Will voters care if Democratic congressional candidate Jason Crow represented some unsavory characters early in his career as an attorney? It’s a serious vulnerability, says one of his primary opponents, and a veteran Republican strategist who won two statewide races in Colorado thanks to similar attacks on another Democrat agrees.
Crow’s campaign team, however, says his background and experience will only serve to strengthen his bid to unseat Republican Mike Coffman, a five-term incumbent.
According to court records, Crow was on legal teams defending a payday lending firm accused of charging customers exorbitant fees and interest rates, Denver-based telemarketers accused of fraudulently billing customers for magazine subscriptions, a Lakewood business owner who embezzled his employee’s pension funds, and an oil and gas company charged with killing migratory birds in North Dakota.
Crow, an Army Ranger combat veteran with a Bronze Star, is one of three Democrats running to take on Coffman in the suburban 6th Congressional District. The others are author and former Obama administration official Levi Tillemann, and attorney and former school board candidate David Aarestad. It’s considered one of the closest congressional seats in the country and has been among the most competitive races nationwide in the past two cycles.
By most measures — albeit still nearly a year before the primary — Crow is the Democrats’ front-runner, hauling in nearly six times the donations Aarestad posted in the fundraising quarter that ended June 30 (Tillemann didn’t officially enter the race until July) and winning endorsements from some of the state’s top Democrats, including former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and former Gov. Bill Ritter.
In an interview with Colorado Politics and in material distributed by his campaign, Crow said he practices business law, primarily advising small- and medium-sized firms about regulatory compliance.
Crow’s role in the cases has been the subject of online chatter in recent weeks on a site that purports to expose “betrayals of trust among both Democrats and Republicans” — it targets four congressional candidates, two from each party, although Crow’s entry dwarfs the others — and on an unabashedly leftist blog.
Crow was a member of teams of lawyers working on the four cases. The firm’s clients in the first two — payday lending firm Western Sky Financial and associated companies, and magazine subscription solicitors Henry Aragon along with a number of individuals and companies — reached settlements without admitting liability. In the other two cases — energy company Slawson Exploration Company, Inc., and accused embezzler Mark F. Bishop — the defendants pleaded guilty to charges.
“I’m deeply troubled by the fact that a potential Democratic nominee for Congress made his living by helping predatory lenders victimize Native American populations,” Tillemann told Colorado Politics. “The Republicans are going to tell that story again and again and again, and it’s not going to look good.”
Referring to cases involving Western Sky Financial, Tillemann added, “On the one side, you have Jason Crow and a predatory lending company; on the other side, you have Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who happens to be married to the congressman Crow is running against, and she’s linking arms with the Consumer Protection Bureau that Jason Crow is fighting in court.”
Attorney General Coffman announced a year ago that thousands of Colorado consumers would share in roughly $8 million as part of a settlement reached with companies involved in the lending scheme, some of which claimed an affiliation with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
“I am pleased to be returning money to Coloradans who were ripped off by these unscrupulous operators,” she said in a statement. “This is not the way we do business in our state.”
Tillemann said he thinks it’s important for Democrats to know the kind of barrage Crow could face over his work on the cases.
“The politics are just horrible. And we ignore this at our own peril,” he said.
Crow’s campaign manager, Alex Ball, disagrees.
Not only is Crow a decorated combat veteran, she told Colorado Politics, but he’s been recognized as Denver’s Volunteer Lawyer of the Year in 2010 for the hundreds of hours he donated pro bono to helping recovering drug addicts, veterans and other vulnerable members of the community.
“At a time when Congress and Congressman Mike Coffman refuse to serve as a check on Donald Trump, when the rule of law is under assault, and when millions of everyday Americans need a Congress that’s on their side — anyone who thinks Jason Crow’s experience and profile is anything but a strength doesn’t have a clue about Jason or what’s actually going on in the country or here in the 6th Congressional District,” Ball said.
Democrat Tom Strickland, an attorney who lost two U.S. Senate contests against Republican Wayne Allard in 1996 and 2002, faced nearly the same line of attack, and Allard’s campaign manager said the attacks against Crow could stick.
“The clients Tom Strickland represented were a key part of both of those elections,” Dick Wadhams told Colorado Politics. “There were several instances we found during the campaign that detracted from Tom Strickland’s credibility as a candidate. What really undermined his candidacy was the contradictory nature of his clients with his rhetoric as a candidate. That’s just the brutal truth.”
Even though Strickland was a prominent environmentalist — he was on the board of the Environmental Defense Fund and spearheaded the creation of Great Outdoors Colorado earlier in his career — Wadhams pointed out that he came under fire for representing clients including Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, a lumber giant hit with the largest criminal fine in the history of the Clean Air Act for pollution violations at a Colorado plant.
Wadhams noted that it was Strickland’s 1996 primary opponent, former CU law school dean Gene Nichol, who first launched the attacks on Strickland — at the time a partner in the powerful Denver law firm then known as Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland — and branded the candidate with the sticky nickname “lawyer-lobbyist.”
“We continued the drumbeat, but Gene Nichol made it the centerpiece of his campaign against Strickland,” Wadhams recalled. “Our whole strategy revolved around the theme of the veterinarian vs. the lawyer-lobbyist. It was a huge part of our victory.” (Allard, elected three times to represent Colorado’s 4th Congressional District before winning his first term in the Senate, had a veterinary practice in Loveland.)
The attacks were decisive in what turned out to be close races, Wadhams added.
“There’s no doubt in my mind. It became part of the day-to-day give-and-take in the campaign. It was a huge part of our campaign,” he said, recalling that Strickland had started out leading Allard in the home stretch on both campaigns.
Wadhams cautioned that the kind of attacks that brought down Strickland don’t always land but said it’s not easy to predict. He noted that former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and South Dakota Sen. John Thune, two candidates whose successful campaigns he managed, had represented clients — as lobbyists, not lawyers — but didn’t run into problems, even though opponents had tried to make the clients an issue.
“What really makes that a problem for a candidate is when a client exposes some hypocrisy between what a candidate says and what he did. That’s why Strickland got in trouble and why that was such a lethal issue in the campaign for him,” Wadhams said.
As for Crow, Wadhams had some advice: “Whatever your clients were, don’t think your role with any client can remain a secret. It’s going to come out and you’d better have a justification for it,” he said.
“This stuff is going to emerge in this campaign, one way or another, and I bet it becomes a major issue.”