Denver Democratic Party chairman claims election mailer implies party endorsement in school board race

The disagreement is the latest escalation in what has become a tension-filled final stretch in the school board race.

Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a recent press conference at Holm Elementary. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a recent press conference at Holm Elementary. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)
Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien speaks at a recent press conference at Holm Elementary. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

By Eric GorskiChalkbeat

The chairman of the Democratic Party of Denver on Tuesday called out as false a political mailer he said implied the party had endorsed candidates in the Denver school board election.

The registered agent for the group that produced the piece, however, responded that was not the intent of a mailer that highlighted prominent Denver Democrats’ endorsements of board vice president Barbara O’Brien, a former Democratic lieutenant governor.

The disagreement is the latest escalation in what has become a tension-filled final stretch in the school board race, which features contests for four of the board’s seven seats. Ballots were mailed to voters more than two weeks ago, and voting ends Tuesday on Election Day.

At issue is a mailer produced by Raising Colorado, an independent expenditure committee that has spent more than $345,000 to try to preserve the 7-0 majority that backs the current direction of Denver Public Schools. The committee is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that in Colorado has advocated for increased funding for charter schools and for a DPS policy to close persistently low-performing schools of all types.

O’Brien sits on the national advisory board of Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER.

Here is the front and back of the mailer:

Mike Cerbo, chairman of the Democratic Party of Denver, sent out a news release Tuesday with the following statement:

Dear Denver Democrats,
It has come to my attention that a mail piece is being circulated claiming that a candidate for the Denver School Board, Barbara O’Brien, is the choice of Denver Democrats. The implication that the Democratic Party has endorsed in this race is untrue. The Democratic Party of Denver does not endorse in local school board races and has made no endorsement in this one.

Cerbo also sent an email, obtained by Chalkbeat, to party members saying the party was calling on Raising Colorado “to retract any reference or implication that the Denver Democrats have made a choice in the Denver School Board race.” He provided the phone number and email of Jen Walmer, Raising Colorado’s registered agent and the Colorado state director of DFER.

In an interview Thursday, Cerbo said his statement came in response to calls from party members about the mailer’s message.

“The implication was the Denver Democratic Party made a choice,” said Cerbo, a former state lawmaker and past president of the state’s AFL-CIO labor union. “There were a few different ways to phrase it if they were talking about a specific group of Denver Democrats.”

Walmer told Chalkbeat she responded to the concerns immediately when they were first aired on Facebook, explaining that as former Arapahoe County Democratic Party chair she understands party rules and bylaws about endorsements and never intended to imply one. She also apologized to Cerbo “for any problems this has caused for you in your role.”

After Cerbo shared her contact information with party members, Walmer said she received 45 phone calls and 16 or 17 emails, and also was the target of attacks via comments on Facebook.

“As a former county chair, I know the rules of parties,” said Walmer, who is also a former DPS chief of staff. “I never insinuated that they endorsed. I know they cannot. I am surprised I got such hateful and threatening comments based on a piece that is merely highlighting that six incredible Democratic leaders have endorsed Barbara O’Brien, but the party has been absolutely silent on attacks likening (candidates running for Denver school board) to Donald Trump.”

Asked about those attempts to tie board candidates to Trump and the party’s stance on them, Cerbo said he has not looked closely into it.

“Just to be clear,” he added, “I am not condoning mailers with inaccurate information if that’s the case. I wish we could have thoughtful debate on every issue of the campaign.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.