By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Colorado’s three top gubernatorial candidates slugged it out Friday before several hundred business leaders — or, more accurately, two of the candidates slugged it out while the third kept mostly above the fray before a largely friendly audience.
For Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, the Democratic candidate for governor, the debate before the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce probably looked a lot like a staff meeting. The Chamber’s president, Kelly Brough, was Hickenlooper’s chief of staff until a year ago, and the mayor has made a habit of plucking city administrators from Denver’s business community and, to hear him talk, plans to do the same if he wins the governor’s seat in November.
The governor’s debate was first on a double-header program that also included a debate between U.S. Senate candidates incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Ken Buck. ABC News political reporter Jake Tapper and KMGH-TV news anchor Mike Landess moderated the forum.
“We’ve tried to bring a business perspective to government,” Hickenlooper told the crowd of about 300 arrayed in a lavish ballroom at the downtown Sheraton. “What we’ve tried to do is demonstrate that you can make government smaller, and more effective,” he said, two goals he might have to accomplish in the face of massive revenue shortfalls projected for the state in coming years.
Sinking in the polls, Republican nominee Dan Maes tossed some verbal grenades at the third candidate, former GOP Congressman Tom Tancredo, who bolted the GOP to run on the American Constitution Party ticket this summer after declaring Maes was unelectable.
Polls released this week show support for Maes flirting with single digits while Tancredo trails Hickenlooper by between 5 and 11 percentage points. Also this week, state Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams all but threw in the towel on the Maes candidacy. He acknowledged that the party’s nominee’s string of scandals and questions over his competence threaten to banish the GOP to minor party status for a few years if, as state law dictates, the gubernatorial candidate gets less than 10 percent of the statewide vote.
Tapper zeroed in on the perceived inadequacies of the Maes candidacy. Pulling no punches, Tapper began by saying, “Arguably this is the most unsuccessful campaign in the great history of Colorado,” and suggested to Maes that he “could cost a fellow conservative the election.”
Why, then, Tapper asked, doesn’t Maes drop out to avoid splitting the vote with Tancredo? Tapper added that the question was submitted through his Facebook page but that he’s heard the question more places than that.
A defiant Maes said he’s been counted out before and went on to list a string of improbable victories that landed him on stage at the debate. Dismissed for a year as a pesky also-ran, Maes pointed out that he went on to nearly tie Republican front-runner former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis at precinct caucuses, went on to barely win the state assembly and then — in the wake of a plagiarism scandal that felled McInnis — eked out a win in the primary.
“Surprise, surprise, surprise,” Maes said, noting that he’s survived naysayers and remains in the race. “I have stood up to powerful, powerful people over the last year,” he said.
Then he turned his fire on Tancredo.
“With all due respect to the congressman,” Maes said, “you can’t cheat and come under the fence like an illegal immigrant with three months to spare.”
Tancredo, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, has made illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign, as it was during much of his congressional career.
“I don’t buy polls. I never bought polls,” the beleaguered candidate concluded. “Let’s not count Dan Maes or the conservative movement out until Nov. 2.”
Later, in his closing remarks, Tancredo scolded Maes: “I didn’t sneak in anywhere, I followed the law and entered as a third-party candidate.”
Tapper pressed Tancredo on a key vote he took in the waning days of his congressional career, one that has earned him skepticism from some conservatives, including Maes.
Asked whether he regretted joining Democrats — and only a few Republicans — voting to approve the federal government’s Troubled Asset Relief Plan, or TARP, to bail out the financial system two years ago, Tancredo stood his ground.
“No,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you had to be there to see what was happening.”
Acknowledging that, “it was the toughest vote I’ve ever had to cast,” Tancredo said he believed the hurried vote was necessary to prevent a financial collapse.
“It is hard, extremely hard to explain to people what the atmosphere was like there,” Tancredo said. “The possibility of dire economic consequences was so great, I couldn’t take the chance.” He conceded he still comes under attack for the vote but said critics only attack him now with the benefit of hindsight.
Maes proceeded to do just that, attacking Tancredo over his TARP vote, during his closing remarks. Appealing to conservatives to trust his business expertise, Maes said, “A conservative shouldn’t vote for TARP,” and then looked at Tancredo. “If he’d had the courage he needed, he would’ve stood up.” He went on to question Tancredo’s conservative credentials based on remarks he had earlier made about considering legalization of marijuana and the possibility of easing the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR, a constitutional amendment considered sacrosanct by many Colorado conservatives.
Hickenlooper, for his part, stayed out of the fracas between the two conservatives, framing most of his answers in a business-oriented way.
Saying the state needs to replace CSAP tests that measure student achievement with something else, Hickenlooper derided the current system’s four-month lag time between taking the test and getting results. “What business would stand for that?” he asked.
Asked how he would deal with even more drastic revenue restrictions if a set of tax-cutting ballot measures passes this fall, Hickenlooper conceded there’s “not a lot of fat to cut” from K-12 education budgets, and said he hoped the state could make “short-term cuts without causing long-term consequences” in transportation funding.
Hickenlooper added that he would work to put together scholarship funds “from foundations, the private sector” to help higher ed students weather anticipated tuition increases, but then fingered Medicaid as a share of state spending that could take a hit.
“Next we’d have to look very closely at qualifications for Medicaid,” he said, adding that next year could be “one of the first times we’ll have to look at restricting or eliminating people” from the program.
Early in his campaign, Hickenlooper pledged to run a positive campaign, a promise Landess asked whether he intended to keep as polls continue to show him with less than 50 percent support.
“I’m not an election lawyer, but I think I just need to get more than either of you guys,” Hickenlooper quipped, pointing to Maes and Tancredo as the crowd erupted in laughter.
In order to get out of the recession, he continued, “We have to become pro business.
“If we’re going to do that, we need everyone — not just Democrats, not just Republicans, but everybody.”
Turning serious, he asserted that his pledge to take the high road wasn’t just an election-year gimmick but was central to his governing philosophy.
“Appealing to fear and anger is a very short-term solution which has long-term negative consequences that divides our community,” he said. “We’re not going to go negative.”