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Hickenlooper frowns at Polis ads attacking Kennedy, says one hits ‘below the belt’

Author: Ernest Luning - June 14, 2018 - Updated: June 14, 2018

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Hickenlooper fireGov. John Hickenlooper addresses reporters at a news conference on Wednesday, June 13, 2018, at the state Capitol in Denver. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

Gov. John Hickenlooper said Wednesday he’s disappointed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis and his supporters are running ads attacking Cary Kennedy, one of Polis’ primary rivals.

The term-limited Democrat, who famously took a shower with his clothes on in a campaign ad decrying negative campaign ads, said he was particularly bothered that Bold Colorado, a super PAC-style independent committee backing Polis, uses Hickenlooper’s own words to blast Kennedy for another ad run by her supporters.

“I will say, seeing my face included in a negative ad after I had pretty clearly stated what I thought about it, I thought that was hitting below the belt,” Hickenlooper told reporters.

“I didn’t think it was fair,” he added. “But life often isn’t fair, as we’ve all learned.”

The Polis campaign has argued that its ad is a rebuttal to Kennedy’s supporters, but a Polis spokeswoman declined to respond to Hickenlooper’s remarks Wednesday.

Rick Palacio, the former chair of the Colorado Democratic Party who heads the committee supporting Polis, didn’t respond to a request for comment from Colorado Politics.

Meanwhile, the Polis and Kennedy campaigns filed formal complaints with the state party last week, each accusing the other of violating the Democrats’ “clean campaign promise,” a document signed last year by the party’s gubernatorial candidates. Morgan Carroll, Palacio’s successor as party chair, this week declined to wade into the fracas, saying it’s up to the voters to sort it out.

Colorado voters began receiving primary ballots in the mail last week and have until June 26 to return them to county clerks. As of Tuesday, 134,038 ballots had been received by election officials, according to Secretary of State Wayne Williams’ office.

Former state Sen. Mike Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne are also running in the Democratic primary for governor. Four Republicans are running for their party’s nomination.

The battle over the Democrats’ attack ads began two weeks ago, when the independent group Teachers for Kennedy launched an ad blistering Polis and Johnston for their positions on education.

Polis, a five-term congressman, and Johnston maintained the ad mischaracterized their records and swung back at Kennedy, a former state treasurer.

Invoking the clean campaign pledge — candidates agreed to encourage supporters to refrain from attacking fellow Democrats — Polis and Johnston demanded that Kennedy denounce the outside group’s ad and urge them to pull it from the air. She refused, insisting the law prohibits her from telling the independent committee anything.

Committees like Bold Colorado and Teachers for Kennedy can raise unlimited contributions but are forbidden from coordinating with the candidates they support. Legal experts don’t agree about exactly what that means.

The next day, Hickenlooper told reporters he was “really disappointed” the primary had taken a negative turn and wondered aloud if Kennedy had damaged her chances of winning.

Polis hit back with an ad of his own featuring teachers praising his education record and saying they’re “very disappointed by Cary Kennedy’s false attacks against (Polis),” all while a graphic quoting Hickenlooper’s disapproval floats on screen.

The Polis ad concludes: “Cary said she would run a clean campaign. She broke her word. What else will she break?”

Palacio’s group hit Kennedy a couple of days later with an ad that accuses Kennedy of “breaking her pledge” and says Hickenlooper “denounced Kennedy for turning the campaign into a mudfest” over photos of Hickenlooper as the word “mudfest” splatters across the screen. A stern voice concludes: “Cary Kennedy. A shameful negative campaign,  broken pledge, a typical politician.”

At a Capitol news conference Wednesday, Hickenlooper said he was frustrated by the negative ads and wasn’t pleased to find himself featured in one.

“We almost got through a positive (primary for governor), and I think that would have said a lot about Colorado,” he said.

“I expressed my disappointment when the independent expenditure group came up with the kind of attack ad against Mike Johnston and Jared Polis, and I’ve expressed to Jared Polis my disappointment that, A., I don’t think that counterattack is beneficial. I don’t think it helps him. I don’t think it helps his campaign. There’s an independent expenditure group that’s doing that, but part of that’s his own money as well, that he’s doing directly.”

Hickenlooper explained why he dislikes negative political ads, using an analogy the former restaurateur has invoked over the years.

“Negative ads change people’s opinions, right? But in most of the world, in businesses, you never see businesses use attack ads. Ford and Chevy, they’ve got a hundred years of competition. If Ford attacks Chevy … you depress sales in the entire product category. What we’re doing with these attack ads is depressing the entire product category of democracy.”

(Skeptics on social media pointed out that, contrary to Hickenlooper’s assertion, plenty of companies have built marketing campaigns and entire brand identities on attacks against competitors, including 7-Up — “the uncola” — cell phone services that routinely savage the competition, and Apple computers, which launched the Macintosh by suggesting IBM PCs were more suited to inhabitants of an authoritarian dystopia.)

While the Polis campaign and Palacio didn’t comment on Hickenlooper’s fresh scolding, Kennedy’s deputy campaign manager was happy to suggest Polis heed his own words.

“Congressman Polis pledged to take responsibility for things being said in his name,” Serena Woods told Colorado Politics.

She cited something Polis told moderators Kyle Clark and Brandon Rittiman during a recent 9News debate: “We are responsible, and if things are being said in our name, we can tell our donors, or we can say publicly, Kyle and Brandon, that we don’t want people doing that sort of thing.”

“He should take his own advice and take down the personal and false attack that he is running, and then maybe Bold Colorado will follow his lead,” Woods said.

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. Since 2009, he has been the senior political reporter and occasional editor for The Colorado Statesman.