By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
LAKEWOOD — After months of being hammered for not debating his opponents in the Republican race for the gubernatorial nomination, Scott McInnis threw a left hook during a candidates’ forum on Tuesday, challenging Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter to debate.
“I’ll debate you tomorrow and I’ll debate you the next day,” declared McInnis.
Ritter had declined an invitation to join GOP gubernatorial candidates McInnis, Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry and Evergreen businessman Dan Maes at the Centennial Institute’s Governor Candidate Forum at Colorado Christian University.
The forum, moderated by former state Senate President John Andrews, kicked off like a “love fest” with the Republican candidates lauding each others’ character. Their answers to questions, primarily about the economy, jobs and higher education funding, showed more agreement than disagreement.
Answers to questions posed by CCU students Samantha Scoggins and Chad Ryder to McInnis and Penry revealed more about the underpinnings of their campaigns than anything else. Maes, meanwhile, seemed intent on avoiding forays in the campaign battle.
The fireworks erupted near the close of the forum, when McInnis threw punches at Ritter.
“I’ll debate (Ritter) anytime he wants. I’d be happy to do it a lot of times between now and Christmas,” vowed McInnis.
The audience of nearly 200 people burst into “shock and awe” applause.
Ritter’s re-election campaign had sent a fundraising e-mail, McInnis said, that mischaracterized his opposition to debates. The former congressman said he believes debates could bitterly divide Colorado’s Republican Party.
“Scott McInnis refuses to debate the substantive issues,” stated the Ritter campaign e-mail, titled “Out of Step & Mystifying,” which went out to supporters on Halloween.
McInnis told the audience that Ritter was mistaken and had misinterpreted his position on debates.
“I talked about, for weeks, the need and importance of unifying our family,” said McInnis of the GOP. “If we are not unified, this is going to be one tough race … the governor mistook the message.”
By slamming the Ritter campaign, McInnis diverted attention from the Penry campaign’s numerous e-mails bashing the former congressman for his no-debate stance.
“Get in the ring Candidates” was the subject line of a McInnis-jabbing Penry campaign e-mail that went out on Oct. 9. The ensuing flurry of e-mails — many with links to newspaper articles — sported titles such as “McInnis Wusses Out,” “Ducking debates is a misstep for McInnis” and “Penry wants to duel GOP opponent.”
Ignoring those challenges, the McInnis campaign issued a “man-up” letter to the Ritter campaign instead.
“We accept the governor’s challenge to debate him any time. And furthermore, insist that your campaign be honest and now inform the readers that McInnis accepts Ritter’s challenge to debate. The sooner, the better … Any time!!!!!”
Some political activists observed that McInnis and Ritter have something in common — a belief in the political wisdom that frontrunners and incumbents shouldn’t engage in debates until the final round in the fight, if then.
After McInnis threw down the gauntlet at the CCU forum, Penry also had the opportunity to challenge Ritter, but he shrugged it off. The quick-witted Penry noted that he debates the governor in the newspapers every day.
Penry didn’t mention that he, too, had been attacked in the fundraising letter written by the Ritter for Governor campaign director David Kenney.
“Josh Penry would do away with the New Energy Economy. Scott McInnis refuses to debate the substantive issues,” wrote Kenney.
“Letting either of these guys run our state into the ground is a pretty scary thought … Penry announced he’d like to wipe out critical government functions if elected governor.
“That alone isn’t news. But the fact that his announcement singled out the Governor’s Energy Office for destruction is shockingly short-sighted and dangerously naïve. It shows that Josh Penry just isn’t ready for prime time.
“… Anyone with even the slightest foresight and a shred of common sense knows the Energy Office — which is responsible for recruiting New Energy Economy firms that have created tens of thousands of jobs here in Colorado — is one of the best things our state has going for it.
“…Please make a contribution right now to make sure our challengers can’t kill Colorado’s New Energy Economy by taking back the governorship.”
Penry’s accusation that the Governor’s Energy Office employs Ritter cronies and drains millions from the state budget is one of several statements that have led to damaging news reports.
Unfurling his budget cut wish list, Penry last week suggested abolishing the Department of Local Affairs, consolidating the bureaucracy that runs higher education and closing the Governor’s Energy Office.
In a heated e-mail exchange with House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, Penry wrote, “If Speaker Carroll thinks a silo of patronage packed with political appointments is the source of private-sector job creations, then he must have been absent the day they taught economics in school.”
That has folks wondering what economics class Penry took. Democrats responded by explaining that the Governor’s Energy Office has been funded largely by federal grants — and this fiscal year, federal stimulus money has paid almost entirely for its operation.
Tom Plant, director of the Energy Office, told The Denver Post that staff members are hired based on their experience and abilities, not their political ties. In fact, he said, one employee worked on Republican Bob Beauprez’s campaign for governor in 2006.
“Josh is maintaining his stance on this issue. Last year 86 percent of the funding came from state monies,” said Mac Zimmerman, Chief of Staff of the Senate Minority Office. “Now, they’re pulling money from federal funds. But whether it’s this year or next year, the funding will revert back to the state.”
“The Governor’s Energy Office is a patronage shop,” declared Zimmerman, who spoke on behalf of Penry.
Penry’s call to reduce the higher education bureaucracy also boomeranged when critics pointed out that Penry’s sister, Kristi Pollard, is interim director of development at Grand Junction’s Mesa State College and that his wife, Jamie Penry, previously worked at Mesa State.
Michael Huttner, founder and CEO of Progress Now, accused Penry of hypocrisy. Huttner challenged Penry to disclose any involvement that he had in either personally seeking employment at Mesa State or recommending family members for jobs there.
In answering a question about how he’d keep state higher education tuition costs low, Penry said that it could be done by setting priorities.
“I got in a little scrape with some of my friends in higher education because of all the employees they’ve hired even as they were increasing the tuition,” said Penry.
The key to maintaining a “world class” higher education system, he said, is setting priorities and making sure that the dollars are spent wisely.
Penry said higher education is a top priority in the state budget. He has called for across-the-board cuts and eliminating state commissions and boards whose members are compensated or receive expense reimbursements — and that move wouldn’t exclude salaried commissioners.
A couple of weeks ago, Penry told a group of Republicans gathered at the Back East Bar and Grill in Colorado Springs that as governor, he’d disband the three-member Public Utilities Commission, which has jurisdiction over aspects of electric, gas and water utilities, intrastate telecommunication services, railroads, and gas pipelines.
“I’ll tell them, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. Pack your bags and go,’” declared Penry in answer to a question about what he’ll do on his first day as governor.
He reiterated his disdain for the PUC last weekend at the Colorado Federation of Republican Women’s candidate forum.
“I’ll politely excuse them. I’ll thank them for their service — the anti-drilling bureaucrats who created the rules that have killed so many jobs and reduced energy production,” said Penry.
“Instead of the PUC, I think Josh meant the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. They’re very hostile to the industry,” clarified Zimmerman.
“He wants to replace several of the commissioners who were appointed by the Governor,” said Zimmerman.
But the Commissioners can’t be fired that easily. The Governor’s appointees, who were confirmed by the state Senate, serve designated terms. For example, PUC members serve a 4-year term, and the terms are staggered to ensure continuity.
“The goal is to reduce bureaucrats on the state payroll,” said Zimmerman, who speculated that Penry, if elected Governor, could also ask Commissioners to resign.
Perhaps Maes offered the best summary of this week’s developments in the GOP gubernatorial race.
“The revolution is on!” he declared.