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INSIGHTS | ‘Y’all Come’ isn’t on the playlist of Colorado’s candidates for governor

Author: Joey Bunch - August 13, 2018 - Updated: August 24, 2018

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Alabama Gov. James “Big Jim” Folsom (Auburn University, public domain)

For 50 weeks a year, a chunk of property in the middle of what passes for a town in rural Alabama sat vacant of everything but insects, snakes and a weather-stained block of concrete the size of a flatbed trailer.

For two weeks each summer, before and after the Fourth of July, the weeds were cut for hay and the fair came to town, big stuff for a community of about 800 people. Perhaps 800 times I heard the story about the time the governor showed up unannounced.

“Big Jim got up on that block and sang a song,” people said anytime the town’s enduring block of concrete was mentioned.  The Strawberry Pickers, Gov. Big Jim Folsom‘s hillbilly band, played banjo and fiddle  as Big Jim sang the Bill Monroe song “Y’all Come.”

Then he passed around a mop bucket for people to drop in donations to help Big Jim clean up Montgomery.

Big Jim drank too much. Big Jim chased women, and Big Jim never denied any of it.  In his first term Big Jim fought segregation, the poll tax and to put women on juries. He was the little guy’s big friend, he would say, and he meant rich or poor, black or white, man or woman.

He lost in 1962 as George Wallace threw gasoline on the embers Brown v. Board of Education, a turning point for the state that even Wallace would live to repent.

Big Jim was bigger than his politics or his 6-foot-8-inch frame, because he rode dirt roads to nowhere towns and sang those folks a song. In my hometown, people are still talking about it today.

There are no Big Jims in Colorado this year. These days, with the exception of Donald Trump, retail politicking looks like Amazon: You get everything you need off the Internet.

Our wealthy candidates for governor aren’t passing mop buckets. They’re writing checks to themselves. The only song and dance they’ll do is for invited guests and donors, and good luck finding out about when and where.

The public at large got no benefit from the first meeting between Colorado Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis and Republican nominee Walker Stapleton on Aug. 1. Not unless you know a Democratic Party tracker. That’s how the press found out about it, after the fact.

Other than a cherrypicked snippet of politically spun video about public lands, the rest of the public has no idea what Polis and Stapleton said. (Stapleton says in the video that locals should have more say in how federal lands are handled.)

The meeting was put on by the Colorado Metro Mayors Caucus. Caucus director Catherine Marinelli explained the lack of public involvement as a big miscommunication between the campaigns and the mayors about who would alert the press.

That makes this much clear to me: If either campaign were confident in its candidate, it would have been doing backflips to get the TV cameras there.

I’ve asked both campaigns repeatedly to send me their schedule of public events, so I can let the public know where to get a look at these guys and perhaps ask a question or sing a song.

Earlier in the same week, when the two candidates announced separately which debates they would consider, Polis left off Club 20’s traditional event in Grand Junction. The decision roared off the press release page. For decades, Club 20’s post-Labor Day debate has kicked off the final leg to Election Day with debates.

The Western Slope coalition of civic and business leaders was astonished and offended. Republicans swooped in. Conservative operative Kelly Maher of Compass Colorado accused Polis of running for governor of Denver and Boulder, a catchy line that’s liable to stick.

Polis’ campaign — though not the candidate himself — said they simply chose to do a different proposed debate in Grand Junction led by the local paper, the Daily Sentinel, no disrespect to Club 20 intended.

Stapleton, a cousin to country singer Chris Stapleton, doesn’t need to sing, “Y’all Come.” He’ll come to them. Polis will go some other time.

Stapleton, however, has had worrisome gaffes in front of the media this election. He quipped that teachers protesting their pay, retirement and classroom funding might throw a Molotov cocktail at him. He joked he was probably asleep the night the legislature passed a massive pension-reform bill (even though he counts pension reform as one of his main qualifications for governor). The list goes on, so much so that Democrats are calling him Walker Stumbleton.

When the New York Times teed up a piece about Stapleton’s great-grandfather being not only Denver’s longest-serving mayor but also a klansman, Stapleton didn’t bother to return the reporter’s call, even though his subsequent response to me after the fact was perfectly reasonable. I’ve been asking to talk to him about that since the spring, about the same time I started asking to discuss his 1999 drunken driving arrest in California, to which he pleaded guilty. No dice.

Both campaigns put up defenses about whether their candidates were ducking the press, and they both pointed to the other side as being worse.

As they both pointed fingers as to who’s more visible, I asked each campaign for a list of public appearances (where the press was allegedly invited) between the June 26 primary and that day, Aug. 3, five and a half weeks. Each list had 16 entries.

Seven of Stapleton’s happened on the same day, a unity tour with stops to meet fellow Republicans along the Front Range two days after the primary. He later made three appearances in one day with U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. Most of the others I never heard about in advance, except for a meeting with farmers and ranchers that was closed, except for a press conference. We have no idea what the farmers asked Stapleton, and no idea how he answered.

Never mind that four legislators were inside the closed-door meeting, as my colleague Marianne Goodland noted at the time. That left Team Stapleton trying to navigate the finer points of the state Sunshine Law on open meetings, something I’ve never heard of being entangled in a campaign photo opportunity.

Polis’ list of 16 included four town hall meetings as a member of Congress, and the non-publicized Metro Mayors Caucus. I could find media advisories, which are standard fare in our line of work, for only three.

His campaign explained that sometimes they put notices on Facebook and Twitter and leave it at that.  I checked. His Facebook calendar lists five public events since the primary, and the campaign Twitter account has two. He touts his endorsement from NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado four times and his endorsement from former President Obama six times. (Plus a poll he created asking voters if they agreed with the state law that classifies a hot dog as a sandwich.)

A Democratic operative concerned about my questions and preserving the no-show Stapleton talking point followed up to remind me that Polis is in Washington much of the week to do his work as a congressman, while Stapleton is here in Colorado campaigning, absent from his job as state treasurer.

Democrats have invested in creating a narrative that Stapleton was a treasurer who didn’t show up, and that he’s a candidate who is absent from the public arena, who ducks debates debates and evades tough questions.

They’re not liable to admit it publicly, but Team Polis likely thinks he’s safely ahead, so the less he says about his liberal policies — universal health care, a dim view of oil and nuanced gun control — to moderate voters, the better, while he rides the predicted blue wave into the Governor’s Office.

Stapleton, on the other hand, needs to run a perfect race. He needs to be in front of voters singing, dancing or howling; he’s proclaimed himself the underdog.

Come October, Stapleton would be wise to have Big Jim’s y’all-come point of view.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.