[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Republican newcomer seeking to represent Colorado’s House District 3 is running largely on one qualification – womanhood.
A persistent, gender-loaded message underscores Candice Benge’s bid to unseat Democratic state Rep. Daniel Kagan in the Arapahoe County House district that’s one of the most closely divided in the state.
One Benge mailer plays off the romantic whimsy, “he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not.” The flowery flier – designed like an ad for feminine protection or an early pregnancy test – features a golden daisy with the words “They’re mine” and “They’re yours” on its petals. It reads, “Stop the Back and Forth Battle for Your Rights.” “Who Can You Trust to Stand Up for You?”
Another, more barbed mailer suggests that Kagan is an enemy to women by virtue of his Y chromosome.
“The Politicians in Denver and Washington just keep fighting back and forth about our personal reproductive rights. ‘They’re yours.’ ‘They’re mine.’ ‘They’re yours.’ “They’re mine.’>\Many of these politicians are men like Dan Kagan… They just don’t understand. And they never will.”
“Candice Benge will stand up for Colorado women and defend our reproductive rights from an overreaching government and the politicians who think they know what’s best for us,” reads the mailer, which shows the candidate giving a knowing look into the camera. “Candice Benge Understands.”
What Benge seems not to understand is the record of the incumbent she’s trying to unseat.
Kagan is staunchly pro-choice. He has championed women’s reproductive rights during his five years in office. He also has voted to shore up women’s health programs, services for sexual and domestic violence victims and grants for working families to afford child care.
What’s misleading about Benge’s missives is that the specifics of her own stance on reproductive rights — like many other issues in her candidacy — is nowhere to be found in her campaign literature or on the public record.
Asked her position on abortion earlier this month, she hedged, saying, “I really don’t like the terms pro-choice or pro-life. They don’t really capture the nuances of the topic.” Then she downplayed the very issue her campaign mailers play up: “There are lots of other topics people want to talk about.” When pressed for a specific answer on abortions, she said she thinks they should be “safe, legal and rare.” She underscored the word “rare” – repeating it twice in her response, as if to soften her stance on the divisive issue. Then she quickly changed the subject.
Kagan and Clinton
The Benge campaign’s assertion that Kagan doesn’t understand women or their issues is unsupported.
Kagan has beaten back several efforts to restrict women’s rights to abortion, birth control, health care and control over their bodies. Most recently, he chaired this year’s House Judiciary hearing that defeated Rep. Stephen Humphrey’s House Bill 14-1133, which would have made it a Class 3 felony to knowingly terminate a pregnancy.
Kagan’s foray into Colorado politics began in his kitchen in 2008 when he led the effort to protect the ability of Colorado’s Democratic National Convention delegates to cast their votes for Hillary Clinton, even after she had suspended her campaign and it was inevitable that Barack Obama was snagging the party’s nomination. His early political base consisted of mostly female Colorado Democrats galvanized by their view that the party had stiff-armed Clinton.
“We wanted to get on the record that she was a powerful force who was to be taken seriously,” he says.
Kagan shrugs at Benge’s efforts to diss him as a misogynistic good ole boy.
“It’s at best ironic that I of all people should be painted as less than enthusiastic about seeing women’s rights upheld. Clearly Candice Benge knows nothing about my record or, if she knows, she doesn’t care about it.”
Lynn Pierce, a Denver area lawyer and keen follower of women’s issues, derides Benge’s gender attacks.
“Knowing Daniel Kagan for years now, the idea that he’s insensitive to women’s issues is absurd. That she should make that kind of allegation without any substance to back it up whatsoever is disingenuous, irresponsible and manipulative.”
Making a Name for Herself
Benge — a poised, well-spoken 30-year-old — was second pick to run in a district the Republican Party has hoped to overtake since is was redrawn in 2012 to include a more politically divided electorate. She was a replacement candidate after the nominee from the GOP assembly, Englewood small business owner Rita Russell, dropped out of the race in mid-April.
“Politics wasn’t something I was aspiring to. I was approached to run,” Benge says.
Until the spring, her political experience consisted of having been chairwoman of the precinct in which public records show she lived until recently with her parents. Their house, incidentally, is about a block from Kagan’s in Cherry Hills Farm, an upscale gated community.
Benge’s Facebook page was removed from the web almost immediately after she announced her candidacy. A new page Friends of Candice emerged on May 30, mostly showing pictures of her walking District 3 and working at highway projects wearing hard hats and safety vests.
She describes her work as “in construction.” Specifically, she’s a sales representative for Commercial Metals Company or CMC Rebar Denver, her family’s global construction and steel fabricating business. Her bio says she began her career with the company while still in high school and that she has “worked her way up.”
Benge’s website touts her “direct experience and knowledge of commercial development and transportation, which makes her uniquely qualified to serve in Colorado’s House of Representatives.” She cites her top priorities as fostering a more business-friendly environment and lifting government intrusion.
“I work in construction and I think government has lost track of what people want it to do with their money,” said the candidate whose clients include companies paid by the government to build roads and highways.
At a campaign event for women at an Englewood Maggiano’s earlier this month, Benge said almost nothing about the reproductive issues her down-with-men mailers promised she would “stand up for.” She’s far less acerbic in person than in her campaign literature. The biggest bomb of the evening was hardly even a ping.
“People are really quite tired of the word Democrat,” she said.
Kagan’s name barely came up.
Benge, who is half the incumbent’s age, spoke of the need to create jobs “for young people who come after me.”
“I feel an obligation to give people the opportunities that have been given to me,” said the candidate, whose two sisters also work for Benge family companies.
Stark Contrasts – Beyond Gender
Although the Benge and Kagan families live within a stone’s throw of each other, the candidates have vastly different histories.
Benge has stayed close to home since graduating with a degree in communications from the University of Colorado. Her campaign bio suggests she has worked for only one employer – her family’s business.
Kagan, 61, is the British-born son of Lithuanian war-time refugees who survived the Holocaust by escaping the ghetto and hiding in a box in an iron foundry. His father — who manufactured raincoats and denim in post-war Great Britain — was intensely political and a close friend of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who appointed him to the House of Lords.
Kagan immigrated to the U.S. at age 21, lured by the rising civil rights movement that seemed far more exciting than his industrial hometown in northern England.
“I was living in a backwater,” he says. “I felt like it was the days of the Roman Empire and I was stuck away from it all in Portugal.”
Kagan was a waiter, freight loader, flight instructor, flight school operator and aviation broker before getting a law degree at Yale. He worked as a corporate lawyer representing big oil, big tobacco and big pharma, and then as a criminal defense and civil plaintiffs’ attorney in Washington, D.C., at the height of that city’s gang wars.
In 1995, he moved his young family to the U.K. to try to save his family’s collapsing manufacturing business. In partnership with the government, he transformed the company’s complexes of dilapidated nineteenth-century textile plants into housing developments and manufacturing spaces for start-ups. He sold the properties 12 years later and headed back to the States in 2007. He chose Colorado, he said, because it lacked the coldness of the East Coast and the phoniness of California, and because he wants to raise his children and grow old here. The state’s moderate political landscape seemed promising as he sought to pursue yet another career – elected office.
Kagan volunteered in 2009 for his House district and as a legislative aide to his state representative, Anne McGihon. Two months into that year’s session, McGihon resigned after a leadership challenge, and a vacancy committee appointed Kagan to fill her seat.
One of his first bills was a measure to help Peruvian, Bolivian and Chilean sheep herders on the Western Slope, where their bosses required them to spend weeks of solitude on federal lands without visitors or proper provisions. Kagan was criticized even by Democratic colleagues for taking up an anti-agriculture and anti-business cause on behalf of people who couldn’t vote. His bill made it through the House, but died by one vote in the Senate.
He’s candid about what he sees as a political miscalculation, albeit a principled one. “I don’t know that I’d do it again. I’m not one to tilt at windmills,” he says.
Kagan got busy trying to understand power dynamics at the Statehouse. He sponsored a successful affordable housing bill and a measure, in the run-up to Obamacare, creating more transparency about the specifics of how much Coloradans were spending on health care.
He easily won his first election in 2010 when the district — which then included mainly Englewood and the area around DU in south Denver — was a safe seat for a Democrat.
Here Comes Arapahoe
Things got tougher after the district was redrawn to swap south central Denver for Greenwood Village, bringing in conservative Arapahoe County voters. House District 3 spans from Sheridan on the west to Englewood, Littleton, Cherry Hills Village and Greenwood Village to the east. Kagan squeaked his 2012 re-election with 50.8 percent of the vote, narrowly edging out a Republican whose support was watered down by the candidacy of a libertarian challenger.
Given the district’s virtually even Democrat-Republican-unaffiliated split, the race this year is tight. Kagan’s strategy is to tout his ability to uphold what he calls a longstanding tradition in Colorado politics – “to work collaboratively across the aisle.”
On the campaign trail, he describes himself as a fiscal watchdog who has balanced the budget, shored up the state’s rainy-day funds and given Colorado business first cracks at state contracts. He plays up his efforts protecting kids from sexual predators and fighting for more education money, especially in Arapahoe County schools.
Kagan has distinguished himself among colleagues as a meticulously close reader of public policy details who enjoys the art of legislation and is able to juggle an especially broad range of issues. He also is notorious as the Legislature’s heaviest smoker, puffing on his Marlboro Red flavored e-cigarettes on the House floor. In the eyes of his colleagues, he helped mitigate his addiction with a bill in 2013 to eliminate the cigarette sales tax exemption.
As he says on the stump, Kagan has passed several significant pieces of bipartisan legislation – especially around balancing the budget. Because of his experience as a small business owner, he says, he has helped create industry grants, boost funding for small business incubators, extend job growth tax credits and enact tax credits for start-ups. Citing his role as a father, he championed safety issues, voting to make a new crime of cyber-bullying minors, increase penalties for drunk drivers and prohibit access to legal marijuana to people under 21.
Still, Kagan is widely praised in his party for his solid Democratic stances. He voted to require universal background checks for gun transfers and mandate that people charged with domestic violence forfeit their guns. He backed bills to expand Medicaid eligibility to 160,000 Coloradans under Obamacare, increase penalties on companies that break state environmental laws and strengthen laws to protect the elderly from fraud. He sponsored bills to provide lawyers for juvenile offenders and defendants in plea negotiations. He worked to reform re-entry programs for parolees. And he voted yes on authorizing civil unions.
If re-elected, Kagan aims to restore K-12 funding cuts and help families work out of poverty with adult education and affordable child care programs.
It would be his last stint in the House because of term-limits.
Says Kagan: “There’s so much still left to do in our state and I want to help as much as I can to make it happen.”
Policy Question Marks
Aside from the pro-business, down-with-men messaging on her campaign mailers, it’s unclear where Benge stands on specific issues facing Colorado.
As of Sunday, nearly a month after the deadline for the League Women Voters’ candidate survey, she hasn’t submitted answers to one of the state’s most reliable sources of information about candidates’ policy positions.
Benge supports school vouchers.
“I think they have a place,” she told The Independent. “Parents should have a choice about how their tax dollars are used for their children’s education.”
“But really, the issue doesn’t come up when I’m out walking the district,” she added.
Kagan opposes vouchers on grounds that “they drain funding and talent from our public school system, which needs improvement.” The issue is especially tender in the Cherry Creek School District — a high performing system that residents want to preserve. Kagan notes that vouchers would adversely affect school districts in Englewood, Sheridan and Littleton by lowering their funding.
“I want the public schools to be so good that no parent feels the need to look elsewhere for a first-class education for their children,” he says.
Benge has gone largely un-vetted by the news media. She declined an at-length interview about her policy stances, saying last week she had doors to knock on and a wedding to attend over the weekend. Months into her candidacy, the “media” section of her website features only two entries – a photo with a senator from South Carolina and a picture from a Cory Gardner campaign event.
Glimpses of Benge’s political views can be gleaned mainly from what may be the only formal interview she has done – with The Villager, a community newspaper in the district. The article touts her fresh perspective in the race. It quotes her criticizing Kagan’s support for gun control laws and tax increases, saying he’s too extreme for the district. She voices support for fracking and opposition to gay marriage until voters lift the state’s voter-approved ban. She also says she would overturn the 2013 gun control laws.
As of September 10, Benge has raised $35,120 in contributions, with $25,064 on hand. Her support includes contributions from the business and construction sectors, including the Certified Public Accountants PAC, National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisor-Colorado, Independent Electrical Contractors Political Committee and the Political Association of Mechanical and Plumbing Contractors PAC. Colorado Bankers Association State PAC is backing her campaign, as is W.H.I.P. (Women Helping in Politics), a Broomfield-based group founded in 2011.
Kagan has raised $95,685, with $35,493 on hand. His backers include the state Democratic Party, several labor unions, Colorado Ski Country USA PAC, Voices for Choice Small Donor Committee, Colorado Conservation Action Fund, Colorado Housing Champions, Friends of Colorado Hospitals, Mental Health Professionals United, Colorado Cleantech PAC and affordable housing advocates. Senator Michael Bennet will be a special guest at an Oct. 10 Kagan fund-raiser.
By all accounts, the race for House District 3 is tight. Republicans are hell-bent on ousting a representative they see as too liberal for Arapahoe County. Kagan, for his part, plans to challenge Benge to a debate. He’s hoping for fewer gender attacks and more details about where she stands on the issues.