GRAND JUNCTION — The illustrious Club 20 — offering a “voice to the Western Slope” — held its annual fall meeting and candidate debates at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction on Sept. 8, showcasing seven statewide races for the House and Senate.
The debates offered a comprehensive examination of candidates views from the races, including House Districts 26, 55, 57, 58, 59, 61, and Senate District 8.
In a few instances, fireworks erupted as the candidates vied to dismantle their challengers in a debate format that included questions from a panel of Club 20 members, as well as cross-examination questions initiated by the candidates themselves.
House District 55
Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, found himself defending against allegations made by his HD 55 challenger, Democrat Dan Robinson, who accused the sitting representative of “making up numbers” to advance his agenda.
Scott currently represents House District 54, but he recently moved into HD 55, so he is running for re-election in that nearby district. There was also a regional legislative shift because of reapportionment, with HD 55 moved into HD 54. Outgoing Rep. Laura Bradford, R-Collbran, currently holds House District 55. She is not seeking re-election.
“We can’t have somebody over there who makes up numbers… whenever it’s convenient,” Robinson, a Mesa County attorney, said of Scott. “Secondly, you can’t have somebody who insults the governor and expects to have any sort of respectful response from that administration.”
Robinson was not clear on what numbers he accused Scott of fabricating, other than to say that he manipulates numbers around health care, immigration and budgetary issues to benefit arguments for cutting entitlements and other government programs.
Scott later shifted the momentum and put Robinson on the defensive, asking him if he’s ever done pro bono work for undocumented immigrants. Scott suggested that Robinson has been offering free legal work to illegal immigrants, which Scott suggested is against the law.
Robinson said that he has not been offering pro bono work to undocumented immigrants, but disagreed that such work would be illegal, and said that if given the opportunity, he would provide legal counsel to illegal aliens.
“Attorneys have an obligation to do pro bono work, just as doctors have an obligation to care for sick people… all of us have an obligation ethically to represent people,” Robinson said.
Earlier in the debate, the candidates were asked for their opinions on a measure this year, Senate Bill 15 — or Colorado ASSET — that would have provided reduced tuition rates to undocumented immigrants. Republican opposition killed the measure.
In defending his support for the proposal, Robinson pointed to a recent federal court decision out of Florida on Aug. 31, which threw out a state law that blocks undocumented students’ eligibility for in-state tuition breaks.
“How I feel about it isn’t important, it’s more of the law of the land,” Robinson said of Colorado ASSET, citing the Florida case.
Scott, however, was clear in his opposition, stating, “Illegal aliens are a problem, period. Right now that’s costing the State of Colorado $1.4 billion per year…”
“To ask a child from Wyoming who wants to come to Colorado… for that to cost them more to go to school than an illegal immigrant makes no sense to me. It’s nonsensical,” continued Scott.
Robinson also criticized his opponent for supporting a proposal to sell state lands and put the money in a trust fund as a means to ease budgetary constraints.
“That’s the kind of irresponsible, frankly, off-the-wall kind of proposal that isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Robinson.
When Scott was offered a 30-second rebuttal, his nonchalant response simply was, “To what?”
Libertarian Virgil Fenn is also in the race, but Club 20 did not invite him to the debate.
House District 61
Three women battling it out in HD 61 also raised eyebrows, mostly because of the dichotomy of the race and its candidates.
Former Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison, who sent shockwaves through the legislature in 2009 when she abandoned the Democratic Party to become unaffiliated, made the ballot for HD 61 this year by gathering the necessary 400 valid petition signatures.
She faces Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, who currently represents HD 56, but was redrawn into the new HD 61. Republican Debra Irvine of Breckenridge is also seeking the HD 61 seat.
Curry was unable to run as an unaffiliated candidate in 2010 because she had not changed her party registration in time, and was instead forced to run as a write-in candidate. That run was unsuccessful, and Rep. Roger Wilson, D-Glenwood Springs, won the race. Wilson is not seeking re-election this year after being drawn into a more Republican-leaning district.
Curry told the Club 20 audience that she believes her unaffiliated registration bodes well for her in a divisive political climate that has many voters rejecting the two-party system.
“There is a disconnect between the voters and the two-party system that currently runs our state and country,” said Curry, who added that in the last two months, there have been 1,085 new voter registrations in HD 61. Of those 1,085 new voters, 1,011 registered as unaffiliated, she said.
“I don’t really know what that means exactly, I wish I had a clearer idea of what the voters are trying to tell us, but all I can say is they are not happy with the current situation…” Curry surmised.
Much of the debate focused on a bill from 2010, House Bill 1188, that Curry introduced to offer clarity over river navigation and private property rights.
The so-called “right to float” legislation became a battle between river outfitters and private property owners. River outfitters believe they have a right to use all waterways, even if it crosses areas of private property, while private property owners — especially developers — suggest that segments of waterways must remain off limits if privately owned.
Curry caught a flood of concern over the legislation, which she herself acknowledges was not perfect, and therefore did not pass. Irvine jabbed Curry over the legislation during the debate, stating that it should never have been introduced in the first place.
“It created an environment where someone could get out and go onto private property without even asking for permission, and that violates one of our greatest traditions in Colorado,” said Irvine, the former chair of the Summit County Republicans.
Curry admitted that the legislation was never satisfactory to her, suggesting that it might take a ballot question to do it right.
“I didn’t get it right, but I moved the issue forward,” Curry told The Colorado Statesman following the debate. “I think that the bill is misrepresented and misunderstood, but that’s part of the process, and I should have done a better job getting the message out there.”
For her part, Hamner does not believe that the issue is one for the legislature to fix.
“Floats should be able to float down the river because the rivers should belong to all of us, but people own property rights on those rivers. This is an example where perhaps legislation isn’t really needed to solve the problem,” said Hamner. “What it really takes is people coming together and collaborating to solve problems together.”
American Constitution Party candidate Robert Petrowsky and Libertarian candidate Ellen Temby are also in the race, but Club 20 did not invite them to the debate.
House District 59
The HD 59 race pairs an incumbent, Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, against Democrat Mike McLachlan, who spent much of the debate trying to separate himself by pointing out that he has never run for public office before.
“Unlike Mr. Brown, who has been elected five times to public office… I’ve never run for public office before,” McLachlan told the Club 20 audience.
But Brown believes his experience as a public servant has allowed him to fight for change, including limiting federal mandates and the size of state government.
Brown also told the audience that he does not concern himself with partisan politics.
“I’m a proud Republican, but I will stand up against my party when they are wrong, and I’ve worked across the aisle to get things done,” said Brown. “It is not about party affiliation, it is about principle and philosophy.”
During the cross-examination portion of the debate, Brown pressed McLachlan on hydraulic fracturing, asking him whether he supports the process. McLachlan said he believes the process needs to be studied further.
“Hydraulic fracturing is used in daily operations of oil and gas, and it has been used for a long period of time. The question we need to answer is whether it should be used in all circumstances,” McLachlan said. “There is some scientific evidence which suggests that it could endanger water recourses and water tables, and to the extent that it is a critical issue of that, I think we need to look at it closely.”
“There are no evidences that fracking has been hurting water,” Brown countered.
House District 58
House District 58 incumbent Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, seemed at ease as he debated Democratic challenger Tammy Theis, who only stepped into the race days before the Club 20 event when a Democratic vacancy committee placed her on the ballot in late August.
Theis spent much of her time introducing herself to the audience, pointing to her work of 35 years at a public utility, designing and permitting rights-of-way for electric lines.
“With that experience, I learned that we need a stronger voice for rural Colorado on the Front Range…” she said.
But Coram said he has already been fighting for rural Colorado. “We fought for rural Colorado. I’ve committed that the ‘R’ behind my name does stand for ‘rural,’ and I have represented everyone well.”
During cross-examination, Theis attempted to attack Coram on women’s rights issues.
“The track record indicates that there’s not been a great deal of support from your office towards the issues of women in Colorado…” said Theis.
But Coram shrugged off the accusation, not even willing to answer the question because he believed it was not an accurate statement.
“I have no idea what you are talking about, so if you have something specific, why don’t you bring it up?” he said.
Coram then asked Theis about unions and energy. Theis said she supports collective bargaining, and added that she supports an all-of-the-above energy plan with a focus on renewable energy.
“It’s imperative that we continue to research and develop all forms of energy, because fossil fuels are going to go away,” said Theis.
Coram, however, was more forceful in his answer, suggesting that there has been an attack on the energy industry in western Colorado and across the nation that he needs to fight against.
“We have had an assault on the coal industry in this nation, and it is time that we as a state Legislature stand up and tell the federal government, no. We are going to mine,” he said.
Libertarian Jeff Downs is also in the race, but he was not invited to the debate.
House District 57
Democrat JoAnn Baxter and Republican Bob Rankin are competing for the HD 57 seat being vacated by Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, as Baumgardner runs for office in Senate District 8.
The dull debate between the two on Saturday had the two candidates agree-ing with each other on many issues, despite their different party affiliations.
Both Baxter and Rankin seemed to put their faith behind the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which handles regulatory affairs for the energy industry in Colorado.
“I actually think that we’re doing a pretty good job, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission is a national leader in setting standards… I would support those people in those efforts” Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, said of the commission.
“The [commission] has a great organization… across the region,” said Baxter, a Democrat from Craig. “I support their recommendations… and I would respect their recommendations.”
When the debate shifted to education during the back and forth questioning, Baxter drew upon her experiences as a former high school teacher and member of the Moffat County Board of Education and asked whether Rankin supported using taxpayer dollars to privatize public schools through a voucher system.
“I support a voucher system, and I support private schools,” Rankin replied. “There are a lot of wonderful examples across the country… competition is good in every aspect of our life.”
Baxter said that she supported Senate Bill 191 in 2010, which brought greater accountability to teacher effectiveness in Colorado.
“I did support Senate Bill 191 and I represent the school association on the Council for Educator Effectiveness,” she said.
Libertarian candidate Dan Enright is also in the race, but he was not invited to participate in the debate.
Senate District 8
Another relatively tame debate pitched Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, against Democratic challenger Emily Tracy, for SD 8.
Baumgardner won a bitter primary against Sen. Jean White, R-Hayden, to secure the Republican Party’s nomination to run in this rural district. But with all the painful attacks from the primary behind him, Baumgardner stood calm and relaxed as he debated Tracy on Saturday.
Perhaps the most contentious issue was over the state budget, in which Tracy questioned why Baumgardner voted against a state budget that had historic bipartisan support and included spending for the Western Slope.
“We’re not like the federal government, of course, because we are required to balance our state budget every year… and there were some important issues to the Western Slope in that budget bill that you voted against. So, I just wanted clarification about what made you decide to set aside those Western Slope interests and vote the way you did?” asked Tracy.
Baumgardner began to explain that he voted against the budget because it increased spending, noting that the final version of the so-called “Long Bill” included increased spending of 7 percent. But he was cut off by time constraints.
Later, during closing remarks, he clarified that he stands for Western Slope interests, but not at the expense of taxpayers.
“I made one promise five years ago when I first started running for office — I told you that I’d do the best job I could for you and that I’d give you 100 percent. I believe that I’ve done that,” said Baumgardner. “Western Slope interests are very important to me, but not at the cost of your pocketbook. You guys send us down there to make sure that you get a fair shake as a taxpayer — that’s my job…”
Libertarian candidate Sacha Weis is also in the race, but she was not invited to the debate.
House District 26
Republican HD 26 candidate Chuck McConnell faced off against Democrat Diane Mitsch-Bush in a debate that had both candidates touting Western Slope values, especially as they pertain to tourism and the ski industry.
Transportation was a significant issue for both candidates, as they pointed out that without a robust transportation system — including relieving congestion along Interstate 70 — tourism and the economic vitality of the region couldn’t survive.
“We also need to focus on transportation. It is one of the key, if not the key pieces of our economic infrastructure,” said Mitsch-Bush.
McConnell agreed, adding, “CDOT has worked hard, they’ve done studies, they’ve put together all kinds of studies to be able to see what can happen to de-bottleneck I-70, and it has to be done.”
On the economy, McConnell focused on removing burdensome regulations on business, suggesting that rules and regulations are the reason so many offices and storefronts across the region are vacant.
“Partnering with government is fine, but we also need to stand up and fight unnecessary regulations that are hurting jobs,” he said.
Mitsch-Bush agreed that there is a fiscal crisis, but said government and business can find ways to work together to solve the problem.
“Government can serve as a partner and a helper to business in this time of economic downturn,” she said.
Mitsch-Bush went on the defensive when McConnell — a former chemical engineer — questioned her decisions as a member of the Routt County Board of County Commissioners. He claimed that she and the commission are making it more difficult for the energy industry to obtain permits, which impacts economic development and job creation.
“You have fought successfully against oil drilling in west Routt County. You succeeded in driving… one of the oil companies that had invested in the county out of the county,” said McConnell. “How do you feel about the fact that the county loses revenue, loses high-paying jobs, revenues for schools and other vital services…?”
Mitsch-Bush called the question an “inaccurate characterization,” stating, “What we did was require water quality pre-testing and monitoring.”
She added, “What we’re doing in Routt County is balanced energy development while still protecting the public safety, health and welfare. We encourage oil and natural gas development.”