Election 2018News

The 8 who would be governor: Candidates square off at CoPo/Gazette forum

Author: Ernest Luning - May 19, 2018 - Updated: May 22, 2018

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The Republican candidates for governor talk on a panel at an annual Colorado Civic Barbecue at the Garden Pavilion at Penrose House on Saturday May 19, 2018 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

For the first time, all four Republicans and four Democrats running for governor of Colorado squared off during a pair of debates Saturday in Colorado Springs, discussing policies ranging from transportation funding to gun violence, taxes to President Donald Trump.

The candidate forum was presented by Colorado Politics, The Gazette and El Pomar’s Forum for Civic Advancement.

> CLICK HERE to watch the Republican portion of the Colorado Civic Barbecue gubernatorial debate on Facebook, via KKTV 11 News.

> CLICK HERE to watch the Democratic portion of the Colorado Civic Barbecue gubernatorial debate on Facebook, via KKTV 11 News.

Disagreements among members of the same party were few, and sparks only flew a couple of times during the exchanges, which took place just over two weeks before voters start receiving primary ballots in the mail — although the differences between the two parties were stark.

The two 90-minute debates bookended the inaugural Colorado Civic Barbecue, a chance for several hundred members of the community to rub shoulders and listen to live bluegrass music between the doubleheader at the historic Penrose House near The Broadmoor hotel.

The event marked the only time every major-party candidate on the June 26 gubernatorial primary ballots will appear at the same event this cycle.

> RELATED: They said it at the Colorado Civic Barbecue

Democratic candidates for Colorado governor are briefed ahead of their Colorado Civic Barbecue debate by moderators Aaron Harber (upper right) and Joey Bunch of Colorado Politics (lower right, back to camera) on May 19, 2018. Pictured from left are Donna Lynne, Mike Johnston, Cary Kennedy (foreground) and Jared Polis. (Mark Harden, Colorado Politics)

On issue after issue — responding to questions posed by TV host Aaron Harber and Joey Bunch of Colorado Politics — the Republicans agreed with each other, and the Democrats did likewise, differing only on approach in some cases and degree in most others.

While there hasn’t been any recent public polling in either party’s primary, the four Republicans tabbed U.S. Rep. Jared Polis as the likely Democratic nominee.

At the same time, the Democrats agreed state Treasurer Walker Stapleton will almost certainly be the GOP standard-bearer, although they also sounded like they’re planning on running equally hard against President Donald Trump.

During the debates, none of the candidates dominated, with each landing a blow or two and each getting in signature lines that drew applause from the crowd.

The other Republicans in the race are retired investment banker Doug Robinson, businessman and former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell and restaurant owner Greg Lopez, who served as mayor of Parker in the 1990s.

The other Democrats are former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, former state Sen. Mike Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne.

When it comes to funding transportation needs — the state has an estimated $20 billion in projects that lack funding over the next two decades — all of the Republicans said they were opposed to a proposed ballot measure unveiled this week by business groups to hike the state sales tax to pay for it.

“A sales tax increase is going to cripple and kill rural Colorado,” Lopez said.

The others proposed a combination of finding efficiencies in state transportation spending and the rest of the state’s $30 billion annual budget in order to find the dollars to pay for roads and bridges.

“We’re going to have to put the government on a diet,” said Mitchell. “We’re going to have to learn to do more with less.”

The Democratic candidates for governor talk on a panel at an annual Colorado Civic Barbecue at the Garden Pavilion at Penrose House on Saturday May 19, 2018 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

On the other hand, all the Democrats said they would support the proposed sales tax increase.

Johnston tied it to his plan to ask voters to rewrite the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in 2020. “We’ve been starving the state budget for 25 years,” he said.

“We’ve been held back for decades, and it is holding our state’s economy back,” Kennedy said, calling for a statewide solution on transportation while applauding the proposed sales tax hike as a start.

Polis said he’s open to a variety of options to fund transportation, but stressed that he isn’t in favor of only building more roads. Instead of just “lane expansion,” he said, the state needs to invest in high-speed rail service on the Front Range, as well as affordable housing so people can live closer to where they work and high-speed broadband.

Lynne said a combination of a sales tax increase and money in the state’s $30 billion annual budget are good sources for transportation funds, but she cautioned against seeing bonding as a cost-free option because of the interest the would have to pay.

Each of the Republicans except Mitchell said he would invite Trump to campaign in Colorado, with Stapleton quipping that he’d also be glad to welcome his cousin, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to join the president. Bush ran against Trump for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

“Sure,” Stapleton said. “Any Republican who is willing to.”

Attendees enjoy a barbecue break between the Republican and Democrat debates at the annual Colorado Civic Barbecue at the Garden Pavilion at Penrose House on Saturday May 19, 2018 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

Robinson, who is also related to a former GOP presidential candidate — Mitt Romney is his uncle — said he’s “frustrated with the way (Trump) talks about people,” but added he’d be glad to have him stump for the ticket in Colorado “because he’s getting things done for America and he’s making changes for Colorado.”

Mitchell has said he voted for a third-party candidate instead of Trump in the 2016 presidential election. At the debate, he said he didn’t know whether he would invite Trump to the state and would have to think about it.

Illustrating the partisan divide, the Democrats appeared to compete over who could denounce Trump in the strongest terms, with several of them terming the president a “bully” and Polis calling him “a threat to the integrity of our Republic and a threat to the Colorado way of life.”

The exchange between the Democrats only turned heated for a few moments, when Johnston threw some punches at Polis on the issue of gun control, though Polis parried with a blow of his own and questioned whether Johnston’s record on gun measures was as unwavering as he claims.

Johnston charged that Polis has only recently supported limiting so-called assault weapons or banning high-capacity magazines. When the Colorado legislature passed landmark gun-control bills in 2013 in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, Johnston said, Polis wasn’t on board with making similar changes at the federal level.

His voice rising, Polis responded that he signed last year as a sponsor to a Democratic bill to ban military-style assault weapons and questioned why Johnston never did the same during his eight years in the legislature.

Candidates for Colorado governor do media interviews during a break at the Colorado Civic Barbecue on May 19, 2018, in Colorado Springs. In the foreground is U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder. (Mark Harden, Colorado Politics)

The Republicans had predictably different takes on how to reduce gun violence.

“We’ve abandoned God,” Lopez said. “We need to talk about the importance of values. A governor can talk about the importance of life and the importance of the way we take care of each other.”

“Enough is enough,” Mitchell said, adding that he would “bring in FBI profilers, behavioral specialists and mental health professionals to figure out a way to stop these shootings from happening in the first place.”

Robinson said that Republicans know the Democrats’ plan: “They want to take our guns away.” He proposed “hardening our schools” and passing a “red flag bill that makes sense,” referring to legislation to allow authorities to seize guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others. He added that he believes a red flag bill that failed in the final days of the legislative session lacked sufficient due-process protection.

Mail ballots go out to voters during the first week of June — including unaffiliated voters, who will be able to vote in Colorado’s primary for the first time this year without registering with either major party. They’re due back to county clerks by June 26.

Republican candidates for governor on stage at the Colorado Civic Barbecue event co-sponsored by Colorado Politics and The Gazette, May 19, 2018, in Colorado Springs. (Mark Harden, Colorado Politics)

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. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.