With former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff emerging as a potential surprise winner in the state's Senate Democratic primary, political opponents are increasing scrutiny of the ethical pledges that have defined his campaign.
With five days until the vote, the Colorado Democrat has stood by his promise to not accept money from political action committees (PACs) and to avoid special interests in his run for office. But an admission from his campaign manager that, should he be elected, he would take funds from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee -- itself funded heavily by PAC donations -- spurred a tough Denver Post editorial on Thursday morning. (Romanoff has since stressed he will only take DSCC money that hasn't been raised through PACs).
Later in the day, the accusation of hypocrisy was made even sharper when a powerful Colorado oil executive with longstanding ties to Romanoff's primary opponent -- Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) -- claimed that Romanoff called him earlier in the year to solicit campaign donations.
Tim Marquez, a major philanthropist, Democratic donor and CEO of Venoco Inc. said that months ago he received a call from Romanoff requesting a meeting -- a call that he interpreted as a fundraising plea.
"I declined to take the meeting and I'm glad I did. It's upsetting when he continues to bash oil companies and yet he wanted our support," Marquez told the Huffington Post. "It's hypocrisy."
"I was talking to someone and told them I was really pissed off that he keeps bashing oil companies and still came to me for support in his campaign," Marquez said, when asked why he was coming forward only now. "It was upsetting."
A supporter of Bennet, Marquez hardly qualifies as an objective source. The oil company CEO and his wife have both donated the maximum amount to Bennet's campaign (the senator, indeed, is a major recipient of oil industry donations). He himself worked closely with Bennet on education issues when the senator was serving as superintendent of the Denver public school system.
That said, his claim to having received a request for a meeting from Romanoff was confirmed by Romanoff himself. The former House Speaker called HuffPost to argue forcefully that there was nothing untoward with him reaching out to the oil executive. "I've called thousands of people," Romanoff explained. "Marquez is a very well known philanthropist in Denver."
Romanoff insisted that airing this episode at this juncture is "part of a fishing expedition from the opposition." And, indeed, it was a Democratic source opposing Romanoff's campaign who suggested that the Huffington Post call Marquez.
The broader question -- as the Denver Post editorial offers -- is whether Romanoff's posture as the candidate of ethics is shallower than he has publicly let on. Romanoff has been blistering in his criticism of the oil industry "special interests." In late July, moreover, MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked him point-blank whether he was circumventing his self-imposed rule of no PAC money by soliciting donations from the CEOs and executives of companies themselves.
"Do you take it the other way? Where you go around and don the executives of the companies and they get paid back later so they don't go through the PAC money? You don't do that either?" Matthews asked.
"No," Romanoff replied. "I will tell you 95 percent of our donors live in Colorado..."
"I'm the only candidate in the race, one of the very few in America, Chris, who doesn't take a dime in special interest money," he said earlier.
Romanoff described to HuffPost the difficulties he had in determining which donations would qualify as acceptable and non-acceptable. Early on, he and his aides made the decision not to accept PAC money, he said (though he had accepted these donations in past campaigns). But to restrict employees of companies who have interests before the government from donating to his candidacy would have resulted in his campaign being "funded by the unemployed, I guess, or the retired."
Context, Romanoff stressed, was important. Not only was Marquez a Bennet donor. The Denver Post has endorsed the senator as well. Moreover, while he may have called an oil executive many months ago -- a call that resulted in no meeting and no donations -- his opponent was the one who actually accepted more than $71,000 in oil industry contributions (including $31,745 from oil industry PACs), according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"I made a decision to turn down contributions from special interest groups," he added. "And the result, of course, is we have gotten a lot of support form individuals and therefore a lot of the other campaigns are trying to figure out how to criticize this position so that they don't have to answer the tough questions of your own."
This post has been slightly updated from its original version