8 takeaways from the first Republican gubernatorial debate in Colorado

Former Parker mayor Greg Lopez, entrepreneur and one-time lawmaker Victor Mitchell, and retired investment banker and first-time candidate Doug Robinson faced off for the first time on TV Thursday night.

The three took questions at the Lakewood Cultural Center in a debate moderated by 9News journalists Kyle Clark and Brandon Rittiman.

Here are some takeaways:

It was, at times, a real debate

Unlike Wednesday’s Democratic gubernatorial debate where candidates largely did not talk to each other, challenge each other or reference each other, the Republicans at times mixed it up — including calling out candidates who chose not to take part in the debate.

For instance, Robinson jabbed Walker Stapleton for his DUI

Asked whether he would want Colorado to report undocumented immigrants to ICE if they got a DUI in Colorado, Robinson dodged by taking a shot at one of his GOP rivals who chose to skip the debate.

“I’m not that familiar with DUIs,” he said. “Uh, Walker? He is not here.”

That’s a reference to a DUI charge Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton faced in San Francisco in 1999. According to previous reporting, Stapleton “pleaded no contest to DUI and causing bodily injury. He was placed on probation for 36 months, ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings twice a week for six months and to perform community service in San Francisco’s down-and-out Tenderloin District.”

They all want to ‘defund’ so-called sanctuary cities

According to polling, a top issue for Republican voters in Colorado this year is enforcing immigration laws. The Republican candidates for governor in this swing state where one in five residents are Latino are all aligned on being against so-called sanctuary cities. The debate moderators wanted to know exactly what the three candidates on stage would do, policywise, to walk the walk on their anti-illegal-immigration talk.

Mitchell said he would defund cities like Denver that bar city employees, including police officers, from asking about or sharing anyone’s immigration status unless otherwise required by state or federal law. “I would never support a deportation force,” Mitchell said. “We’re not going to round people up who are not breaking the law other than being here illegally.”

Lopez said he would talk to the state’s attorney general to see what he could do to so-called sanctuary cities, including defunding them.

Robinson said on the second day of his administration he would contact Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and have a discussion with him about his policies. “We can use the power of state government, the funding from state government, to compel them to take action on these issues,” he said.

It should be noted that there is no legal definition of sanctuary cities, and Hancock has said Denver is not one, but has said he embraces the title if it means Denver is welcoming to immigrants and refugees.

Also, not much in Colorado’s general fund goes straight to individual cities, but a governor could decide unilaterally not to administer some funds that do. In the case of, say, Boulder, much of state funding comes in the form of grants, but the city also gets a share of the state lottery money, marijuana taxes, and funds for highway maintenance, according to a city spokesman.

Greg Lopez said he believes transgender people are just ‘confused’

Rittiman pressed Lopez about an appearance he made on the religious TV show of controversial televangelist and former lawmaker Gordon Klingenschmitt during which Lopez said, “We need to remind our children that if they were born as a boy, they’re a boy, if they were born as a female, they’re a female, we don’t need to confuse them any more than what life is already trying to confuse them about.”

Asked if he felt being transgender comes down to people being confused about their own body, Lopez said yes. “If God made you a certain way there’s a reason for that,” he said. Pressed on whether he believed transgender people are just “confused,” Lopez said, “If they don’t understand in looking in the mirror as to who they are, then perhaps that is a true statement, yes.”

At that point, Mitchell interjected. “Greg, I would have to say that’s pretty intolerant,” he said. Mitchell said he used to have a similar view until he found out a close friend of his son’s had two mothers. And they had great kids, Mitchell said, adding, “I’ve come around to that whole way of thinking.”

What weapon they would choose in a war against zombies 

State Treasurer Walker Stapleton is seen as the Republican to beat in this year’s GOP primary given his establishment backing, the fact that he’s raised more money, and his standing in polls.

“You don’t have to watch that zombie show on AMC to know that a field of walkers can be dangerous,” said moderator Clark, “so I need to ask each of you in turn ‘What is one thing that you have a serious disagreement with Walker Stapleton on?'”

For Robinson, he said he questioned where Stapleton, as the state treasurer, has been on marijuana policy. Stapleton had a platform as a current sitting statewide official, Robinson said, to make sure Colorado gets the taxes it was promised from legal weed revenue. (Robinson wants more scrutiny on medical marijuana cardholders because he believes some of them are using so-called red cards to pay fewer taxes on higher-taxed recreational pot just so they can get high.) He also popped him for missing half of the board meetings of the public pension board known as PERA.

Mitchell said local officials who don’t cooperate with federal ICE agents should be held civilly liable if an undocumented immigrant commits a crime, and Stapleton disagrees with that.

Lopez said Stapleton should talk more about rural Colorado.

Who is the ultimate outsider?

At one point in the debate when Robinson referred to his rival as “Representative Mitchell,” Mitchell took issue. Clearly annoyed, Mitchell said he has been an entrepreneur for 31 years and was a state representative for only two years. “You can label me any which way, but it’s a bit misleading,” he said. Asked by a moderator if he was ashamed of his time in office, he said no. “But to say that I’m anything other than an outsider would just be a misstatement.” As someone who is self-funding his campaign, not taking special interest money and not seeking endorsements, he said he is “the only outsider” in the race. “I’m the epitome of what an outsider is,” he insisted.

Not so fast, said Lopez, who never served in the legislature, adding, “Based on your definition I fit that definition, so I guess I’m an outsider as well.”

Robinson piped up. “And me too,” he said. “I’ve never run for public office before. I don’t see how I’m an insider. I’m the ultimate outsider.”

“It’s time to be straight with the people,” Mitchell said, looking at Robinson. “You’re not an outsider, you’re an insider. You’re Mitt Romney’s nephew. You’re George Romney’s grandson. You come from one of the most politically connected dynasties in the entire country.” (Robinson didn’t respond during the debate, but has addressed his familial ties to Romney before, saying about his humble beginnings, “I lived a different life than him.” Mitchell didn’t mention Robinson is also cousin to the chair of the Republican National Committee.)

On transportation: No taxes, yes to bonds, mixed on tolls

Lopez said he would use existing money in the budget on infrastructure by rooting out fraud, waste, and abuse in government. Mitchell said he, too, would crack down on waste at the state transportation department and allocate CDOT money better. “I don’t support any new taxes, any new fees, any new bonds,” he said.

Robinson disagreed, saying he doesn’t think CDOT gets enough money. He said he would borrow $3.5 billion through bonds to better fund transportation projects while looking for savings with public-private projects.

Mitchell also said no more partnering with private investors for toll lanes as CDOT currently does.

“I do not see tolls on I-25,” Robinson said, but maybe there are places for some tolls.

Lopez said he would allow a discussion about tolls.

Who wasn’t there?

Stapleton and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman chose to skip the debate.

There was also an empty chair on the stage for Colorado Springs businessman Barry Farah, who got into the race just a few weeks ago. He initially told 9News he would participate and then backed out. His campaign spokesman says Farah’s campaign manager determined the candidate should only consider participating in debates if and when he makes the ballot, and only with other candidates who will be on that ballot.

Steve Barlock, who was Denver’s co-chair of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, wasn’t invited because the moderators didn’t believe he has a viable path to the nomination.

Barlock said he couldn’t believe Farah, who just jumped in the race, was even invited while Barlock has been campaigning since July and won some recent straw polls at GOP events. He popped Stapleton and Coffman for not participating, saying he assumes they were just watching their backs, afraid they’d get attacked on the air in an environment they couldn’t control.

Also not included in the debate was Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter.

Stapleton, Coffman, Farah, Lopez, Barlock and Gaiter will all battle it out at Saturday’s GOP state assembly in Boulder where they need 30 percent of the vote to get on the June 26 ballot.  


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