In debate, Romanoff seeks to highlight differences Bennet calls ‘vanishingly small’

COLORADO SPRINGS– The Democratic primary debate here Friday pitting U.S. Senate candidate and former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff against Sen. Michael Bennet was an odd tug of war. Romanoff argued that there were significant differences between the two candidates but Bennet argued that those differences were “vanishingly small” and suggested Romanoff was stooping to petty attacks to gain traction.

Andrew Romanoff stumps outside the Colorado College debate April 23, 2010 (Boven)

“I don’t think there are any substantial policy differences between us and whatever distinctions that we have are vanishingly small compared to the distinctions that both of us have with the [Republicans] running for this seat,” Bennet said. He thought the debate should center around those differences and how as Democrats they would tackle the problems left in the wake of the finance-turned-economic crisis, where jobs continue to lag and the U.S. middle-class continues to shrink. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think we can afford another ten years like the last ten years we’ve lived through and provide more opportunity to our kids and grandkids.”

Romanoff referenced committee votes cast by Bennet that he thought signaled a blind spot. One concerned greater protections for homeowners in foreclosure. Another would have removed a loophole some small colleges are using to drive students to expensive consumer loans instead of student loans. Romanoff, seriously lagging in fundraising, also pointed to the fact that Bennet continues to accept political action committee donations.

“I resent the fact that my integrity is being impugned, but at the end of the day, I will stand on my record and stand on my votes,” Bennet said at one point. He described how he had just voted to take student loans out of the hands of private lenders. He said he voted twice for Wall Street and health care reform and spoke to the Secretary of Education this week about the problem of underperforming or perhaps boondoggle colleges failing to properly educate students. He said he would be a “very strong advocate” to remove public funding for those kinds of institutions.

Bennet told the Colorado Independent in February that political action committee or PAC money was not the problem Romanoff was making it out to be. PACs he said at the time are required to disclose donors. There’s no mystery at work, no secret funders pulling strings. He also said he didn’t feel it was possible to win a statewide Senate race without accepting PAC money. At the debate Friday, however, he added that he now had more than 18,000 individual donors to his campaign and had received one of smallest percentages of PAC candidate contributions in the state.

A questioner from the Colorado Springs Independent, which sponsored the debate with Channel 13 News, asked Romanoff about the way he has managed his campaign. Romanoff has drawn heat in the media for running a surprisingly desultory campaign over the last eight months, where players have changed over frequently, fundraising efforts have been stop and start and messaging has been muddy. Romanoff confirmed that he was in the race to win it. He said the true measure of leadership was whether he was winning over voters. As evidence that he was, he cited his win in the strawpoll caucus voting in March.

“The best test of our organization are the results. We won the caucuses by eight points despite an avalanche of corporate cash. The opposition said we should have won by more. So we did… we took the assemblies state wide by 16 points.”

The candidates voiced similarly reserved views of nuclear power.

Romanoff said there was still no way safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. He would focus his efforts on bolstering the non-nuclear clean energy industry. “If you send me to the U.S. Senate, I will work to end our unholy addiction to fossil fuel so we no longer have to spill our blood and waste our [military] power and pollute our skies.”

Bennet said he supports continued research to update nuclear power but he doesn’t believe that the current nuclear industry is economically viable. He also believes there’s no viable method to dispose of the waste. He added that uranium mining in the state has posed enormous clean up problems in the past, including threatening water sources.

Unlike Romanoff, Bennet thought we should continue to look for ways to exploit domestic oil resources. “We need to adopt an energy policy in this country that relies on renewables, as well as natural gas, as well as our offshore oil.”

Both candidates agreed that rancher properties in Pinon Canyon should not be annexed by the Army. Bennet signed the bill that placed a one-year moratorium on expansion and said that he doesn’t see any need for Army expansion given that present facilities are not being used. Romanoff agreed, saying he was against state annexation of private lands.

Both candidates support comprehensive immigration reform. Bennet said it’s important that immigrants learn English and have full access to education and employment. He said that encouraging people to live in the shadows is a recipe for failure. That’s when people become a drain on the education system and health care systems.

Romanoff agreed. The U.S. needs to secure its borders and regulate employers who hire illegal immigrant workers. He supports a path to citizenship.

Both candidates feel the president and Congress should scale back troop involvement in Afghanistan while encouraging democratic and economic development there.

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