It’s time for another one of our world-famous debate diaries. Today we’re taking you through the blow-by-blow of a one-hour debate between Democratic candidates for Governor as part of the “Colorado Decides” series — sponsored by Colorado Public Television, CBS4 Denver, KOA NewsRadio and KUNC. This debate took place on the afternoon of May 30, and will air on CPT12 tonight at 9:00 pm. The entire debate is also available now via YouTube.
Let’s get ready to grumbllleeee…
*NOTE: When we do our “live” Debate Diaries, we normally list the most current update at the top of the page. But because we’re posting this entire Debate Diary at once, it makes more sense to write it out chronologically from the top-down. As always, unless it is in direct quotes, consider all statements paraphrased in the interest of time and/or the prevention of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Our moderators for this debate are “Colorado Inside Out” host Dominic Dezzutti, political analyst Eric Sondermann, and CBS4 political reporter Shaun Boyd.
Seated together across from the moderators are former State Senator Mike Johnston, former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne, and Congressman Jared Polis. None of the candidates appear to be particularly enthusiastic; they all look like they are expecting to be waterboarded at some point.
Shaun Boyd asks the first question: Is there any policy area where you fundamentally disagree with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders? This is an awful question to ask right out of the gate.
Polis goes first. He’s dressed in a dark suit and a dark tie, which works well compared to the more relaxed attire we’ve seen from Polis on the campaign trail. Polis mentions his support for universal healthcare and his plan for 100% renewable energy in Colorado, and generally talks about a “forward-thinking” agenda.
Boyd jumps in here and asks if Polis can name a specific policy on which he disagrees with Sanders. Polis responds, rightly, that he is not “intimately familiar” with all of Sen. Sanders’ policy positions but would be happy to talk about whatever individual issues Boyd would like to discuss. It’s not clear what Boyd expected to get out of this question, but she kicks it over to Lynne nevertheless.
Lynne is wearing a blue-and-white patterned dress underneath a dark jacket. Lynne talks about being a “pragmatic Democrat” and pivots to her experience “leading large organizations.”
“I think what we want in a Governor is somebody who’s got that track record,” says Lynne. This is probably not the best response for Lynne given that her career in public service only goes back to her LG appointment in Spring 2016.
Lynne continues by saying she has a different approach than “Senator Sanders and some of the far left positions that he’s been taking.” Also probably not the best thing to say with just a few weeks to go until the Democratic Primary.
Up next is Kennedy, who is wearing a sleeveless pink dress. Kennedy starts with some bland boiler-plate gibberish about Colorado “being a national model,” then says that education should be the state’s top priority. “The next Governor…needs to bring people together and work across both sides of the aisle.” Well, this is already very exciting.
Boyd tries again to get someone to answer about “specific” issues of disagreement with Sen. Sanders. Kennedy responds similarly to Polis by saying she’d have to look more closely at Sanders’ record. You’re just not going to get insightful answers from terrible questions. Maybe this is why Sen. Cory Gardner loves talking to Boyd.
Johnston gets to bat cleanup. He’s dressed in a shirt and tie (which is strategically-loose for that extra ‘cool middle school teacher guy’ look) with no jacket and his sleeves rolled up. Johnston and his consultants probably had a 30-minute conversation about whether or not to roll his sleeves.
“There are some things that I agree with [Sanders] on, and there are some things that I disagree with,” says Johnston. Well, that was certainly worth repeating.
Oh, look, Johnston is actually going to answer Boyd’s question! He says he disagrees with Sanders on the issue of a free college education, punctuating his answer with this very focus-groupy statement: “I don’t think it’s a Colorado value.”
“My proposal, called ‘The Colorado Promise,’ is that people ought to be able to earn access to skills training or community college by providing service to the state.” Johnston just managed to work ‘Colorado value’ and ‘Colorado promise’ into one 15-second answer. He’s like a human slogan.
At last, we are done with this first question. Sondermann takes the floor to talk about how the next Governor will likely preside over some sort of economic downturn. Sondermann is probably a hit at parties. His question is two parts: 1) What would be the first thing you would look to cut, and 2) What makes you qualified to be Governor during an “economic contraction”?
Johnston gets the first crack at this one. He says that the University of Colorado is projecting that a recession will come sooner rather than later because Colorado doesn’t have the talent base for new jobs and also lacks the infrastructure to move people around the state efficiently. This debate is really bumming us out.
“The first thing I would do as Governor is go to the ballot in 2020 and repeal some of the worst parts of TABOR so that we can actually fund our roads and bridges and schools to avoid that problem.” Johnston also talks about the need to have a “rainy day fund” in Colorado’s budget. He says he would make cuts to the state Corrections system and “stop criminalizing mental health, stop criminalizing drug addiction, and stop criminalizing poverty,” which he claims would save hundreds of millions of dollars.
Cary Kennedy is up next. “I managed the state’s finances throughout the last economic crisis,” she says, which is a pretty good straightforward answer. Then she launches into something about managing budgets and state investments and risky debt deals and…sorry, we fell asleep there for a moment. We should be earning overtime wages for sitting through this debate.
“It’s critically important that we keep Colorado’s economy strong and we keep our state’s finances on good, strong financial footing,” etc., etc.
Donna Lynne: “I cut my teeth 42 years ago in New York City during their fiscal crisis…I’ve been through the worst of crisis times to deal with finances.” Neat!
“Clearly we have some pent-up demand for things like roads and education,” says Lynne before embarking on a long-winded explanation of how the budget process works in Colorado. Seriously. Under threat of torture we couldn’t recount anything that Lynne just said.
Polis finishes up this question by saying, “I don’t see it as more government, I see it as better government.” Polis then goes on to talk about business and nonprofit organizations that he has started in the past. This answer is not particularly interesting, either, but Polis stands out because he is infinitely more energetic than the other three candidates combined – there really is a noticeable difference.
Shaun Boyd now has individual questions for candidates. She starts by asking Kennedy if she denounces a recent television ad (run by a PAC supporting her candidacy) that attacks Johnston and Polis on education issues.
Kennedy says she has taken a “clean campaign pledge” and will only produce positive ads. “This is an ad they have produced to communicate [that] there are differences in our positions in education policy.”
Kennedy talks for about a minute but never really answers the question, so Boyd follows up. “But yes or no?” she asks. “Do you denounce this ad since it is an attack ad and you did take a [clean campaigns] pledge?”
“I don’t like negative campaigning, but this was the teacher’s ad, not mine,” answers Kennedy. Yeah, not great.
Johnston jumps in here and talks about how he thinks the ad is strange because it calls his education policies “conservative.”
“What ‘conservative’ are they referring to? I don’t know if it was Barack Obama they were referring to, who launched this platform in 2008, or this Democratic speaker, or La Raza, or the NAACP…or Governor Bill Ritter. I’m not sure who the ‘conservatives’ are in that frame.” This is a decent, if meandering, response, but then Johnston goes for the jugular.
“This is really a leadership question,” says Johnston. “You took a clean campaign pledge. Your coalition broke that promise. Now what are you going to do to ensure that promise is kept? If you’re going to lead in that situation, you would, one, say, ‘I denounce this ad and call for them to take it down.’ Two, if they won’t take it down, I’ll call the donors who have given to that fund and ask them to withdraw their money. Third, if they don’t, I’ll ask those coalitions to rescind their endorsement of me. Because you’re either going to build a coalition that lives by your values, or you’re not.”
Hallelujah! This debate is finally getting interesting.
“And you would do these things if ‘Frontier Fairness’ took out an ad that attacked your opponents?” asks Boyd (Frontier Fairness is the name of a PAC that is supporting Johnston’s candidacy).
“Absolutely,” replies Johnston.
Kennedy interjects at this point and essentially just repeats what she said a few minutes earlier before talking vaguely about the problems with Johnston’s education policies. This is the kind of situation where Kennedy needs to demonstrate more fire in her response, but it’s just not there. She concludes by saying this about the group running the ad in question: “It is absolutely within their right” to tell voters about Johnston’s record on education.
We’re heating up!
“Cary, you supported Senate Bill 191,” says Johnston, referencing his 2010 legislation that is at the forefront of these arguments. “In 2012 you called it a national model that helps give us the tools to drive toward student achievement. I don’t know when you changed your mind on that – it’s published under your name.”
Kennedy flashes an irritated smile and shakes her head, saying quietly, “I don’t remember that at all.”
“It’s the school finance partnership that you co-chaired,” continues Johnston. “That was the author of the report – the first paragraph that you authored. So if you changed your mind, that’s fine, but I think the question is…are you going to fulfill the promise you made about keeping a clean campaign pledge, or are you not? I think the voters deserve to know if you are going to keep promises you make, or if you are not.”
Johnston is obviously trying to leave a mark here, but the attack seems a bit forced. We don’t know exactly what “report” Johnston is talking about, but from what he says, it sounds like he’s trying to hold Kennedy accountable for a particular paragraph in a larger report that may have included her name as a contributor. That’s…weak.
Pushing Kennedy on her response to the attack ad, however, is fair game; Kennedy had plenty of opportunity earlier to stake out more of a defense, and Johnston is smart to keep driving ahead.
Polis jumps into the fray: “I would just say that I think this is a bit of a pattern here with Cary Kennedy. Real leaders don’t shift responsibility. They take ownership. From what I can tell, the attack on me was based on an op-ed I wrote almost 20 years ago.”
Polis says that Kennedy was the lobbyist for “an organization that was pushing vouchers,” then adds that he has an ‘A’ record with the National Education Association and has voted against vouchers every time they have come up during his tenure in Congress.
Boyd asks Polis if he supported SB-141 at the time it was being discussed. Polis deflects the question and says firmly, “I have never supported vouchers.”
Donna Lynne hasn’t been included in this discussion because she wasn’t mentioned in the ad (which is also because she is running a distant fourth in this field), but she takes the opportunity to add her own comments anyway.
“I’m not a big fan of bickering,” says Lynne. “I think leaders don’t bicker. I think they go forward.”
Thanks, grandma. By the way, this is a POLTICAL DEBATE.
Sondermann changes topics now to something a bit more obscure: Democrats at the State Convention in April discussing a resolution asking the group “Democrats for Education Reform” (DFER) to stop using the word “Democrat” in their title. Sondermann wants to know if the candidates agree with this resolution and about whether there “is room in this party” for “these kinds of disagreements about education policy.”
This is stupid. Is the Republican Party just writing all of the questions for this debate? Sondermann just asked the candidates if there is room for disagreement on education policy when they just spent the last 10 minutes disagreeing on education policy.
Lynne answers first. “Last I checked, this is America, and you can say what you want to say. And I think that’s a good thing.” Just so long as there is no bickering.
Lynne continues by talking about student testing and House Bill 1202, whatever that is; Lynne is trying really, really hard to sound like she was intimately involved in everything that happened in the state legislature since she became LG two years ago.
“To me, testing is about giving tools to teachers, and not about rating them,” says Lynne. Are you hearing the words coming out of your mouth?
Lynne adds that she disagrees with the resolution, then puts her head back into the sand: “Our job is to beat the Republicans in November. Not to have disagreements amongst ourselves.”
Polis starts his answer by repeating that he is proud to have an ‘A’ rating from the NEA during his time in Congress. “So teachers know what they are going to get [from me] – an active advocate.” This is a smart approach by Polis to keep hitting on outside validation from education groups.
Polis doesn’t answer the question about DFER, which is fine because it’s too “inside baseball” to be relevant.
Sondermann turns the question to Kennedy, adding that many of her supporters backed the DFER resolution. The moderators of this debate are a tad obsessive about demanding specific answers to stupid questions.
“We need to unite behind a common agenda to improve public education,” says Kennedy. “We have the top-ranked economy in the nation, and our investment in education ranks at the bottom among states.”
Sondermann: “Let me just push for a little bit more of a definitive answer.” For crying out loud, man! Nobody cares about your dumb question.
Kennedy responds perfectly. “It’s asking the wrong question. It’s fighting the wrong issues. There’s room for everybody.”
Johnston dutifully answers Sondermann’s question by saying he opposes the resolution. Johnston is probably going to leave a shiny red apple on Sondermann’s desk before he leaves today.
Johnston then pivots to a familiar theme – highlighting the importance of increased education funding for teachers. All four candidates have talked about this in a similar manner during this debate.
Dezzutti introduces the next question by saying that it comes from one of the program’s sponsors, AARP. The question is about what can be done to balance conflicting budget amendments in Colorado.
Johnston: “I think this is one of the most important issues facing the state. If the next governor doesn’t solve it, we’re going to see 10 years of declining growth in Colorado.” Johnston then repeats his earlier message about pushing for TABOR reforms through a ballot initiative in 2020. “So that’s what I would do as governor,” he concludes.
Lynne: “Quite frankly, formulas, which is what is common about all of them [Amendment 23, TABOR, and the Gallagher Amendment], whether it’s the ratio of residential to commercial property or population plus inflation in our other Constitutional amendments – they’re just wrong. They are wrong. We’ve got to ask leaders…to step up and recognize that situations are different than they were 25 years ago. And that’s what I think I bring to the table is that ability to open that conversation.”
Lynne is a relative newcomer to Colorado politics, as we’ve mentioned. She often sounds like she is “mansplaining” about how things work with the budget or the legislature; she’s excited about all of this information she has learned in the last two years but comes off as sounding unaware that others might already understand these things. It’s very off-putting.
Lynne concludes by talking about how proud she is of working on something called a Strategic Committee on Aging.
Kennedy says that Coloradans are frustrated by the fact that we have a strong economy but an aging infrastructure and an inability to pay for basic services. Interestingly, Kennedy does not mention that she was a primary author of Amendment 23. It seems like this would have been a good time to bring that up.
Polis concludes this topic with a meandering response that starts with fire fighters and wildfire dangers. He finishes strong, however, by talking about leadership and throwing in his support for a “front range rail” system to improve Colorado’s mass transit options.
Boyd says she has individual questions for Kennedy and Polis. First question is for Kennedy: “You are opposed to vouchers in education, and yet you sent your own kids to private school through eighth grade. What do you say to parents who want that same opportunity for their kids but can’t afford it.”
We’ve been critical of the questions in this debate thus far, but Boyd finally hits on a solid query.
Kennedy begins her response by stating her opposition to vouchers and using public money to help fund private schools, then reverts to her talking points about Colorado having a strong economy but not properly funding public schools. She definitely doesn’t want to answer the question.
Boyd follows up. “But you understand how some people would say, ‘this isn’t fair, really.’ You send your own kids to private school but then you say to them, ‘you have to stay in your failing neighborhood school.’”
“I feel really lucky,” responds Kennedy. “I feel blessed that we were able to send our kids to a school that supported their individual learning needs. I have worked on this issue my entire career because I believe that every one of Colorado’s kids deserves that great education.”
There’s no sugarcoating this one. This is an awful look for Kennedy.
Boyd switches over to Polis for a question about his introduction of a bill to repeal the Republican tax plan.
“For five years, though, before you entered Congress, you paid no federal income tax and have used onshore and offshore Cayman Island accounts to avoid paying taxes. Critics contend a repeal of that tax reform law would amount to a tax increase of thousands of dollars a year for the average family in Colorado. How do you square you not paying taxes with raising taxes on middle class families.”
This is hackery at its worst. Boyd should be embarrassed by this crap. It is patently absurd to assert that repealing the Republican tax plan – which has repeatedly been shown to benefit wealthy Americans at the expense of everyone else – is tantamount to raising taxes on the middle class. This is intellectually dishonest by Boyd.
Polis points out that the Republican tax plan in fact raised taxes for many Colorado families. “By the way, every Democrat voted against that tax giveaway, and some Republicans voted against it as well,” he says. “You’d think Republicans would know how to cut taxes – it’s all they talk about. But they did this tax bill, and it actually raises people’s taxes.”
This is a very poised response from Polis. He easily could have been lured into fighting back at Boyd’s accusations, but he stayed on message and kept the focus of the question on what Republicans proposed, as well as his own proposal for forgiving college loan debts.
Dezzutti moves on to a question for Lynne about her pledge to not run for Governor in 2018 when she was announced as John Hickenlooper’s choice for Lieutenant Governor.
“I think the most important qualificiations [sic] for being the Governor is having experience governing – not legislating, not doing something else,” says Lynne. She’s essentially basing her entire argument for Governor on the fact that she was appointed LG in Spring 2016, which is silly.
“Is legislating not governing?” asks Dezzutti.
“Well, it’s a different kind of governing,” replies Lynne. “It’s very different than running the State of Colorado, which has a $30 billion budget with 31,000 employees.” The problem with this answer, of course, is that Lynne has not been running the State of Colorado. She is convinced that her service as Lieutenant Governor is akin to being the actual Governor, but it is not. And it’s not even close.
Lynne then talks about why Hickenlooper picked her to be LG. “He had suggestions from people. People approached him. There was a newspaper article. And he said, ‘I want somebody who’s got some management experience, as I have, to be in charge of departments. To really work issues together.’”
In case you were wondering, here’s what Colorado’s Lieutenant Governor actually does:
According to the Colorado Constitution, the Lieutenant Governor has the authority to act as the Governor if the sitting Governor is traveling out of state or unable to act as Governor. The Constitution created the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office and designates the Lieutenant Governor as Chair of the Commission (CRS 24-44-102 & CRS 24-44-104). Additionally, the Lieutenant Governor has the ability to act as the head of a principal department or as the state’s Chief Operating Officer (CRS 24-1-108).
Lynne concludes by saying that Hickenlooper privately encouraged her to run for Governor. “He hesitated to even use the word ‘blessing’ when I made my announcement because he thought it was inappropriate. But I have not only his support in jumping into this race but also the support of thousands of others.”
Dezzutti asks a question of Johnston that winds around a bit. He mentions that a large percentage of Johnston’s campaign contributions come from out of state, then somehow segues into a question about how Johnston can be supportive of gun control issues when people in Yuma and Grand Junction like their guns.
Johnston: “I’m the only one on stage who is a gun owner. I own four guns now. I’ve owned guns since I was 10. It’s a part of our family upbringing. It’s a part of our culture.”
Johnston concludes by talking about his history of “fighting the NRA” as a state legislator, but that message is probably drowned out for Democratic voters by his initial enthusiasm for gun ownership. This is a decent answer in a General Election debate, but not here.
Sondermann asks the candidates to give a few names of potential choices for Lieutenant Governor and about what role they would carve out for the LG’s office.
Polis says this is a “tough question to answer now,” and avoids naming names, which should come as no surprise to anyone watching; there’s no benefit for any of these candidates in throwing out specific names. Polis does say that he would consider the other three candidates on stage.
Lynne sticks to her message that the LG is already very super important and says she is “wrapping up the legislative session” and hasn’t thought about potential names.
Kennedy gives a great answer here, saying that it would be inappropriate to share those potential names publicly without talking to those people first herself.
Johnston borrows from Polis and names the other three candidates as potential choices for his campaign.
Boyd asks a new question about how to convince voters that a tax increase is necessary to pay for additional transportation funding when Colorado just had “$1.3 billion in additional revenue.”
Kennedy responds first by saying that Coloradans see the problems with our roads on a daily basis, but otherwise doesn’t really give a specific answer.
Johnston agrees with Kennedy that Coloradans understand the problems with our transportation infrastructure.
Lynne says that the next budget, beginning July 1, adds $490 million in new transportation funding from the General Fund account. Lynne adds something that won’t make supporters of the transportation plan very happy: “I don’t think the sales tax initiative that is going to be on the ballot is the end of the conversation around what we need to do to bring this state forward.” Not helpful.
Polis makes a joke about Johnston referencing a florist in Aurora. “Mike is going after the florist vote, but remember that I am the only retired florist on this stage. I can build a bouquet faster than he can draw his four guns.” Polis says that the average Coloradan is already paying about $600 a year in lost productivity from the state’s transportation problems, which isn’t a bad way of answering the question.
Dezzutti spends a long time setting up his next question, which is just the familiar debate query of asking candidates to talk about something they agree with that the other political party is proposing.
Lynne starts by saying she got a “Building Bridges” award from Club 20, then tries making the argument that Democrats and Republicans agree about healthcare reform. Huh?
Polis flips the question and talks about how Republicans should support his proposals for using public lands to do more renewable energy projects.
Kennedy says some wonky nonsense about being bipartisan and working with Republicans when she was State Treasurer. She then repeats her oft-used refrain about how Colorado is successful because everyone works together. Lots of words that mean absolutely nothing.
Johnston says he is “uniquely qualified” among the candidates on stage because when he was a state senator there were Republicans who co-sponsored legislation with him. Pretty lame. Johnston then claims that Republicans say that he is the candidate they least want to face in a General Election but the candidate that they think would be easiest to work with as Governor.
Sondermann asks for a yes or no answer on a question about whether public school employees should be able to have the option of choosing defined contribution plans instead of required PERA retirement plans.
Polis says he supports defined benefits and letting employees choose a retirement option.
Lynne says she supported the PERA legislation passed in 2018, which isn’t really the question. She calls the legislation “courageous.”
Kennedy begins with a story about underpaid teachers. She says we need to guarantee retirement benefits for teachers. Okay.
Johnston says he supports defined benefits.
Now it’s time for one-minute closing statements. First up: Donna Lynne.
Lynne says her experience was validated today by the other candidates on stage. The rest of her closing statement is just a mishmash of adjectives about helping people and tackling important issues. This is a great example of how NOT to deliver a closing statement; Lynne didn’t come anywhere close to using her allotted one minute and sounded like someone who couldn’t wait to get off the stage.
Kennedy talks about being a leader in Colorado as State Treasurer. She says education is her priority, and also mentions healthcare access and managing growth. She does a good job of talking about specific issues, but her delivery is still very flat and monotone.
Johnston looks earnestly into the camera and says the real question is about finding the candidate who can both win in November and also govern the state. Captain Obvious would be jealous. He mentions that the Republican candidates for Governor all agree that they would prefer to run against Polis in November. Not a strong closing statement.
Polis talks specifically about his history of winning elections in battleground areas like Larimer County, then shifts to issues. He highlights his Medicare for all plan and the idea of healthcare as a human right, and adds his support for funding public education and his plan for 100% renewable energy in Colorado. Polis and Kennedy were the only two candidates with a closing statement that actually spoke directly to voters in a Democratic Primary.
It’s difficult to pick a winner here because all four candidates spent most of their time trying to get around transparently biased gotcha questions from the moderators. Questions from Boyd were particularly bad, and make us wonder why any Democrat would agree to one of these debates in the future.
Polis came across as the better speaker and the most prepared candidate; if we had to pick a winner, we’d go with Polis. Kennedy had trouble with an early question about a negative ad being run on her behalf; her most memorable moment of the debate was not a net positive. Johnston showed some fight early by challenging Kennedy on the aforementioned TV ad, but otherwise he just kind of faded into the background. Donna Lynne looked very much like the fourth-best candidate in a four-person field.