Governor candidates make cases

By Ernest Luning

After upsetting Republican front-runner Scott McInnis at the GOP state assembly two weeks ago, gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes told a Denver civic group he plans to upset state government if he gets past the primary and wins the election this fall.

“I look at a campaign as if it were a job interview,” Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper tells the Denver Lions Club at a forum June 1 in Denver. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is running for governor and addressed the club along with Republican candidates Dan Maes and Scott McInnis.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“You’re probably still asking yourself, ‘Who’s Dan Maes?’” the Evergreen businessman told a group of about 100 members and guests of the Denver Lions Club at a downtown luncheon forum Tuesday that also featured McInnis and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who is unopposed for the Democratic nomination for governor.

It was the first time all three candidates appeared on the same stage. A third Republican, Castle Rock businessman Joe Gschwendtner, is petitioning his way onto the primary ballot, but state officials haven’t ruled yet whether he turned in enough valid signatures last week.

Each candidate had a dozen minutes to speak and then took questions from Lions for about five minutes. While the three contenders shared a table for lunch, they spoke one after the other and didn’t exchange any words before the crowd at Maggiano’s Little Italy restaurant.

Promising “no political story for you to hear today,” Maes said he would bring to bear 25 years of business experience to take an ax to state government. In addition to culling the ranks of state employees, he proposed suspending Amendment 23, a voter-approved measure that mandates state spending levels for K-12 education. He also said he would cut taxes and toss regulations imposed on the oil and gas industry in order to stimulate the economy and attract jobs to the state.

Third GOP candidate weighs in on forum questions

Republican candidate Joe Gschwendtner — who isn’t officially on the primary ballot yet — wasn’t invited to participate in the gubernatorial forum this week at the Denver Lions Club. No sweat, his campaign spokesman said.

“We understand different groups have different criteria who they invite and why — so be it,” Kyle Fisk told The Colorado Statesman.

Fisk said he expects to get word from the Secretary of State’s office sometime next week approving the candidate’s petition drive to make the ballot after the Castle Rock businessman turned in 17,000 signatures last week.

Should Gschwendtner qualify, his name will appear below Evergreen businessman and political novice Dan Maes and former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis. The three Republicans are scheduled to appear together for the first time at a debate June 22 in Colorado Springs.

The Statesman asked Gschwendtner some of the questions posed by Lions Club members to the other candidates at Tuesday’s forum. Here are his answers:

Q. Should all Colorado high school students have to take a test demonstrating knowledge of the U.S. Constitution to graduate?

A: I think that would be a great idea, but let’s make sure they are employable first. That seems to be the biggest problem in education right now.

Q. What are some specific examples of state spending/programs you would cut?

A: All of them. The basic principle behind zero-based budgeting is that every penny must be justified every time and not hidden away after it gets approved once. I would make every program prove its value every budget cycle.

Q. So much of the state budget is fixed by constitutional provisions. How would you deal with this?

A: I think we need a constitutional convention to restore responsibility and accountability for the budget to our elected officials. Amending the constitution has placed us in a fiscal vise that prevents good budgeting and allows our elected officials to avoid being held accountable for governing.

Q. What would you do about illegal immigration?

A: Stop it. I will be a strong voice in the National Governors Association to demand that the federal government do its job. I support E-verify systems and I also support immigration reform so that qualified individuals can come to our country quickly and legally.

Q. How would you handle PERA and Pinnacol?

A: First of all, I will handle PERA. The current administration failed to act and pretended to solve the problem. I will refuse such political theater and demand that a genuine fix be made. There will be no pie-in-the-sky 8 percent rates of return that allow us to pretend all is well.

“I will do what it takes to make government smaller,” he said, comparing the state to “failing operations” he’s fixed in the private sector.

The political novice said he doesn’t need “blue-ribbon commissions” to tell him how to accomplish his goals — a gibe at panels set up by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, who quit his reelection campaign earlier this year. “You walk into a failing operation. Look at where the failures are, and you get rid of them,” Maes said. “And you find out where the fat and the waste are and get rid of it.”

His approach isn’t just a response to the state’s recent economic woes, Maes said, but reflects his governing philosophy.

“You don’t downsize government just to balance the budget,” he said. “You downsize government because it’s what our founding fathers wanted for us.”

One way to slash the state budget would be to cut funding for education, Maes said, despite the constitutional provision that sets spending levels.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing a suspension of (Amendment) 23, just like we suspended TABOR. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” he said. “Until we start seeing public school grades (and standardized test results) going up, we have to stop throwing money at the problem and start demanding results instead.”

Maes also proposed eliminating operations entirely to slash the state payroll.

“A good way to get rid of headcount is to say, ‘We’re not going to fund your department this year,’ and the funding is gone, and the positions go away. That’s how we downsize.”

Maes branded his candidacy part of a “conservative revolution” sweeping the country, or at least the Republican Party. His narrow victory at the state assembly over McInnis, a former six-term congressman from the Western Slope, demonstrated that Republicans are tired of politics as usual, he said.

Undaunted, McInnis, who spoke next, pointed to his career in the state Legislature and Congress as proof he can actually fix things in Colorado.

“This last year was about the coldest we’ve had for business in my legislative career,” he said, laying blame for job losses on state policies.

McInnis said he decided to run for governor — after spending most of the last decade working for a law firm — when he saw natural gas drilling decline.

“What does this governor and what does this Legislature do? They put into place the toughest anti-drilling regulations in the country,” he said, promising to repeal the rules he termed “punitive measures.”

“We don’t need to unionize state agencies,” he said, vowing to “decertify” collective bargaining for state employees as soon as he took office.

Reminiscing about his years as majority leader in the state House, McInnis said he didn’t need “one Democrat vote” to pass major legislation, but that he always “went across the aisle” to keep the statehouse bipartisan. Then he proceeded to blast Democrats in the recently adjourned General Assembly for passing numerous fee increases without any Republican cooperation, saying the laws are chasing businesses and jobs from the state.

McInnis also said he understands why Arizona lawmakers passed a harsh law recently to deal with the federal government “completely neglecting” its duties to guard the borders. “I have zero tolerance on illegal immigration,” he said, also noting he opposes efforts to grant in-state tuition to children of undocumented immigrants.

Casting himself as a “nonpolitician” like Maes, but pointing to a record of accomplishment like the one touted by McInnis, Hickenlooper had the crowd laughing as he recounted the familiar story of his resurrection from a laid-off geologist to brew pub pioneer in Denver’s Lower Downtown.

“This is the second campaign I’ve ever been in,” he said, before proceeding to tick off what he termed successes as Denver’s mayor since 2003. He said his administration has cut chronic homelessness in the city by 60 percent and cut per capita water consumption by 20 percent, but acknowledged, “It’s open season on government right now.”

After a Lions Club member asked why he was running as a Democrat, Hickenlooper replied, “I’m not as much as Democrat as I am a Coloradan.” He hasn’t paid attention to party affiliation when making appointments as mayor, he said, and was surprised to learn his chief of staff, Roxane White, was a Republican months after she’d taken the job.

“Most people refer to me as a bad Democrat,” he said, “but I resist that image.”