Yates was quick to realize the weaknesses inherent in the system. While prevented from campaigning directly for ideological allies, he helped to create campaign organizations outside of the Democratic Party to battle the rising tide of conservatism.
“They outsourced the operations of a political machine away from the Democratic Party and away from any candidate, and they built the activities so they would outlast any single campaign,” Caldara said.
CoDA helped create an opposition research operation to dig up dirt on GOP candidates, a think tank to develop policy, independent voter registration services and Ethics Watch, a group designed to “harass Republicans with litigation,” according to Caldara.
The sophisticated committee brought together the various wings of the Democratic Party under one organization to increase voter turnout and campaign spending on every statehouse race.
“They defined what issues would be at the forefront of a campaign,” Peck said. “They stopped the fighting with their pocketbooks: there were no fights between the unions or the environmentalists or the gay groups.”
The pocketbooks included some of the wealthiest people in the state, including embattled solar executive Pat Stryker, Rep. Jared Polis, and foundation giant Tim Gill.
Yates, while not worth the billions represented in the Gang of Four, had accumulated a great deal of wealth during his 13-year tenure as president of Colorado State University. When he retired in 2003, he earned a yearly compensation package valued at $373,668—including $40,000 for housing and $10,000 for a car—more than double his $130,000 pay package in 1990.
Yates ascended to his cozy administrative job by being one of the most ruthless job cutters at three separate universities through the 1980s, a role that earned him the nickname “the Hatchet Man.” He described the job cuts as a “good time.”
His political ties translated into a major payday for Colorado State. Gang of Four member Pat Stryker donated more than $20 million to the university in 2003 through the Bohemian Foundation. It also contributed a $1.5 million grant to create a permanent teaching position: the Albert C. Yates Endowed Chair in Mathematics.
The money will ensure that Yates’ stamp on the university continues, just as CoDA’s influence continues today.
“You cannot become a Democratic candidate without CoDA’s blessing,” Wadhams said. “The Democratic Party is entirely dependent on it to survive. Their operations would be fairly impotent if it wasn’t for the existence of the Alliance.”
CoDA has expanded its election victories since 2004, helping sweep Democrats into statewide and federal offices.
“The machinery was able to protect its gains: in 2010, while the rest of the nation was being swept up by the Tea Party movement, Colorado elected a Democratic governor [John Hickenlooper] and a U.S. senator [Michael Bennet], who was appointed and had never sought major office before,” Caldara said.