Pat Stryker: Colorado Crony

Pat Stryker /
October 16, 2012

Patricia "Pat" Stryker, a kingmaker in Colorado politics, helped steer thousands of dollars to a congressional candidate who later lobbied for a $400 million loan guarantee for Stryker’s now-bankrupt solar company.

Stryker is a founding member of the Colorado Democracy Alliance (CoDA), a collection of wealthy liberals who led a Democratic takeover of the state by working around Colorado’s strict campaign finance laws. The group pours millions into liberal nonprofit groups that attack and overwhelm Republican candidates with money and negative advertising.

"They have a web of operations that is highly efficient, aimed at getting free negative publicity launched against any Republican official or organization," said former Rep. Scott McInnis (R., Colo.).

One of CoDA’s beneficiaries was Rep. Betsy Markey (D., Colo.), a successful software executive and political neophyte when she defeated three-term incumbent Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave in 2008. Upon taking office, Markey helped secure a $400 million loan guarantee for Abound Solar, a green energy firm in which Stryker was a principal investor.

Abound failed in 2012, costing taxpayers an estimated $70 million. It never created the 2,000 jobs it promised for workers in Colorado and Tipton, Indiana, a rust belt community that had an 11.3 percent unemployment rate when the loan guarantee was announced.

"They never came to the community," Tipton Mayor Don Havens said. "The plant was never built, so the impact was negligible—other than dashed hopes."

Congress is now investigating whether politics played a role in the loan, but it is clear that Stryker and CoDA played a large role in Markey’s election.

In addition to $9,400 in direct contributions to Markey, Stryker funded attack ads accusing Musgrave of the kind of cronyism that allegedly helped launch Abound. She contributed $175,000 to the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund (DWAF) during the 2008 cycle. The fund is a 527 group able to take in unlimited mounts of cash. They used such donations to cut several negative ads against Musgrave.

"Musgrave took over $183,000 from Big Oil and gave them billions in tax breaks," one ad said.

While Stryker is most active at the state level, she contributes a good deal of money to Democrats in Washington, D.C., especially those with influence on energy policy: In 2007, she contributed $1,300 to then-Colorado Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar, Obama’s current Secretary of the Interior. She has also donated $7,100 to Salazar’s brother, Rep. John Salazar (D., Colo.); $9,600 to Chief Deputy Democratic Whip Diana DeGette (D., Colo.), who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee; and $2,300 to Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) of the U.S. Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Several of Stryker’s Colorado allies have introduced legislation to increase the profitability of solar energy. In 2008, Stryker gave $2,300 to CoDA’s Rep. Jared Polis (D., Colo.), who went on to introduce the Solar Edge Act to increase government subsidies; $4,800 to Sen. Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), who later cosponsored the Solar Manufacturing Jobs Creation Act; and $5,000 to Sen. Mark Udall (D., Colo.), who sits on the energy committee with Franken and has championed renewable electricity standards to require power companies to use more "green" sources.

Markey no longer serves in Congress. After losing reelection in 2010, President Obama appointed her to a top position at the Department of Homeland Security. Neither she nor Stryker returned requests for comment.

The DWAF ad demonstrated another technique that CoDA helped to pioneer.

"A citizens watchdog group named Musgrave one of the most corrupt members of congress," a voiceover concludes, citing a report from Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington, a liberal research organization that received millions from Democracy Alliance members, including nearly $1.2 million from Stryker’s Bohemian Foundation between 2005 and 2011.

CoDA helps finance a number of political operations including think tanks, liberal media outlets, and voter registration groups. In Musgrave’s case, liberals wrote a report on her "corruption," cycled it through the media using liberal blogs such as the Colorado Independent, and used it in campaign commercials as if it were from a neutral source.

"They have all sorts of different groups that cover messaging, research, reporting, litigation, [and] voter outreach … the operations of a political machine," said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Colorado.

CoDA owes its existence to a 2002 amendment to the state constitution that placed strict individual $400 campaign limits on candidates seeking state office and state political parties. CoDA founder and former Colorado State University President Al Yates soon realized that several motivated millionaires could wield great influence by steering their wealth to outside nonprofit groups that could spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigning. He recruited state unions, along with Stryker, a close friend, Polis, and gay rights activists Tim Gill to finance his vision.

"If you write a check to a [statehouse] candidate, you can give $400 total, and if you wanted to put that money into every competitive race in a given year, you’d end up giving about $6,000; Gill, Stryker, they can drop a few million into a few nonprofits targeting those races very easily," Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler told the Free Beacon. "Candidates and state parties, the ones who are supposed to be the standard bearers, are on the sidelines."

Gessler, who enforces campaign finance laws in the state, said CoDA is not doing anything illegal, though he disagrees with the loopholes they are exploiting.

"Candidates should be judged on the views they propose, negative ads they put their names on—rather than the electorate judging the race based on what a 527 says," he said. "Democracy does better when everyone has an equal playing field to engage in robust speech."

Stryker has publicly lobbied for more stringent campaign finance reform at the federal level despite CoDA’s successful injection of millions into elections. In May 2009, she signed a letter to Congress expressing support for the Fair Elections Now Act to provide more public funding for candidates who focus on small donations and crack down on self-financed campaigns not unlike that of Polis. Enhancing campaign finance laws for candidates could drive even more money to political non-profits.

"Campaign money is water flowing downhill, you can’t stop it, you can just try to redirect it," conservative elections expert Jay Cost said.

"It’s the height of hypocrisy," said former state GOP chair Dick Wadhams. "The same people who clamor for restrictive so-called campaign finance reform laws are the same people who now go around those laws to raise unrestricted, unregulated, and undisclosed amounts of money to impact the political process."

Stryker has the resources. She catapulted into the Forbes 400 after inheriting billions from her medical devices tycoon grandfather Homer Stryker. Despite dropping out of University of Northern Colorado as a student, Colorado State University presented her with an honorary doctorate in 2011, citing charitable giving, which included more than $30 million in contributions to CSU.

The heiress owns a 5.3 percent share of Stryker Corp., which has come under scrutiny by the federal government for malfeasance and fraud in recent years. In September 2006 the company paid $345,000 in Medicare penalties for bribing doctors to prescribe its products. In January 2012 the company was fined $15 million for illegally selling a bone growth mixture that had never undergone clinical trials.  In October, the federal Food & Drug Administration warned consumers not to use Stryker’s surgical waste removal device, citing safety concerns.

Stryker Corp. is also at odds with Obamacare. In 2011, it laid off 1,000 workers to make room for the law’s 2.3 percent tax on medical devices. That has not stopped Stryker or her family from supporting the president, however. Her brother Jon has contributed $2 million to Obama’s Super PAC, Priorities USA. Pat, who has visited the White House three times, donated $50,000 to Obama’s inauguration fund and $9,600 to the campaign.

Stryker has given national Democrats more than $523,000 since 2007, but her chief interests remain in Colorado, where she has given $3 million to political organizations over that time. Stryker trails only Polis and Gill for the title of Colorado’s largest political donor.