Election 2018News

Democratic congressional candidate pays himself salary from campaign fund

Author: Ernest Luning - February 7, 2018 - Updated: February 9, 2018

Former Boulder Democratic Party Chairman Mark Williams, a candiate for Congress in Colorado’s 2nd District (Courtesy photo via Facebook)

Democratic congressional candidate Mark Williams paid himself a salary out of his campaign funds for two months last year — but after Colorado Politics pointed to a federal election rule that limits the practice, Williams said he’ll return the money to his campaign account and delay putting himself back on the payroll until next month.

Mark Williams, a former chair of the Boulder County Democratic Party and one of three Democrats running in Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, paid himself $2,295 on Nov. 3 and $2,500 on Dec. 18 out of campaign funds, according to his campaign finance report for the final quarter of 2017. His campaign also cut checks to the IRS for $881 in payroll taxes. Altogether, that’s almost 42 percent of the $13,648 Williams reported spending during the period.

Williams said he decided to pay himself a salary because he’s “running as a citizen candidate” and wants to demonstrate that anyone can run for Congress, not just independently wealthy or otherwise well-heeled candidates.

“I don’t have a law firm or a consulting company that’s willing to put me on retainer to do nothing but campaign,” Williams told Colorado Politics. “I’m digging into my savings. I wanted to let folks know that what they contribute helps me stay independent and helps a citizen candidate run.”

Williams added that he’s trying to highlight the difference between himself and primary rival Joe Neguse, a former University of Colorado Regent from the 2nd District who has been working as an attorney at the Denver office of an international law firm since stepping down last summer as head of Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies.

“We want to send a message this is what a citizen candidate can do — run for Congress,” Williams said. “From a skin-in-the-game perspective, I can’t live on that kind of money, so I’m having to draw on my savings to stay in the game.”

A spokesman for the Neguse campaign declined to comment.

Democrat Kristopher Larsen, Nederland’s mayor and a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado, is also running for the seat, which has been represented for five terms by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democratic candidate for governor. (One of the wealthiest members of Congress, Polis spent $6 million of is own money to win his seat in Congress and has so far spent at least $1.4 million on his gubernatorial run.) Williams is the only candidate in the congressional race who has drawn a paycheck from campaign coffers, according to campaign finance reports.

The Federal Election Commission allows candidates to pay themselves salaries under a decision that dates back to a 2002, when commissioners made arguments similar to what Williams is saying.

But the FEC sets guidelines on the practice, including prohibiting a salary that’s more than the candidate made before running for office or more than what a member of Congress makes — $174,000 annually or $14,500 a month.

The rules also don’t allow a candidate to start getting paid until after the deadline for primary candidates to file for the ballot. According to the Colorado secretary of state’s office, that’s March 20 in Williams’ case, since he’s petitioning onto the primary ballot and that’s the deadline to turn in petitions.

Asked about that restriction by Colorado Politics, Williams said his campaign staff hadn’t been aware of it. After reviewing the rule, he said he plans to “pay it all back” and wait until the deadline to start cutting himself a salary.

“And (hopefully) this exposure helps other ‘citizen candidates’ who, like me, aren’t wealthy but are willing to put skin in the game to make a change in the face of tough odds,” Williams wrote in an email.

Democrat Peg Perl, a policy consultant and candidate for Denver clerk and recorder, told Colorado Politics she worked at the FEC as a staff attorney during the time the rule was adopted.

“There’s nothing illegal about it or wrong, but I think it reminds us why it’s important to have that information out there for voters to access and donors to access,” she said. “If I’ve donated to a candidate and see they’ve done something I don’t agree with, I might give them a phone call. But as long as you’re following the rules, I do think it’s very important we don’t have only an independently wealthy class that can afford to run for office.”

After starting the last quarter with $6,389 on hand, Williams raised $18,170 and spent $14,679, leaving $9,879 in the bank.

Neguse raised $404,794 last year and had $278,218 at the end of the year. Larsen raised $12,957 and had $10,494 in the bank, including $740 he loaned his campaign. None of the other candidates running for the seat — including two Democrats and a Libertarian who have dropped out, and a Republican and an unaffiliated candidate — reported campaign funds on hand at the end of the year.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.