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Polis, Stapleton face off one last time in Colorado governor’s race

Author: Joey Bunch and Ernest Luning - October 23, 2018 - Updated: October 24, 2018

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Colorado gubernatorial candidates Walker Stapleton (left) and Jared Polis at their final debate on the University of Denver campus, sponsored by KMGH-Denver7 and The Denver Post, Tuesday night. (KMGH-Denver7 stream)

After eight debates in the race to be Colorado’s next governor, Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton have made this much clear: Polis has big plans, and Stapleton doesn’t think Polis can pay for them.

“It’s hard to politicize numbers,” Stapleton said Tuesday night in their final debate, in a discussion of paying for education. “Numbers illuminate problems in public policy, and I will be a pragmatic governor who makes promises I know I can pay for.”

Time and time again, Stapleton called Polis, the Boulder congressman, a “radical” dreamer on the costs of education, energy and transportation and the ability of taxpayers to shoulder those burdens.

Stapleton, the state treasurer, said he had a Mega Millions lottery ticket that had a better chance of paying off than Polis’ odds of raising the money to pay for his promises.

> RELATED: ANALYSIS: 6 things we’ve learned halfway through the Stapleton-Polis debates

Exactly two weeks before Election Day, the political combatants met Tuesday on the University of Denver campus to debate for a final time. The 90-minute meeting was staged by KMGH-Denver7, The Denver Post and DU.

Polis said he would think big on education as governor, pointing to his six years on the state school board, as a founder and superintendent of a charter school and as a member of Congress who worked to help President Barack Obama replace the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind programs.

Colorado gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton at his final debate with opponent Jared Polis on the University of Denver campus, sponsored by KMGH-Denver7 and The Denver Post, Tuesday night. (KMGH-Denver7 stream)

“I think we need to be creative,” Polis said. “… I think we need to invest in schools, and, yes, there’s a local role,” he said of tax initiatives. “… I’ve even chaired local mill levy and bond campaigns, and, yes, there’s a state role, not only investing in our schools but making sure that money actually reaches the classrooms and addresses the funding disparities across our state.”

Neither candidate has endorsed Amendment 73 on the November ballot, which would raise taxes on wealthy Coloradans and corporations to pump more money into schools.

The candidates outlined their contrasting positions on transportation and oil and gas development. Polis leaned green toward transit and renewable resources, while Stapleton cited the costs incurred more immediately by traffic and putting clamps on a major Colorado industry that pumps a reported $32 billion a year into the state’s economy.

Polis has said his plan to get all the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2040 is a goal, not a mandate. He said he would maintain the climate programs, such as Gov. John Hickenlooper’s program to cut auto emissions, which Republicans, including Stapleton, have opposed.

“Not only is that about climate, it’s about our health,” Polis said. “[It’s about] the brown cloud, making sure we reduce asthma and, yes, even cancer rates, saving health care money and ultimately saving lives.

“We need to make sure we encourage investment in renewable energy, by making sure we recognize the savings for all of us.”

Asked about his previous support for a measure that would require a 2,000-foot setback for new oil and gas operations — only slightly less restrictive than the 2,500-foot setback he isn’t supporting this year in the form of Proposition 112 — Polis said he favors greater setbacks than the current 500-foot standard but noted most drilling is governed by agreements between energy companies and land owners, not by the state’s limit.

Colorado gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis at his final debate with opponent Walker Stapleton on the University of Denver campus, sponsored by KMGH-Denver7 and The Denver Post, on Tuesday night. (KMGH-Denver7 stream)

Polis said the state needs to do a better job “to make sure any energy extraction is done in a safe way.”

On transportation, Stapleton said he would pay for roads and bridges from  the windfall from federal tax reform, a tax on sports gambling once that’s legalized, fixing “a broken regulatory model around medical marijuana” and lowering Colorado’s per-mile spending on road construction.

Polis called it “very dangerous” to put the state in debt to finance bonds for transportation, as Stapleton supports, without a guaranteed way to repay that debt. “I believe we can do it in a fiscally responsible way,” he said.

Throughout the debates, Stapleton most often has been the aggressor, trying to gain ground in what looks like a favorable year for Democrats. Polis has tried to appear above the political fray, but his answers on paying for his programs came into a sharper focus only later in the debates.

Stapleton has tried to score points in a #MeToo environment by repeatedly bringing up a 1999 physical confrontation in which Polis tried to prevent a former employee — an older woman — from stealing company files from an office in Boulder. Although accounts differed, police and prosecutors determined Polis was the victim, and the woman was charged and later pleaded guilty to theft; Polis was not charged.

> RELATED: CU poll shows Polis, school tax, takings measure leading

Last week, in a highly unusual move, Denver7  decided to pull an ad paid for by a super PAC aligned with Stapleton that attacked Polis over the incident. KCNC-CBS4 later followed suit.

The candidates addressed negative advertising Tuesday night, but neither said they were sorry for the attack ads their campaigns and supporters have run.

“I think negative ads are unfortunate,” Stapleton replied. “But our campaign is the little engine that could.” He said his effort has been  “dwarfed” on spending by Polis, who has put up more than $20 million in his own money.

Polis called that an insincere answer, given all the money that special interests are spending to support the Republican.

“They’re basically spending about as much as us,” Polis said, adding that his money was simply placed alongside about 4,000 other individual donors.

Stapleton shot back that Polis — “worth about half a billion dollars” — is spending money alongside “billionaires like Tom Steyer and George Soros.”

Denver7 anchor Anne Trujillo, co-moderator at the debate, said the station has received numerous emails asking why Polis changed his name, referencing an ad run by a super PAC allied with Stapleton that alleges Polis changed his name after the 1999 police incident.

“It’s my mother’s maiden name,” an annoyed-looking Polis said. “Throughout my time in business and public service, I’ve gone by Jared Schutz Polis or Jared Polis. I think it’s bizarre that anybody would attack somebody for a personal decision like that, to honor your mother’s maiden name. But it just shows the desperation and the shamelessness many of the special interest groups supporting Walker Stapleton have descended to.”

Early on his campaign, Stapleton ran on clamping down on sanctuary cities as refuges for undocumented immigrants. He later moderated that to say he would make sure felons are held for federal agents, but her wouldn’t go further than that.

Tuesday night, Stapleton said President Donald Trump was right to try to secure the U.S. border, but  broader immigration reform is needed to protect temporary workers who support the state’s service and agriculture sectors. He blamed opioids smuggled in from Mexico for contributing to “appalling rates of student suicides because of drugs.”

Polis responded, referring to family separations at the U.S. border: “There is a national emergency, and it’s an emergency of character. It’s an emergency when a 2-year-old child is ripped from her mother’s arms and sent thousands of miles away. It’s not who we are as a nation.”

Denver Post reporter Nic Garcia, who co-moderated with Trujillo, asked what many might consider the most important question of this October: Should the Denver Broncos fire coach Vance Joseph?

“Not yet … Maybe Chad Kelly,” Stapleton said, referring to the backup quarterback who was arrested Monday night.

Polis was circumspect: “That’s a dangerous one to opine on. We need to change up, how about that?”

(UPDATE: The Broncos announced Wednesday morning they were releasing Kelly.)

Polis has maintained a comfortable margin in opinion polls since the two nominees emerged from expensive and bruising primaries.

The Democrat has led Stapleton by 7 points in three polls, including a survey of likely voters conducted by a Colorado-based GOP pollster that was released last week. Polis has led by wider margins in surveys of state residents that didn’t attempt to model voter turnout when reporting results.

On Monday, the data gurus at the FiveThirtyEight political blog predicted Polis would win the race with a margin of 11.9 percentage points.

Joey Bunch and Ernest Luning