Four of Colorado’s Republican gubernatorial candidates met Wednesday evening for their first joint forum in what was a mostly cordial exchange — until the end.
Appearing in a live studio audience taping of “The Aaron Harber Show,” the four candidates — former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, former Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, Secretary of State Scott Gessler and Sen. Greg Brophy — were asked whether they plan on pledging to maintain a polite and respectful debate throughout the primary.
Harber asked the question after Tancredo solicited his fellow candidates to sign the civility pledge in an attempt to stay focused on defeating Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2014.
TV host Aaron Harber, center, poses with the four GOP candidates for governor who appeared on the taping of his show: former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, former Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, Secretary of State Scott Gessler and Sen. Greg Brophy.
Brophy appeared resistant, offering a one-line jab that poked at Tancredo’s exodus from the Republican Party in 2010 when he joined the American Constitution Party to challenge Hickenlooper. Tancredo had become frustrated with scandals that were plaguing the Republican candidates at the time. He later switched back to the GOP.
“If the congressman wants an easy path to the nomination, he might go talk to the American Constitution Party about that,” quipped Brophy.
Tancredo responded that the comment wasn’t very “civil,” referring to Brophy’s earlier comment:
“It’s important that the Republican voters of Colorado understand both the strengths and the weaknesses of everybody who is running, and so I just want to intend to be civil,” Brophy said, just before taking a punch at Tancredo.
Earlier in the forum, when the candidates were asked how to attract independent voters, Tancredo said he would not attack his colleagues to win votes.
“I have said on more than one occasion… that I’m not going to say anything here or in any other forum like this that would create a conflict between me and these other great people who are sitting here because that’s exactly the wrong place for any of us to be,” pledged Tancredo.
He then went on to highlight how he believes he is attractive to voters, saying, “I have a leadership position that I’ve had for years on a number of issues, and I have a background that is fairly extensive in government… I have owned my own business…
“I believe I have the experience and knowledge to make this a successful endeavor, but I’m not going to give anything that is disparaging to any of my colleagues,” Tancredo continued.
Gessler agreed that the primary should stay warm and friendly. But he said he had not had a chance to read Tancredo’s pledge.
“It’s absolutely critical to be respectful of one another, and I’ve spoken personally with every single one here, and have acted in a way that I think treats everyone with respect, and I’ll continue to do that,” answered Gessler.
Kopp also committed to having a peaceful debate, but he did not acknowledge signing the pledge. He said he has directed his staff not to bad mouth the other campaigns. At his campaign kickoff last month, Kopp even resisted attacking Hickenlooper.
“The four of us know each other pretty well here and I think we all understand the stakes,” said Kopp. “The fact of the matter is that we’re going to have differences in our viewpoints on things and voters deserve to know what the differences are, but we don’t have to be nasty about doing that.”
Hickenlooper attacked for Dunlap ‘indecision’
For the most part, however, the candidates appeared to agree with each other on many of the topics. When it came to Hickenlooper, for example, they all widely agreed that he has been a failed leader.
Harber said the governor was asked to join the forum, but that he couldn’t because of a scheduling conflict.
The GOP candidates were especially hard on Hickenlooper for having signed an executive order that granted a temporary reprieve to convicted killer Nathan Dunlap, who was responsible for the 1993 Aurora Chuck E. Cheese murders.
The governor could have signed Dunlap’s execution order, but instead he punted, said the GOP candidates. They believe he would have been better off making a concrete decision, such as signing the execution order, or granting clemency and commuting the death sentence to life in prison without parole.
All four candidates confirmed their full support for the death penalty in Colorado.
“Justice is different than forgiveness,” said Tancredo. “You can forgive, but justice still needs to be done.”
Gessler pointed to his background as an attorney, in which he started as a prosecutor. He added of the governor, “His decision to have it both ways, almost being too cute by half, was truly revealing that he’s unwilling to lead on this issue as well as any other.”
“When you are in office and you’re asked to make such a difficult decision like that, you have to step up and make the difficult decision,” remarked Kopp. “To me, it was a punt, it was a shanked punt. And when the time comes to make that decision, you have got to have a leader that will make that decision who should be considering the people that are hoping to keep their kids safe in our communities.”
Brophy took it one step further, likening the governor’s decision to Pontius Pilate, who served as the judge in the trial of Jesus. Pilate reluctantly authorized Jesus’ crucifixion, but literally washed his hands to demonstrate that he was not actually responsible for Jesus’ execution, according to the Bible.
“The governor really failed all of Colorado and the justice system when he took the Pontius Pilate approach and washed his hands of the decision, kicking the can down the road for a future governor to deal with,” said Brophy.
The senator from rural Wray also argued for expediting death penalty sentences.
“It takes too long,” Brophy answered when Harber asked if the candidates have any concerns with the death penalty. “We should shorten the time period… it shouldn’t take 20 years… it shouldn’t take 20 months.”
The four candidates also seized upon recent controversy surrounding gun control, focusing on the governor’s support of controversial measures, including banning high-capacity ammunition magazines and requiring universal background checks.
On this issue, Brophy was aggressive, saying instead of gun control, the state should look to train individuals such as teachers on using weapons for defense.
“We have to also take on the issue… of hardening up the soft targets, making people at the schools better trained, and all the other places where we are vulnerable,” said Brophy.
Brophy — who has been endorsed by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners — said a list of people who can’t legally purchase a firearm should be available to police officers in the field.
“There’s no reason right now for the police officer on the street to not be able to find out if the person that they’ve made contact with who happens to have a firearm is on the list of those who can’t purchase a firearm,” explained Brophy. “We have to go through these background checks, so that list exists.”
Tancredo agreed that Colorado would be safer if more people carried firearms.
“I also would suggest that encouraging people to be trained and armed would be a good thing,” said Tancredo. “Statistically… the reality is an armed citizenry is a safer citizenry.”
Kopp said that instead of new laws, the state should simply be enforcing the ones that are already on the books.
“We don’t need to create new laws that give people a false sense of security, or some kind of false sense that we’re actually doing something that we’re not doing,” explained Kopp, pointing out that the majority of sheriffs in the state have said that they don’t believe they can enforce the magazine ban.
Gessler said one avenue to protect the population from gun violence would be to focus on the mentally ill.
“You see violent crimes being committed by people who are mentally ill, and we have to do a better job of taking care of and helping mentally ill people, particularly ones who may be a danger to themselves or others,” opined Gessler.
Climate change and carbon emissions
The Republican candidates clearly were not pandering to the environmentalist crowd, as they all questioned the science behind climate change and made arguments against regulations to cap carbon emissions.
“I don’t think it’s true, nor a problem,” said Brophy, who moments later said he would like to see more carbon dioxide in the air because he is a farmer.
“I run a carbon sequestration factory out in eastern Colorado,” he said. “Where we come from, we call that a corn farm. I like the CO2 in the air.”
Kopp said it’s pointless for the United States to worry about its carbon emissions since countries such as China will simply keep adding to the problem.
“Even if we do have some success, it’s immediately eaten up by the likes of China,” he said, adding that the burdensome regulations could cut energy jobs in the state.
“We’re killing people that are just trying to put food on their table,” Kopp declared.
Gessler called the climate change science “hysteria,” saying government needs to take a more rational look at the topic.
“Over the last decade or so there’s actually been a reduction here in the United States, partly because we’ve become more efficient,” said Gessler. “When we push out industry and when we hurt our economy, other countries pick up the slack, and they pollute more than we ever did.”
Tancredo agreed that the climate is changing, but he expressed doubt that the problem is man-made.
“Something is changing. Yes, it always is changing,” expressed Tancredo. “That is the nature of our environment… There’s so much hubris in the idea that we as human beings actually control that process.”
Where the Republican candidates found themselves agreeing with Hickenlooper is on state versus municipal control over energy regulations. The governor has come under fire by environmentalists for objecting to local governments creating their own rules and regulations. Hickenlooper believes the job is best left to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The GOP candidates agreed.
“I think he’s right in this respect, there’s a constitutional issue here as to exactly what degree of control localities can exercise over this,” explained Tancredo. “There’s a bigger issue… the whole idea of property rights… we do guarantee people… the right to the minerals on their property.”
“I agree with our governor,” added Gessler. “The broader problem is that when you look at Colorado and you compare us to other states… where their economy is just booming because of oil and gas exploration, and you look at what we’re not doing, and you look at those states where they’re producing great jobs… that’s what builds an economy… and we’re passing that up.”
Kopp, however, criticized the governor for having supported a rural renewable energy standard this year. As the corporate-affairs manager for the Intermountain Rural Electric Association, Kopp opposed the measure.
“You actually need natural gas to integrate things like wind and solar,” he said. “What do you do when the wind dies down? What do you do when the sun’s not shining? You have to have some kind of rapid response mechanism.”
Brophy agreed that the governor is right to object to a patchwork of local laws, but he criticized Hickenlooper for supporting increased setbacks of oil and gas wells.
“That was just unnecessary…” decried Brophy. “He’s been nickel and diming our industry to death.”
On the issue of wildfires, which have caused catastrophic damage in the state over the last few summers, the Republican candidates agree that the government needs to do more to protect citizens and property.
Tancredo was quick to blame the federal government, which maintains much of the state’s wild lands.
“The federal government owns a much bigger chunk of Colorado than they should,” opined Tancredo. “They have mismanaged our forests to the point that there is so much fuel built up as a result of a policy that we will control every single burn…”
He suggested getting together with other governors to build a “Tenth Amendment Caucus,” which would fight to gain control of the wild lands.
Gessler criticized the governor for not working hard enough to develop a state-owned aerial firefighting fleet. Hickenlooper signed a bill this year to begin developing the fleet, but he did not find the estimated $20 million in the budget to get the program off the ground.
“We’ve got a governor who did not want to allow the state to have its own tanker response and then later that year in Colorado we had some of the most devastating fires here in the history of Colorado,” said Gessler.
“We had a bipartisan bill this year to start building an air tanker fleet and the governor failed to work with us to find the mere $20 million out of the $21-billion budget to fund that,” added Brophy.
Kopp said the only time he ran for his life was from a wildfire, suggesting that the state should leverage more money into mitigation and rapid response.
“I know its devastating potential, I’ve seen it firsthand…” said Kopp.
Not surprisingly, the GOP gubernatorial hopefuls expressed a continued desire to exempt Colorado from President Barack Obama’s federal healthcare law. They have been emboldened recently by a disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov and thousands of cancellation notices going out to individuals whose policies don’t meet the standards of Obamacare.
Tancredo suggested that the state should enter into a new lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. He pointed to a legal challenge that argues that the law imposes new taxes but did not originate in the House, as tax bills are required to under the U.S. Constitution.
“This is a second bite at that apple,” said Tancredo.
Gessler believes that the state should be focused on curbing entitlement spending.
“We’re going to have to get our state Medicaid costs under control because they are going to blow up our budget and really push out the things that we want,” suggested Gessler.
Kopp pointed out that as a lawmaker, he supported the state entering into a lawsuit seeking to overturn Obamacare, and he also pushed legislation that would have exempted the state from portions of the federal law.
As for moving forward, Kopp said, “We form a coalition with other governors from around this country and we get ourselves together a multi-state compact and we go to Congress… then we bring those policies back to the state level where they belong.”
“We’re probably going to be left picking up the pieces of this failed experiment in socialized medicine that is Obamacare,” added Brophy.
Steve House enters race
Steve House, chairman of the Adams County Republican Party, did not attend the forum because he only announced his gubernatorial campaign last weekend, after the forum had been scheduled.
The healthcare consultant from Brighton spoke with The Colorado Statesman this week, explaining his motivation for entering the crowded field.
“I have a really, really optimistic view of what Colorado can be and I think it’s a leadership question about why we’re not where we need to be as a state, and I think anytime you’re involved in anything and you have a passionate belief that we can be doing better than we’re doing, or we should be doing something different, if you’re not willing to get involved, then you’re not really all that passionate of a citizen as you should be.
“Somebody asked me the other day, they said, ‘Do you think five is too many?’ And I said, ‘I think it’s 15 too few,’” added House. “The state has to find a better solution going forward… If it takes us 15, 20 people to find the right leader, so be it.”
House acknowledges that he’s the underdog in the contest, but he believes he’ll be able to overcome the obstacles. He hasn’t yet announced any endorsements or support.
“It’s about having the right message, being willing to take risks, getting out there and doing the work,” explained House. “It’s a marathon as far as I’m concerned, not a sprint.”
The Statesman asked House questions similar to those asked of the other four GOP candidates during the forum:
Why should Hickenlooper be replaced?
“He really hasn’t actively set an agenda to move the state forward. We have challenging problems… But this state should be leading; it should not be ranked in the middle-20s, even lower in some state performance discussions… I would definitely want to move the state into a much more competitive position nationally.”
Death penalty and Nathan Dunlap
“I support the death penalty. The law is very, very clear. Nathan Dunlap should have received the sentence that he was given for the crimes that he committed, no questions asked.”
“I’m not a fan of any law that infringes on the constitution, period. These were clearly Second Amendment infringements in my opinion. Not only did they not help move the state forward strategically, they violated the rights of the citizens of the state protected under the Second Amendment.”
“If you look at the state budget, there are clearly some things in that state budget we need to lean out. We need to streamline the government. There are process changes that need to occur. There would be plenty of money for wildfire support. It’s absolutely critical.”
“Is the climate warmer? It warmed up, there’s no question there was a period of time where it warmed up. It’s been fairly stable and somewhat declining over a period of time. The real question is what is the cause? And I’m not convinced that it is CO2.”
Oil and gas regulation
“I don’t think anybody, including me, wants to have air that’s not clean, or water that’s not clean. But I also don’t believe that somebody in Washington, D.C., can determine what really needs to be done at the state level.
“I’m not convinced that the [COGCC] should do more. There are so many alternative technologies, there’s new filters coming from algae, there’s all kinds of things that are possible solutions to clean our air without necessarily involving local government.”
House, however, disagreed with his fellow Republicans on whether local governments should be allowed to develop their own rules and regulations separate from the state. He believes local governments should be granted that power.
“I believe in local control. No government decision should be made higher than it absolutely has to be made. I think the cities that are banning fracking are hurting themselves. But as the governor, that’s not something that we need to intervene on… I’m not going to take it out of the local control hands of citizens…”
“There’s two ways to break that down… One is the impact on citizens when you lose your health plan and you have much higher costs — that is an impact. And to the extent that the state can defend its citizens’ right to have healthcare in a commercial market way that isn’t expensive, I think we have to continue to do that.
“The other issue is what’s the actual impact on care going to be? When you have Medicaid expansion you’re going to increase the roles of Medicaid, you’re going to increase the costs of the state far more than they’re telling us. I’m worried that it’s going to downgrade the care, and if care gets downgraded then the citizens in this state have to deal with a lower quality healthcare, and there’s no reason in the world that they have to do that and Obamacare needs to be repealed so that healthcare can take care of itself.
“Anything we can do to incentivize the healthcare system to create its own future through innovation, through incentives, is the best solution.”
Respecting other GOP opponents; Tancredo’s pledge
“I don’t need to sign a piece of paper to do what I’m going to do anyway. I can give my word and shake someone’s hand and that is good enough for me. I don’t need to sign a pledge for that.
“I think the Colorado voters want to hear what we plan on doing to give them, as shareholders of the state, more value. They don’t want to hear me pick on other Republican candidates, and I have no interest in doing that. I want to contrast what’s going on in the state with what I’m going to do versus what John Hickenlooper has done. I don’t really want to talk about the other four.”
ED’s Note: “The Aaron Harber Show” Republican gubernatorial debate is expected to air online at HarberTV.com in the coming weeks. It will later air on Channel 3.
See the Nov. 15 print edition for full photo coverage.