[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he 61-year-old Western Slope advocacy group Club 20 is hosting its election-year candidate debates this weekend in Grand Junction. The event will draw a crowd of political insiders from around the state and force a center-stage conversation about the best role government can play in developing the economy west of Colorado’s population-core urban and suburban Front Range communities.
Candidates will field questions shouted from street corners and pressed upon them in hallways. The roster of debaters includes more than 20 state House and Senate candidates. Highlights of the weekend will include first-round debates between Governor John Hickenlooper and Republican challenger Bob Beauprez and between U.S. Senator Mark Udall and Republican challenger Cory Gardner.
Club 20 Executive Director Bonnie Petersen told the Independent that 900 tickets have been sold to the two-day event and that she expects it to be the raucous, largely unscripted affair that for decades has made it the semi-official kick-off for the final-stage electoral campaigns in the state.
“I can tell you, we’ve been planning for over year and I’m still filling out debate panels,” she said.
Right now, Petersen is the only one who knows what questions the candidates will be asked to answer. Questions are submitted by Club 20 members for Club 20 staff to choose from.
“No one has seen them. Not the panelists who will be asking the questions, not the candidates, not the press… They die with me,” Petersen said.
Candidates will make opening and closing statements. There is also a portion of the debate where candidates will ask each other questions and then follow up questions. “That’s the part where it gets lively,” said Petersen.
Energy development and the environment are sure to be high on the list of topics to cover. Same with general business development, rural health care, agriculture and public lands stewardship.
Club 20 has been a strong advocate for the fossil fuel industry, championing the “clean coal” mined on the western slope and the region’s longtime boom-and-bust oil-and-gas industry. Its resolutions mostly push back against policies that accept the recommendations of climate-change scientists and against the move toward renewable energy.
Petersen said education has become a heated topic recently, too, due in part to the statewide introduction of new Common Core standardized student testing.
The debates this year come amid rumblings along the long-running political fault-line in the state over rural versus urban policy priorities. Last year, Colorado made national headlines when a movement to secede from the state took hold in 11 (mostly Front Range) rural counties. Five of those counties ultimately voted in favor of secession. Conservative county political officials leading the movement railed against the “Californication” of the state, decrying the fact that lawmakers passed measures expanding gay rights, gun control and financial support for renewable energy.
But tugging at the ears of the policymakers in Denver has been what Club 20 has been about since its inception in 1953, when it formed to demand that state political leaders work to pave roads west of the Continental Divide.