State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Secretary of State Scott Gessler berated Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper for refusing to take controversial positions when the two Republicans spoke on Monday before a conservative audience in Lakewood.
The two officials talked politics for an hour in front of an appreciative crowd of about 100 at a monthly forum thrown by the Centennial Institute, a think tank affiliated with Colorado Christian University. The organization, headed by former Senate President John Andrews, sponsors regular lectures and conferences, including an upcoming one on Dec. 2 that poses the question, “Have the Media Failed America?”
Gessler also slammed a Denver judge for remarks delivered from the bench during a hearing challenging a rule issued by his office. A pair of watchdog groups contend the rule violated the state constitution when he raised a reporting threshold for issue committee expenditures from $200 to $5,000, but Gessler said the state was forced to raise the limits by a federal court of appeals decision. Predicting a ruling against his office by Denver District Court Judge A. Bruce Jones, Gessler vowed to appeal the decision as soon as it comes down.
“We don’t have an opinion from the Denver District Court,” Gessler said. “The court just decided he wanted to say nasty things about me in the newspaper. Frankly, I have never in 10 years of litigation on very controversial issues, never seen a judge behave that way in the entire state of Colorado.”
Gessler was referring to comments Jones delivered critical of Gessler that were reported in The Denver Post, including one that said Gessler wasn’t “some roving do-gooder” who had the power to contravene the state constitution.
In response to an audience member’s question, Gessler noted the judge was up for a retention vote next year and then laid out his strategy. “I don’t expect that opinion to be positive based on his comments,” he said, which means the state plans to appeal.
“The second thing is, and I am pretty confident about this, is if we lose, the State of Colorado is going to be sued yet again on this issue. And again. Frankly, I fully expect that we will lose on this issue,” he said, an outcome that will cost the state plenty. If he is unable to prevail in local court, he said, he has “no doubt that the federal circuit court will step in and provide guidance here for the state of Colorado.”
The Legislature’s hands are tied, too, he said, because the low level of expenditure that triggers mandatory reporting requirements is written into the state constitution.
Asked by an audience member to describe their relationships with Hickenlooper, Stapleton and Gessler said they were frustrated with the governor’s ability to maintain stratospheric approval ratings while he avoids wading into potentially divisive fights.
“It’s dawned on me, after spending my entire life in the private sector, that politics is a strange business,” said Stapleton, cracking a bemused smile. The reason, Stapleton said, is that “the less you do, the more popular you are. Think about how backwards that is.”
It’s not like other professions, Stapleton continued, where more ambition and accomplishments usually lead to higher stature. “In politics, as long as you can sit comfortably on the sidelines when it comes to controversial issues, you’re popular. And we have a governor who’s incredibly adept at sitting on the sidelines on consequential issues facing our state.”
It’s a familiar jab against Hickenlooper who, by just about any measure, is among the nation’s most popular governors. (A survey showed the former brewpub owner had the third highest approval rating in the country in August, fueling speculation about even higher office in the unassuming politician’s future.) Hickenlooper took heat from both sides before the November election when he stuck with a campaign promise not to support a tax increase during his first year in office and didn’t endorse Proposition 103, a $2.9 billion tax hike shot down by voters.
Stapleton took up the complaint and broadened it.
“That’s great because it allows him to be all things to all people. Some people think he’s a fiscal conservative, he’s kind of a Republican, he’s sort of for this but not really. He doesn’t want to take a stand on Proposition 103 even though it has budget implications for the state,” he said.
Then he threw down a gauntlet for state lawmakers: “It is the job, I think, of the Legislature to flush out the governor and make him lead, because leaders, as most of you know, don’t sit on the sidelines. Leaders take positions, leaders take stands, and leaders risk, ultimately, their popularity because of it.”
Stapleton added that he bears “no personal animosity” toward Hickenlooper, calling him “a nice guy,” but said it has been frustrating to observe a politician who stays popular without sticking his neck out. “I just wish he would stake out more positions of consequence,” he concluded.
Gessler kept his remarks about Hickenlooper brief, but began by agreeing with Stapleton.
“That’s one of the best analyses I’ve heard of our governor,” he said as the crowd roared with laughter.
Basically, Gessler said, “I stay out of his business, he stays out of mine.” He added that he hopes to work with Hickenlooper on future policy matters.