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WATCH: Republican candidates stand by Trump in final gubernatorial debate

Author: Joey Bunch - June 20, 2018 - Updated: June 20, 2018

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The four Republicans and four Democrats running for governor in Colorado gave their final debate performances at the University of Denver Monday and Tuesday nights, respectively.

Republicans moved gingerly around the Trump administration’s previous policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexican border, while Democrats put the pedal down in the political fast lane to next Tuesday’s primary.

The GOP debate came the night before President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday that aims to at least temporarily end the controversial practice of holding children apart from their detained parents.

Republicans spent a good share of their 90-minute debate on immigration policy and  Trump.

Doug Robinson, the retired investment banker, was the most clear opposing the Trump administration’s policy of separating families. He would keep families together and expedite the hearing process, he said in the debate put on by Denver7 and the Denver Post at the University of Denver.

“These scenes from the border are heart-wrenching,” Robinson said. “This is not who we are as Americans. It’s not who we are as Republicans.”

Robinson noted on stage that he’s the only Colorado GOP gubernatorial candidate to clearly break with the president on the policy.

“The rest are politicians,” he said. “This is about leadership. It’s about who’s willing to lead and say things that are accurate and true, and, you know what, we need to change this policy.”

Denver Post reporter John Frank reminded Walker Stapleton, the current state treasurer, that he has an ad out this week that says he will stand with Trump on immigration policy.

Stapleton said no one wants to see families broken up, but Trump has called for comprehensive immigration reform with no results. “Every member of Congress is culpable,” Stapleton said in the debate.

GOP debate
Republican candidates for governor debate at the University of Denver Tuesday evening. (Photo courtesy of Denver7 via YouTube)

“That includes Jared Polis, who has been in Congress for 10 years and had the Senate and House under President Obama and they did nothing to fix immigration,” he said, name-checking the front-running Democrat for governor. “Now the Republicans have the Senate and the House, and they’re going to have to act.”

Stapleton also said, “Nobody wants to see families torn apart, absolutely no one, but what the president has done, which I agree with, is he has called on the federal government, specifically Congress, to fix our broken immigration system.”

Mitchell, the businessman and former legislator from Douglas County, also pivoted away from the separations and toward comprehensive immigration reform.

“Of course, no one wants their kids separated, but this is a much broader problem,” he said. “But I think the president is on the right track when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform. Unfortunately, the Democrats are not willing to work with him.”

Republican debate
Doug Robinson talks about where he agrees and disagrees with President Trump during the last debate before the June 26 primary Tuesday evening at the University of Denver. (Photo courtesy of the Denver 7 via YouTube)

Mitchell falsely blamed Democrats for passing a law, as Trump has, “which unfortunately has led to this crisis.”

The separations that Denver7 anchor Anne Trujillo asked about is the result of a “zero-tolerance” policy enacted by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions this year.

Mitchell called the separations “a sad outcome.”

Former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez put responsibility for the separations on the parents. He said families should be kept together, but it’s the government’s role to make sure they follow the immigration law.

“What we’re seeing at the border is a real travesty,” he said. “We see parents making decisions that I feel that often times they put their own children in harm’s way.”

Trujillo asked how the Trump policy squares with the GOP candidates’ Christian values.

“It’s just a terrible situation,” Mitchell said. “… I really hope Democrats do their job and get to work.”

Robinson said he opposed Trump’s policy “because of my faith and because of being a Republican. My faith informs my decisions and how I feel about those kids at the border. … We are Republicans. We are the party of family values. We stand up for families.”

Frank pressed Stapleton on his statement that he would strip money from so-called sanctuary cities — those that don’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement officers — even though the governor doesn’t write the budget. Stapleton again put the blame on Democrats.

Democratic debate
Former state Sen. Mike Johnston speaks about standing up to President Trump during Monday evening’s Denver7/Denver Post debate. (Photo courtesy of 7News Denver via YouTube)

“Every single candidate who was on this stage last night wants to turn Colorado into a sanctuary state, because that is part of the Democratic Party platform,” he answered.

Stapleton never answered the question on the governor’s limited role to crafting the budget, which is what the Legislature does before presenting it to the governor to sign. (Mitchell, however, maintained the governor has a lot of influence on the budget on the front end.)

Stapleton named Denver and Aurora as potential losers, then said others would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

He said he would draw the line on deportations at felony crimes, though the governor has no say in who gets deported or why.

All of the candidates except Mitchell said they voted for Trump.

The night before, Democrats Mike Johnston, Cary Kennedy, Donna Lynne and Jared Polis predictably tore into Trump’s policy of separating families.

They applauded Gov. John Hickenlooper’s decision Monday to sign an executive order saying no state resources would go toward separating immigrant families — something Robinson on Tuesday night called a political ploy for Hickenlooper’s potential run for president.

“That stands in stark contrast to Republican frontrunner Walker Stapleton, who said he would send the Colorado National Guard to the border to actually enforce Trump’s orders,” Polis said, citing a remark out of context all the candidates made in a 9News debate on June 7. “I think it’s important as governor that we set an inclusive tone for this state.”

Polis, the congressman from Boulder, noted that he founded a charter school for new immigrants and was a sponsor of immigration-reform legislation in Congress.

“As governor I’ll makes sure Colorado doesn’t stand idly by and allow these acts of terror to be committed in our names, separating 1- and 2-year-old kids from their loving parents,” he said.

Democratic debate
Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne speaks on the governor’s executive order on immigration during the Democratic Debate at the University of Denver Monday night. (Photo courtesy of Denver7 via YouTube)

Lynne, the current lieutenant governor, said the word “reprehensible” was too mild to describe separating families.

“I spent the morning with the governor and his team working on this executive order, as well as the press response,” she said. “… When it comes to losing federal money, I’m willing to take that risk.”

A former state treasurer, Kennedy said the Trump policy “violates basic human decency.”

“You will see me as governor oppose any policies that tear families apart,” she said. “You will see me defend the legal rights of immigrants.”

She noted that her husband is an immigrant who came to the U.S. when he was 7 years old.

Johnston, a former state senator from Denver, reflected on Father’s Day, having his three children piled up on him, and the prospect of having a soldier tear them from him.

“This is why elections matter,” he said. “And this is why this race is so critical, because we’re going to need someone who has the courage and the clarity to stand up in moments. The question is not if we’re going to restore America’s greatness, but whether we’re going to defend America’s fundamental goodness.”

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.