BRECKENRIDGE — Against the backdrop of a ski slope as John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” played through a sound system, four top-tier Democratic candidates for governor met for the first time to make their pitch to voters.
For about an hour Sunday afternoon, former State Sen. Mike Johnston, Boulder Congressman Jared Polis, former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy and businessman Noel Ginsburg angled to set themselves apart on issues from healthcare to housing, transportation, education and water.
The Democrats of Summit County, there for their annual picnic in a park pavilion with burgers and beer, expected Democratic Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne would show up, too, but she didn’t. Lynne has filed paperwork to run but has yet to officially announce.
The four who attended make up the top tier of a Democratic field that recently grew larger with the offbeat entrance of Boulder-area media tech entrepreneur Erik Underwood, a former Republican who recently switched parties. Three lesser-known Democrats, Adam Garrity, Moses Humes, and Michael Schroeder, have also filed paperwork to run for governor. The race is shaping up to be an energetic — and expensive— Democratic primary, something Colorado has not seen in many years.
Among the 100 or so Democrats there to see the contenders, Polis drew institutional support as a five-term congressman with high name recognition. Others like Kennedy (”Mary?” one woman called her in an interview), Johnston (“Connelly” a different woman called him), and Ginsburg (“forgive me if I don’t know all the last names,” said a man), had to introduce themselves to voters for the first time.
Here’s what went down during their summit in Summit County where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 1,000 out of 20,000 voters.
The doorstop pitches: How do they stand out in such a broad field?
Johnston, a former state senator who is a national figure in the education reform movement, styled himself as a bridge-builder who could bring people together in a divisive time. “Not just both sides of the Continental Divide,” he said, “but the urban and rural, the conservative and liberal, the newcomers and natives. It is going to take someone as governor who can not just pass policy but can build community.” He spoke of helping shape a Colorado that could be an oasis in a time of national disruption, a place, he said, where “everybody belongs, where everybody can prosper and where they know we can — even as the rest of the country falls into chaos — prove Colorado can always move differently.” After the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, he said, voters need someone who can “bind this state back together and bind this country back together, and that’s why I got in this race.”
Polis, who founded schools for homeless and immigrant youth and is co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus in Washington, is also an uber wealthy tech entrepreneur who will self-fund his race. He once spent $1 million in a successful bid for a seat on the state Board of Education and is one of the so-called Gang of Four who bankrolled an effort to turn Colorado’s legislature blue in 2004. Because of this and his near-decade in Congress, he didn’t have to introduce himself to the Democratic base. Instead he explained why he would bolt from the Beltway to try and become governor. “If we’re looking for progress from Washington it’s simply not going to happen,” he said. He talked up his proposals to power Colorado with 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 (Johnston promises the same plan), and implement universal statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten. He also pitched his plan for urging employers to share profits with employees, making it “the norm” in Colorado. “I always work on out-of-the-box ideas,” he said. He talked about his position in Congress as an infantryman on the front lines of the Trump resistance.
Kennedy, who was deputy mayor of Denver after serving as state treasurer, positioned herself as a leader in Colorado’s success story. She held up three fingers to signify her three-tiered agenda as governor: 1) Make public education the state’s first priority; 2) Be smart about managing tax dollars; 3) Work together to keep Colorado a place we all love. As treasurer, she said in an applause line likely to appeal to the Bernie Sanders vote, “I got your money — tax dollars — out of the Wall Street banks ahead of the crisis so you didn’t lose any money in the downturn. And I said No to the Wall Street bankers — the bad Wall Street deals, I said no every time.” And, she slammed Donald Trump harder than anyone, saying, he would set the country back 50 years on water and air quality, healthcare and human rights. “But we are not going to let Donald Trump take our state backwards,” Kennedy said.
Ginsburg, a first-time candidate and CEO of Denver-based Intertech Plastics, pitched his background as a businessman with practical ideas he said are realistic. He talked about his early job on a pickle assembly line at his dad’s manufacturing plant in Aurora. But, he said, “As we all know, just having a business background doesn’t qualify you for running for office.” So he explained how he helped found Colorado’s I Have a Dream Foundation where he said his work adopting 43 kids in a housing project to help them graduate — “We graduated 90 percent of our kids” — showed he can make a difference and planted the seed for his gubernatorial run. He worked with former Democratic Gov. Roy Romer to secure $20 million in federal funds for education, he said, and with current Gov. John Hickenlooper on a youth apprenticeship program.
What did they say about healthcare in Colorado’s mountain communities, which have some of the nation’s highest insurance costs?
“I believe in universal healthcare,” said Kennedy, “And we’re not there, but we’re going to get there.” Beyond that, she appealed to the Democrats in the crowd for the kind of activism that helped derail Trump-Ryan care in Congress. She stayed away from specifics, and said the solution is about addressing costs, not taking away health insurance.
“Nationally, I support Medicare for all,” said Polis. “Anything that gets us toward universal coverage I support.” Health insurance costs being so high in Colorado’s mountain towns, he said, is a “significant flaw” in Obamacare. Polis said he was frustrated with the Hickenlooper administration for not being more proactive about exorbitant health insurance rates in the mountains. As governor, he said, he would implement a statewide pricing zone to balance out costs. “I don’t need any legislation to do it,” he said.
Johnston pointed out how insurance companies would love to have a contract with the state to cover state employees. So, he said, if they want that contract they would have to “serve all the people of the state of Colorado.” The problem with high costs in the mountains, he added, is because of an insurance carrier monopoly that shouldn’t exist. He said insurers should set the same prices throughout the state. “The state can require that for anybody who wants to do business with the state,” he said. ”That’s what I would require as governor.”
“There is no question we need healthcare for all,” said Ginsburg. He would start by increasing transparency in the healthcare marketplace. He said he would make sure lobbyists don’t dictate policy.
Water, water — nowhere?
In a state where water needs are projected to exceed supply by 2050, how to handle often competing water issues is a challenge the next governor better be ready to address. Current Gov. Hickenlooper created the first-ever state water plan, but questions swirl about its efficacy and cost — projections have already doubled from $20 billion to $40 billion in less than two years. Yeah, that’s billion with a ‘B.’
In Breckenridge on Aug. 20, Polis name-checked the statewide water plan and said if he becomes governor he would have a “2.0 version” of it, but he didn’t get into specifics. “We do need a statewide approach,” he said, adding that while water woes can be parochial issues, “It’s a role of a governor to be referee in all of this” and to be an advocate for making sure that, statewide, Coloradans’ water needs are met.
Kennedy said the solution is not to take more water out of rivers. Or dry up more farmland. But she didn’t say what, alternatively, the solution is. “We’re going to have to be more innovative,” she said, and to make investments. She used the opportunity to explain how her background could lead her to fix the problem. “The state water plan has a $20 to $40 billion price tag,” she said. “It is going to take a governor who understands finance and financing infrastructure as I do to lead on this issue to make sure that we can fund the water plan.”
For his part, Ginsburg was the only one to say said he actually met with those who drafted Hickenlooper’s statewide water plan. And it’s a good plan, he added. But “like anything, we have to revisit (it) year after year.” He said he would listen to local communities about how to address the issue.
Johnston noted that 85 percent of the state’s water goes to agriculture, which is great because we rely on food from farmers. But those farmers, he said, have a “profound disincentive” to conserve the water they use on their fields. He said he spoke recently with a Palisade peach farmer who confirmed it. What the state should do, he said, is give farmers incentives to conserve water and be more efficient by creating a market in which they can buy, sell, lease and trade water conservation credits.
No candidate explained how they might find or generate revenue to help pay for the state’s part of the water plan’s projected cost.
Affordable housing in resort towns is elusive. What can be done about it?
Look at the newspaper front pages across Colorado on any given week and there are stories about affordable housing issues from Denver to Fort Collins, Aspen to Steamboat Springs. It is fair to say the state of Colorado has an affordable housing crisis.
In mid-February, residents of Steamboat Springs arrived at 3 a.m. for a chance to live in one of 48 affordable housing units they hoped would open by spring. Denver has a lottery each year, and approved its first affordable housing fund in 2016. But it’s so bad service providers are handing out talking point guides that break the bad news to those hoping for affordable housing. In order to keep good teachers, some school districts in Colorado are becoming developers and landlords. In Vail, there is a movement afoot to create a tiny home village where teachers can afford to live. It’s so bad that in Summit County, where the candidates were speaking, a housing director candidate in April turned down the job because— you guessed it— he couldn’t find an affordable place to live.
So, what to do about it?
Polis said communities are strongest when teachers and police officers can actually afford to live in them, not miles away where housing is less expensive. He touted his work in Congress to find a plot of federal land in Summit County to convert into a 300-unit affordable housing complex, which he called an out-of-the-box approach. The next governor, he said, should incorporate transit planning into the cost of housing. “When we have savings by pulling people off the road who would otherwise have to live further away let’s recapture some of that savings for lower-cost housing near where people work,” Polis said.
Kennedy talked about her time as the chief financial officer of Denver when the city created the first dedicated funds ever to support affordable housing construction. Colorado is one of the only states in the country that doesn’t have dedicated funds for that, she said, adding, “When I’m governor, that will be a priority of mine.”
Ginsburg said there is no silver bullet. But as governor he would create a state office and hire someone who is responsible for planning across the state. He said he would “develop a statewide vision” to support decisions made at the local level and provide opportunities and training so people who grow up in communities can stay there. “As governor,” he said, “I will help to make sure that that happens.”
Johnston told a personal story about friends and family who are increasingly moving east from where he grew up in the Vail area because they’re getting priced out. As a state senator, he said, he worked to fund affordable housing. But that fund is dry. “So we’re going to have to first make changes to TABOR,” he said, referring to Colorado’s 1992 revenue-limiting Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights constitutional amendment. Also, Colorado should find a better way to use an asset it already has. “We do not have cash. What the state does have is land,” he said, adding that one sixteenth of every section of the state was set aside during statehood to create land grant institutions. “Those are now opportunities for us to partner with developers” so teachers can live where they work, he said.
Forget political gridlock. What about our congested roads?
Kennedy didn’t offer specifics on how she would tackle congestion, deteriorating roads and highways, and other Colorado transportation woes, but she called those problems unacceptable. The next governor, she said, needs to think 50 years down the road when it comes to solutions.
Ginsburg called transportation issues one of Colorado’s biggest problems, and he blamed TABOR for causing them, calling the voter-approved 1992 constitutional amendment the elephant in the room. “Since it was founded, we’ve taken $2 billion and put it back into our pockets in the form of small checks,” he said. “That could have gone to infrastructure.” He said it is the job of a governor to make the case to voters about why transportation issues are so important to the state that they should vote to change TABOR as well as the property-tax-limiting 1982 Gallagher Amendment in ways that generate more revenue.
Johnston, too, said he would make the case to voters to pass a statewide ballot measure to make changes to TABOR to generate more funds for transportation.
For Polis, he said solving the state’s transportation troubles can be done by forming what he calls winning coalitions. He said as governor he would create policy that has local buy-in from communities and then “sell it to people.” He said he would bring together the business community, Republican and Democratic mayors and county commissioners, and talk about “the important need for infrastructure as a key part of our quality of life and our future.” Polis also said high-speed internet should be in the discussion when talking about transportation because more people can telecommute and work from home to stay off the roads.
How did the candidates come off to the crowd?
Bob Berry, a retied attorney in Dillon, expects he will vote in the Democratic primary for governor, but didn’t know much about who is running to replace Hickenlooper, whom he respects for what he sees as having a bipartisan, technocratic approach.
While sipping a beer behind sunglasses after the event, Berry said it’s still too early to pick a horse. But he offered his take on what he saw and how it might inform his decision.
“I was most impressed with Mike Johnston,” Berry said. “I liked his answers the most. He spoke to … trying to bring people together, and had, I felt, some of the most practical answers.” Berry said he also appreciates Ginsburg’s business background.
“Jared Polis, I’m sure he’s very qualified,” Berry said. “[But] nothing really stuck out to me in what he had to say. And Cary, to be perfectly honest, she came across as too much of a politician. They’re all politicians, but her answers were just too rehearsed.”
Aimee Airey, a local mortgage broker, said she’s always been a big fan of Polis, but Johnston impressed her at the forum. For her, the biggest issue is how the next governor will tackle local affordable housing, and healthcare. “I think Jared Polis had the best answer for healthcare,” she said. “He’s already got a plan in mind that he says he doesn’t even need legislation to push through.” On housing, she likes what Johnston had to say. She plans to follow the candidates and their stances more closely as the primary race continues, but said, “Most likely it’s going to be Jared Polis because he’s been our man for a while.”
Alice Berieg, a retired CPA, found all the candidates impressive, but she’ll have to go home and research them more. For her, a high-speed train to the mountains is a top issue, as is lowering the cost of college tuition.
Sporting a “Make America Gay Again” ballcap, Kelsey Berkley grew up in Summit County and recently moved back from Kansas City. She left Denver after a hard time finding affordable housing. She’s been following Polis but is keeping an open mind. She hadn’t heard of Kennedy until Sunday, though, and “honestly,” she said, “her enthusiasm and knowledge about everything grasped my attention.”
Sandi Bruns, an artist from Frisco, said she came to the picnic because she heard all the Democratic gubernatorial candidates are “excellent.” But there are so many, she can’t keep them straight. She said she “loves” Polis because he’s always been responsive as her congressman. “He’s not wishy washy,” she said. “He steps forward for what he believes in, which is what I believe in.”
For Bruns, she wants a candidate who will stand up to what she called “the racist, horrible, misogynist Republicans who want to destroy the arts, our education system, our ecological system.” She said she’s “delighted” no one has yet “gone out and shot Donald Trump” because that’s not what we do in this country. “I think we do it through real process, and that’s what’s important about our democracy,” she said.
“The Democrats,” she said, “have the right message, they just need to know how to tell it.”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Kennedy was the only candidate to hold statewide office. Jared Polis previously served on the state board education.