First presidential debate bypassed important issues, some complain

The Colorado Statesman

When the first presidential debate of the fall election was over, and the myriad of media cameras that had descended on Denver left town, advocates for an assortment of polarizing issues wondered why the two major party candidates hadn’t addressed their concerns.

Despite having the help of high-profile politicos from Colorado and across the nation who had all landed in Denver for the debate on Oct. 3, advocates for issues such as mass transit, gun control, climate change, banking reform and immigration couldn’t believe that the first debate left these topics largely untouched.

They hope that as the next presidential debate approaches on Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in New York, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will be compelled to discuss their issues. With the debate being a town hall format, there is hope.

The Amalgamated Transit Union, the largest union representing transit workers in the United States, held a rally at the Market Street Station at noon on the Tuesday before the first debate, with supporters such as Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, and state Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver.

The rally was pegged as bipartisan, seeking to encourage transit riders to register to vote and elect candidates that take transportation issues seriously. But the speakers were Democrats who occasionally campaigned for Obama.

Williams, who addressed the union workers at the rally as her “brothers and sisters,” was direct in her support for Obama, stating that the president is more concerned with transit issues than Romney.

“Mobilizing volunteers and building coalitions is going to be so important to ensure that we get candidates who will support transit oriented information, who support transit oriented legislation, and who are going to support our president who is one of our biggest supporters of transit,” said Williams.

DeGette highlighted her work helping to secure $50 million in federal dollars for the redevelopment of Union Station, as well as her work advocating for the entire FasTracks light rail expansion project in metro Denver.

“What we have demonstrated here is that transportation has a multiplier effect on communities,” said the congresswoman. “It doesn’t just take people from place to place, it stimulates the economy, it improves the quality of life, and it also addresses climate change.”

But neither Romney nor Obama addressed the issue of mass transit during what turned into a freewheeling debate. Union leaders with the ATU hope that future debates will include the topic.

“It should be part of any discussion about the economy because mass transit is so closely tied to economic development and jobs, especially concerning the unemployed with the jobs that are out there,” said Bill Jones, an attorney for ATU Local 1001.

Gun control

Advocates for gun control used the spotlight on Denver to remind Americans of the recent Aurora movie theater mass shooting, and to ask the presidential candidates to bring the discussion more to the forefront. But the issue never came up at the debate at the University of Denver.

Still, a survivor of the July shooting — which took the lives of 12 people and injured 58 more — appeared in a new TV ad asking the presidential candidates to explain how they will reduce gun violence.

The ad, spearheaded by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, features Stephen Barton, a recent Syracuse University graduate who was shot while spending the night in Aurora on a bicycle trip across America.

“I never thought I’d be a shooting victim until I was bleeding on a floor in Aurora,” said Barton. “I was lucky, but I’ve seen what happens when dangerous people get their hands on guns. And I think it’s fair to ask the men who want to lead the country to get past the platitudes and give us a serious plan to address a serious problem.”

Neither candidate, however, addressed gun control, even though moderator Jim Lehrer allowed the candidates to stray from specific topics.

Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and a Colorado native, said he was disappointed that the issue was not raised in the first debate, but hopes for future messaging on the subject.

“I’m disappointed but not surprised. Having a presidential debate a few miles from two major mass shootings and not mentioning it is a little like going to Chernobyl and not talking about nuclear policy,” said Glaze,
referring to the Aurora shooting and the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.

Climate change and the Keystone Pipeline

A coalition of Colorado parents and children were disappointed that the candidates did not address climate change, especially after having gathered around Denver leading up to the debate, calling on the presidential candidates to explain their plans to address the issue of global warming.

Sponsored by Climate Parents and Mom’s Clean Air Force, the coalition on Oct. 1 unveiled a billboard at Trinity United Methodist Church at 18th and Broadway, which features a young girl asking the presidential candidates, “Which way will you lead us?”

A separate climate change rally was held just hours before the presidential debate on the University of Denver campus. Youth vote leaders joined with environmental groups like 350.org to call on the candidates to “break the silence” on climate change.

Brad Johnson, campaign manager of Forecast the Facts, said he was frustrated that the issue did not come up. Johnson helped to organize the event at which the climate change billboard was unveiled in Denver.

“There was more talk of firing Big Bird at the first presidential debate than addressing climate change,” said Johnson, referring to a comment by Romney that he would defund PBS as part of his budget-balancing effort. “Moderator Jim Lehrer slept on the job while Mitt Romney and Barack Obama remained mute on the threat of global warming, disregarding the groundswell of American voters demanding that they break their silence.”

Maura Cowley, executive director of Energy Action Coalition, which helped to organize the debate day rally, said the forum was a failure from the perspective of environmentalists.

“President Obama and Gov. Romney failed, yet again, to address the very real problem of climate change — one of the most important issues to youth voters,” Cowley said a day later. “Despite unprecedented extreme weather events, both candidates ignored the pleas of young voters and remained silent on global warming, leaving us to wonder how our potential leaders will look out for our futures.”

Another environmental question that came up in the days leading up to the debate was about the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline.

Environmental activists and Native American leaders lined up to oppose the proposed 1,200-mile project, which would construct a pipeline system to transport oil from Canada to multiple destinations in the United States.

Opponents of the $5 billion project fear that the pipeline would add to the world’s global warming effects, while supporters say the project would add jobs and ease the nation’s reliance on foreign oil.

Tom Weis, president of Climate Crisis Solutions, delivered an open letter to the campaign offices of Obama and Romney, calling on the candidates to oppose the Keystone pipeline.

Romney quickly addressed the issue during the debate, though not much time was spent on it. Romney’s answer wasn’t to the liking of environmentalists. He threw his full support behind the project.

“Mr. President, all of the increase in natural gas and oil has happened on private land, not on government land. On government land, your administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half,” said Romney as he approached the issue of the Keystone Pipeline. “If I’m president, I’ll double them, and also get the oil from offshore and Alaska. And I’ll bring that pipeline in from Canada.”

Romney’s comment irked Weis, who added that even Obama has expressed interest in pursuing the pipeline. Tribal leaders also oppose the proposal because of the potential danger it poses to nearby water pipelines, which is the source of clean drinking water for several American Indian tribes, as well as for farmers and the general public.

“The southern and northern webs of the Keystone XL Pipeline represent the extraction and trafficking of dirty, toxic, carbon-intense synthetic crude oil that from cradle-to-grave is a weapon of mass destruction against Mother Earth,” charged Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, which includes American Indian leaders. “President Obama and Gov. Romney have an opportunity to show they are men of conscience by withdrawing their support for this project.”

Foreclosures

Progressive groups also joined in on the rallying, “swimming” around the University of Denver campus on Oct. 3 to shine a light on the lending industry and foreclosures.

Colorado Progressive Action street demonstrators utilized a theatrical octopus pulling homes underwater while SCUBA divers handed out materials on foreclosures.

“The next president, be it President Obama or Gov. Romney, needs to make principle reduction for homeowners and Wall Street accountability a top priority in their first 100 days,” demanded Corrine Fowler, economic justice dir-ector for Colorado Progressive Action.

Foreclosures specifically did not come up during the debate, but both candidates spent some time addressing banking reform. Romney said he would “repeal and replace” the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which instituted sweeping reforms and regulations on the banking industry.

“Dodd-Frank was passed. And it includes within it a number of provisions that I think has some unintended consequences that are harmful to the economy,” Romney said during the debate. “One is it designates a number of banks as too big to fail, and they’re effectively guaranteed by the federal government.”

Obama defended the need for Dodd-Frank, pointing to “reckless” behavior on the part of the financial industry.

“You also had banks making money hand over fist, churning out products that the bankers themselves didn’t even understand, in order to make big profits, but knowing that it made the entire system vulnerable,” the president said during the debate.

But the Colorado Progressive Coalition voiced disappointment with both candidates. They wanted to see support for the 1933 Baking Act, which is often referred to as the Glass-Steagall Act. The law imposed strict banking reforms on the nation, but many called it irrelevant as time went on.

“The safeguards of Glass-Steagall created a financial system that was built on confidence and fairness,” opined Fowler. “It protected consumer investments and ensured access to capital for more than six decades.”

Fowler said she also would have liked to see more attention from the candidates on the foreclosure crisis. “If the presidential candidates are unwilling to even discuss solutions to the housing crisis, then we will find legislative solutions here in Colorado to help our communities recover,” she said.

Immigration

Also taking advantage of the political attention emanating from Denver last week were dozens of faith leaders, im-migrants and community leaders who demanded an end to the separation of families through detention and deportation of undocumented residents.

“Migration is a human right, people have migrated for centuries,” said Jordan Garcia, organizing director for the American Friends Service Committee, which helped to organize the rally on Oct. 3. “The militarization and policing of borders is out of step with not only our history, but with our familial and economic realities.”

But the issue of immigration was passed over on Wednesday.

“We understand that the campaigns agree ahead of time on what topics to cover during the first presidential debate. However, we do believe that immigration has a huge impact on the continued bounce back of the U.S. economy,” added Garcia after the debate. “We believe that immigration is relevant, and working to pull workers out of the shadows can only strengthen the economy. We expect both candidates for presidency to address this urgent matter soon, our families can’t wait.”

Education

The Colorado Education Association, the union representing teachers in Colorado, also used the debate as an opportunity to promote its cause, launching a series of ads during the week that featured how teachers can fuel success stories.

The ads — which will run in Colorado during the other upcoming presidential debates as well — feature 2008 Olympic bronze medalist and Denver native David Oliver, and Wende Curtis, owner of Comedy Works in Denver.

Education advocates got lucky, as the topic was a significant focal point of the debate. Both candidates attempted to convince the American people that they believe in a strong education system fueled by teachers, in part as it relates to growing the nation’s future economic prospects.

Romney was defensive at times, seeking to debunk accusations by Obama that he doesn’t share in a strong commitment to education and teachers.

“I love great schools. Massachusetts, our schools are ranked No. 1 of all 50 states,” boasted the former governor. “And the key to great schools, great teachers,” Romney added. “So, I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers or more teachers. Every school district, every state should make that decision on their own.”

Obama said that he has a plan to hire 100,000 new math and science teachers, and to create 2 million more slots in the country’s community colleges, while also keeping tuition low.

The president also highlighted his federal “Race to the Top” program, which has provided public school funding to states that have been chosen after a vigorous application process. Colorado has failed in three Race to the Top competitions, but received a $17.9 million grant in December following a similar federal application process.

“We’ve seen layoffs of hundreds of thousands of teachers over the last several years, and Gov. Romney doesn’t think we need more teachers,” con-tended Obama. “I do, because I think that is the kind of investment where the federal government can help.”

Following the debate, CEA officials said that they were not impressed with Romney’s performance on the issue of teachers and education.

“We did not hear anything in the first debate to change our minds about President Obama and our national recommendation for his re-election,” said Jeanne Beyer, spokeswoman for CEA. “We believe the president is the best choice for the future of public education and the future of America.”

CEA points to Obama’s record of working to save teachers from layoffs and increasing federal scholarships and financial aid for college students.

“President Obama believes a good education is an economic necessity for everyone and a key element in creating an economy built to last,” said Beyer.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com