Oil drilling technology pioneer Rutt Bridges used his nonpartisan think tank to establish himself as a centrist in Colorado politics, a reputation that led to his candidacy for the United States Senate and governor’s office.
However, according to a former staffer, the "nonpartisan" Bighorn Center for Public Policy was a smokescreen for Bridges's membership in the Colorado Democracy Alliance (CoDA)—a "gang of four" hyper-liberal millionaires and billionaires that swept Democrats into office using shady campaign tactics.
"On paper, the Bighorn Center was supposedly nonpartisan—when it got started in 1999 it had people from both sides of the aisle," said Isaac Smith, who interned for the Center in 2006. "I thought I was going to a nonpartisan think tank; they didn’t wear their extremism on their sleeve—only the lefty groups knew what the deal was."
When Smith entered Bighorn’s headquarters in the Wells Fargo Center, a downtown Denver landmark known as the "Cash Register Building," he took noticed three of the largest offices. At one end of Suite 2000 sat Bridges’ office overlooking the state capital; on the other sat a pair of offices, each with a few chairs, a computer, and little else. One had bare walls, save a painting of a cartoon snake, cockroach, rat, and a few other critters playing cards and talking politics. The other had several duffel bags tucked next to its filing cabinets. Those offices belonged to CoDA founder and Bighorn board member Al Yates and his assistant—a young woman whose business cards were the only evidence of CoDA’s existence.
Neither Bridges nor Yates responded to requests for comment.
Bridges made tens of millions of dollars creating 3-D mapping software that revolutionized oil drilling.
That gave him the means to seek the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and enter the governor’s race in 2005. His short time on the stump earned him a reputation as an "extreme self-financer" for using his personal funds to drive his candidacy. He abandoned both efforts, remarking in August 2005 that he’d "rather work outside the elective political system to make a difference with my life."
By the summer of 2005, however, Bridges had already used his fortune to change Colorado’s political landscape, pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into liberal nonprofit organizations unencumbered by the disclosure laws and strict contribution limits politicians in the state are subject to. In 2004, his money helped Democrats win control of the state legislature for the first time in 30 years.
Bridges attended the national Democracy Alliance’s first meeting in April 2005, four months before pledging to "work outside the elective political system" to enact change.
"The Bighorn Center was Rutt Bridges' baby and on its face, you thought it was a working 501(c)(3) nonprofit," Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler said. "But when you took a few steps back, it was revealed that it was a branch of CoDA."
In 2007, former intern Smith went public with marketing materials that outlined CoDA’s plans to win elections using big money donations from wealthy donors and powerful unions. The biggest splash was a memo on educating "the idiots," which referred to union efforts to win support from minorities.
The decision to go public weighed heavily on Smith, who held the documents for more than a year.
"I don’t have deep pockets, and hearing from friends and family that you don’t want to be on the wrong side of billionaires with a bunch of attorneys did not make me want to go on the record," he said.
Smith joined the center because of its focus on government ethics, transparency, and expanded voter rights. He came to view the office as an embodiment of all that was wrong with politics.
The Bighorn Center had been instrumental in passing groundbreaking anti-telemarketing legislation, which led to the nation’s longest "no-call" list.
However, Smith says he attended several meetings with prominent political players, including top advisers to future Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, about voter registration. He says he learned that CoDA was meeting with various unions and liberal groups, such as the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws Pro Choice and ProgressNow, to trade private voter information collected during petition drives and registration efforts.
The staff at Bighorn liked to discuss its liberal activities through the spectrum of "hats," as employees handled myriad responsibilities under the umbrella of a 501(c)(3) organization, which is required by law to be non-partisan, and the 501(c)(4) advocacy groups, such as ProgressNow, which worked to elect Democrats.
Bridges volunteered Bighorn staffers to carry out tasks for CoDA groups, such as Coalition for a Better Colorado, according to The Blueprint, a book about CoDA’s history.
"Bighorn was starting to wear too many hats; these people were in so many different groups with so many different tax statuses that it struck me as unethical and hypocritical," Smith said. "CoDa, the DA, they keep their fingerprints off the money, so they don’t have to report it, then they publicly talk about ethics in government and transparency. It’s a dog and pony show."
Bridges has withdrawn from political life in recent years. He closed Bighorn in 2006 and later left both CoDA and the Democracy Alliance. He has not made a federal political contribution since 2010, after giving more than $34,000 to Democratic candidates between 2007 and 2010, including $4,600 to Barack Obama.
However, his son Jeff continues to be involved. He served as an aide for Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and his brother Rep. John Salazar. After earning a Masters in Divinity from Harvard University, he became PAC director for the liberal Vote Your Values PAC.