Personality trumps policy in the Dem gov primary at El Paso County assembly. Also, Donna who?

COLORADO SPRINGS — For some Democrats here in one of the more conservative areas of Colorado, a decision between two top candidates for governor could come down to gender.

That was the sentiment on Saturday among several of the Democrats who poured into a campus auditorium in El Paso County, historically a Republican stronghold home to five military installations and a network of religious nonprofits. But with President Donald Trump galvanizing a backlash resistance, the Democrats here fielded candidates for every county office— from assessor to coroner to surveyor— for the first time party officials say they can remember.

Nearly 1,000 Democrats showed up over the holiday weekend to navigate a maze of campaign booths in auditoriums on the campus of the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. There they heard a day-long string of campaign pitches at an assembly that helps shape the nominating process for local and state offices, including the state’s highest post.

This year, five Democrats are running for governor— the first competitive multi-candidate primary with no clear frontrunner in a generation.

In interviews with more than a dozen assembly-goers, Democrats said they wanted a woman governor, many pledging to cast their ballots for former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy. About as many also mentioned Boulder Congressman Jared Polis as a top choice, and some noted the passion of ex-state Sen. Mike Johnston. Erik Underwood, a media tech entrepreneur who ran in 2016 for the U.S. Senate as a Republican, gave an emotional speech that left multiple Democrats impressed after seeing him for the first time.

One of the five in the running, the state’s current lieutenant governor, Donna Lynne, was absent from Saturday’s event— both physically and in almost every conversation The Colorado Independent had with Democratic voters.

“She’s running for governor?” asked Richard Babcock, a semi-retired human services consultant, when asked if he knew there were two women running this year as Democrats.

Babcock said he is backing Kennedy largely because he thinks it’s time for a female governor.

“You can almost throw a dart, you’re not going to get a bad candidate,” he said in acknowledgment of the broad field this year, and he said he wasn’t aware of much policy disagreement among those running. But, he said, “With all due respect to our gender, it’s time we had some women leaders.”

That said, Babcock was an early backer of Arvada Congressman Ed Perlmutter, and said he would have stayed with him all the way through had he not dropped out of the race in July after just three months of campaigning, and after Polis joined the field.

“Primaries are tough because you’re in a contest with friends where on policies and issues there’s not a lot of daylight,” Perlmutter said on the day he departed the race. “So then it becomes sort of more personality-driven-types of decisions that the voters have to make.”

That was evident Saturday in the hallways and auditoriums of UCCS where a crowd of men and women young and old sported T-shirts reading “Unions built the middle class” and “We can end gun violence.” Candidates offered stickers, buttons and flyers from behind campaign booths. At one table a woman was selling a book titled “Douchebag Wisdom: Dealing with Donald Trump.”

Conversations with El Paso County Democrats found some struggling to decide between Kennedy and Polis with personality and identity politics trumping specific policy proposals. 

Up in the auditorium bleachers, David Venable, a delegate with a thin gray beard, rectangular glasses and a faded fatigue jacket rolled at the sleeves, said he was a bit embarrassed to say he cast his county assembly ballot for Kennedy simply because she’s a woman. He, too, did not know Lynne was in the race.

“I’m a horrible, horrible American,” he joked, adding that he hadn’t done much research yet on the others who are running. But, “I think,” he said, “testosterone is the most dangerous chemical.”

Kennedy, who said in her assembly speech that she wouldn’t sell public lands to developers, that she wants to make public education Colorado’s top priority and would offer a state public option for healthcare, also lit up the crowd with this: “2018 is going to be the year when women lead, and we’re going to elect the first woman governor in the state of Colorado.”

The line resonated with Calvin Morris, a 72-year-old retired Marine and delegate in the front row on the convention floor who said he was deciding between “Kennedy and the gay guy.”

That’s a reference to Polis, who, during a rousing speech to the crowd that included his plans for renewable energy, single-payer healthcare and free full-day kindergarten, also said, “We can elect here in Colorado the first and only gay governor in the history of the United States— take that, Mike Pence.”

For Morris, it’s all about the zeitgeist.  

Hillary Clinton came close to becoming the first female president in history, and in this current atmosphere of the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter and the gun-violence activism of the Parkland teens, “It’s the time we’re going to crack the glass ceiling,” Morris said. As an “old Democrat,” he will do some more reading before it’s time for him to vote again at the state assembly or in the June primary, he said, but “I’m going on the philosophy that a woman can manage better.”

A new poll out this week of 410 Democrats and unaffiliated voters that was conducted by the Republican-leaning Colorado firm Magellan Strategies shows Kennedy and Polis in a statistical dead heat with around 25 percent approval apiece. The poll, which was in the field from March 20 to March 23, put Johnston at 8 percent and Lynne at 5 percent. It found 36 percent of Democrats and unaffiliated voters undecided in the primary.

A glimpse into those numbers could be found in the crowd of the UCCS auditorium where delegates with pen and pencil in hand scratched at paper ballots and determined how to help shape the county Democratic Party’s platform. One delegate, Kathleen O’Brien, who said she was the first woman to run for the state legislature in her district more than 30 years ago, said she is supporting Kennedy, while her son Sean, 21, is a Polis fan.

But, “I think I would vote for either of them,” Sean O’Brien said. He is pulling for Polis because he got to know the congressman while working on a Democratic campaign following the presidential primaries in which Sean supported Bernie Sanders. (Polis, Kennedy, Johnston, and Lynne all supported Clinton in the primary.)

Nearby, Asia Zanders, 28, said she caucused for Polis on March 6, but cast her vote for Kennedy at Saturday’s county assembly. Zanders said she was moved by Kennedy saying in her speech that as state treasurer she protected taxpayer money in Colorado from Wall Street banks during the recession. “When the banks failed and other states lost taxpayer money you … did not lose money in your state investments through that crises,” Kennedy said.

Sitting next to Zanders, Brittany Smith, 31, said it seemed like the candidates are all on the same page when it comes to healthcare, education and gun control, but she appreciates Kennedy’s pledge not to sell off public lands. Lynne’s candidacy, again, was news to them both.

Kennedy has made a big bet on this grassroots caucus-and-assembly process — and it’s paying off. In Colorado, candidates have two paths to the ballot. They can earn more than 30 percent of the vote at the party’s April 14 state assembly in Broomfield— which means that in the most balanced and most unlikely scenario, only three could emerge. Or candidates can petition on to the ballot, which requires gathering more than 10,000 petition signatures from Democrats across the state.

Polis, Johnston, and Lynne have all turned in petitions. Polis and Johnston are also showing up to county assemblies to give speeches and compete to win delegates. Lynne skipped the assemblies as she seeks to balance her campaign schedule with a busy official calendar as the state’s second in command, a campaign spokesman said. Instead of meeting voters at the El Paso County assembly, for instance, she was speaking at a Grand Junction business group event in her capacity as lieutenant governor.

So far, Kennedy already has locked up 50 percent of the roughly 4,000 delegates who hope to attend the state assembly, according to her campaign, meaning she is likely to make the ballot. Polis’s campaign says he has around 33 percent. The Secretary of State’s office is currently reviewing Polis and Lynne’s petitions. 

Johnston, who hasn’t been gaining as much traction as Kenney and Polis among delegates at the county assemblies, will already be on the ballot because he gathered enough petitions. But he is still showing up, giving speeches, and meeting voters at these county powwows across Colorado.

On Saturday, Johnston’s speech to the El Paso County delegates, in which he noted his background as a teacher of a student who suffered gun violence and another whose family was deported, left Jennifer Hernandez, a Kennedy supporter and student at the University of Northern Colorado, impressed enough that she said she would have to think hard come June if both Johnston and Kennedy are on the ballot.

Also campaigning exclusively through the caucus-assembly process is Underwood.  A candidate largely unknown to Democrats, he introduces himself as a former Republican and is campaigning to rip out the voter-approved, revenue-limiting 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights Amendment root and branch, as well as protecting immigrants and trying to find a way to divert state lottery money to pay for a free college tuition program, which would likely take a ballot measure.

On Saturday, he spoke about growing up on food stamps with five siblings and a single mom and said he had a bone to pick with his new fellow Democrats who he admonished for not voting like real progressives. “You guys are turning this into a popularity contest,” he said. “What happened to a contest of ideas?” (One of his ideas is to lower the voting age in Colorado to 16.)

Underwood’s speech spoke to Tom Pennewell, himself a former Republican who switched to the Democratic Party because of Trump. The semi-retired Monument resident with white hair and bifocals said he is concerned with the party’s diversity.

“This feels like we’re going to elect another party person. A bunch of whites,” he said. “I’m very white myself. I don’t know what the answer to that is.”

And as for policy? When did that matter, Pennewell asked rhetorically when it comes to how he thinks people generally vote.

“It’s always been about personality,” he said. “What they say doesn’t matter, the way they say it matters.”

Photo by Corey Hutchins