PUEBLO, Colo. — For almost the entire hour of the debate held on the dark-draped high stage of the old-school Memorial Hall theater here Thursday night, former Congressman Bob Beauprez went after Governor John Hickenlooper like an angry headmaster — like he wanted to show him who was boss.
Beauprez’s supporters in the front rows of the theater cheered him on loudly and he seemed to feed off their energy.
But the governor wouldn’t be cowed and Beauprez may have overreached.
The aggressive strategy peaked when the congressman, a hardline pro-life Catholic, sought to pivot away from an exchange on women’s reproductive health care. It is a topic that has dominated Colorado politics this election season and one that Beauprez has been losing on in recent days.
“I believe a woman has the right to make her own healthcare decisions,” Hickenlooper said, drawing sustained applause peppered by shouts of support.
The debate was hosted by The Pueblo Chieftain, and Managing Editor Steve Henson acting as moderator provided plenty of leeway to the crowd to participate and to the candidates to question each other and roll out their responses at length.
“I believe in a woman’s right to make these decisions with her doctor,” Hickenlooper continued. “I think that part of family planning is allowing women to have choices and opportunities regardless of their incomes.”
Hickenlooper touted the Colorado Family Planning Initiative, a state program run mostly on private donations that in the last few years has provided low-cost implant and IUD contraception to school-age women. The program has succeeded in lowering the Colorado teen-pregnancy rate by 40 percent in some counties (the largest drop in the country) and the abortion rate in the same population by 35 percent.
“To say that no tax dollars can be used for those medical supports to allow women to make those decisions, I think is difficult. It’s… hard for me to understand.”
In a debate held two days ago in Denver, Beauprez said he would eliminate the state’s Family Planning Initiative because he believes IUDs abort fertilized human eggs. Health groups pounced. Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado summed up the criticism in a scathing release.
“The fact is the IUD is not an abortifacient. These comments illustrate how little Bob Beauprez really understands about women’s health. The IUD prevents fertilization and is proven to be one of the most reliable methods to prevent pregnancy.”
Beauprez planned an alternative response Thursday.
“John and his party want to make this about trusting women,” he said. “John, what do you have to say to women who are widows who have orphans because of parolees you have let out of state corrections?”
The crowd erupted in loud boos on one side and supportive clapping on the other.
“If a governor has an obligation, that obligation is to protect public safety and, as The Denver Post reported, in one year alone 110 parolees were let directly out of solitary confinement into our neighborhoods. The year before that, it was 200. We’ve got a 50 percent recidivism problem in Colorado. If women have an issue, I think that issue is trust, trusting government to somehow be protecting their public safety.”
Half the crowd saw the pivot as genius. The other half saw it as a reaching deflection and as deeply offensive. Beauprez was making reference to former state prisons chief Tom Clements. The respected corrections reformer recruited by Hickenlooper in 2011 was murdered last year by recently released convict Evan Ebel, who dressed as a pizza delivery man and gunned down Clements at his front door.
Hickenlooper looked up slowly from his podium and stared over the heads of the crowd.
“You know, that is — we talk a lot about who represents the Washington way and who represents the Colorado way — but to take a question we were discussing on the serious issue of women’s rights to make decisions around their healthcare and turn it into a discussion of prison reform — which I’m happy to have, let’s have that discussion, we can do that,” he said, waving off applause in order to continue.
“Congressman Beauprez, if you want to talk to me about widows, my mother was widowed twice, and I grew up in a family with three older brothers — or two older sisters and an older brother — and I know what it’s like to live in a family that’s gone through that, and I want to to be very clear: I’ve spent a lot of time with Lisa Clements and their children — [their daughter] got married in the governor’s mansion — they understand what they were doing. Tom Clements was part of the reform, and for you to make his murder part of a political gambit is reprehensible.”
The air in the theater was charged. But when Henson suggested the debate should move on to another topic, Beauprez put him off.
“Not just yet,” he said, and then persisted, clearly prepared with talking points. He mentioned a woman named Susan Thurston whom he said was widowed by a parolee. He mentioned a prison reform bill introduced last year and admonished Hickenlooper for the fact that it failed to pass. “You could have intervened to stop your Democrat Senate” from killing it, he said.
Hickenlooper responded by rattling off details on an area of policy he is clearly well acquainted with. He said Colorado for years had notched one of the worst records in the nation when it came to housing prisoners in solitary confinement — many of whom are mentally ill — and then releasing them straight from solitary into public life. He said Clements came to change that and was making difficult decisions and enormous strides on both fronts before he died, lowering the percentage of prisoners held in solitary and better preparing prisoners for freedom before they are released. Hickenlooper said those efforts were continuing.
“In the last six months, no inmates have been released from solitary directly into the population. We’ve fixed that problem,” he said.
But Beauprez wasn’t ready to move on. He began to speak again, facing Hickenlooper squarely. He mentioned the name “Tom Clements” again and the crowd booed.
Then Henson took over, asking about the state’s perennially short education budget.
Beauprez has argued since he entered the race in the spring that Hickenlooper is a pleasant and thoughtful man who can’t make the kind of decisive tough calls it takes to be a true leader. And Beauprez has attempted to demonstrate in debate that he is a tough guy who can make the tough calls.
Hickenlooper has argued that the job teaches you to trust your gut less than solid research and expert advice. “It’s sometimes good to get the facts before you make a decision,” he said as a general comment that drew knowing laughter.
It seemed clear that before launching his “widows and orphans” attack on Hickenlooper, Beauprez was unfamiliar with the governor’s family history. And, although clearly intent to blast Hickenlooper as soft on crime for state prison policies, he didn’t seem to know that Clements and Hickenlooper had made nationally lauded progress in reducing inmate isolation and ramping up step-down programs that would make prisoners less dangerous when released. And Beauprez didn’t seem to know that the night he chose to aggressively introduce the still-raw topic of the murder of Tom Clements into state electoral politics would have been the respected prison chief’s 60th birthday.