Trail Marker: Gloves off as modest contrasts roil the Democratic primary for Colorado governor

Two weeks ago we wondered if the forum-and-debate season would elicit any sparks. Last week we saw some in the four-way Democratic primary. This week those sparks touched off a two-day firestorm.

It started Tuesday when Teachers for Kennedy, a Super PAC-style group supporting former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, launched a big-bucks broadside TV ad against ex-State Sen. Mike Johnston and Boulder Congressman Jared Polis.

We’ll break down the ad later in this newsletter, but before we get there, here’s why it’s mere existence is a big deal: It marked a turning point in a race that has thus far been without much major contrast among four candidates who have all signed a state Democratic Party Clean Campaign Pledge.

Related: Colorado’s Democratic primary for governor is a battle of the clean campaigns

Now, with just a few days until ballots go out in the mail, and as we approach the June 26 primary Election Day, is this “battle of the clean campaigns” beginning to fray?

Way back at the beginning of the campaign, Kennedy herself pledged to “send a message” to outside groups. “Obviously we can’t coordinate with any outside group that might be supportive of our campaigns, so we can’t tell them what to do,” she said at the time in a campaign statement. “As candidates, we need to send a message about what kind of politics we feel is appropriate in Colorado. If we keep our campaigns positive, they may follow suit.”

And so these PAC wars finally dispense with this whole ‘independent’ thing anyway

A day after the ad hit the airwaves, Kennedy was asked to denounce it during a Colorado Public Television debate. She not only declined, saying the PAC is independent of her campaign, but she defended it. Johnston and Polis pounced. Watch the near-five-minute exchange, beginning at the 12:10 mark, below:

The following day, something interesting happened. Johnston and Polis each released campaign statements that, for once, seemed to dispense with a kind of legal fiction in our post-Citizens United American political system: That campaigns and the Super PACs that support them are truly separate entities and aren’t accountable to each other.

For instance, Polis’s spokeswoman called the Teachers for Kennedy group “Cary Kennedy’s super PAC” (the PAC ad uses footage from Kennedy’s own website.) But there is also a Super PAC, called Bold Colorado, that supports Polis. So by his own campaign’s logic, is Bold Colorado “Jared Polis’s Super PAC?” Johnston also has a Super PAC supporting him called Frontier Fairness. And he, too, houses soundless video footage on his campaign website. His campaign spokeswoman said, “If Frontier Fairness put up a negative ad, Mike would not hesitate to ask them to take it down.” But campaigns and Super PACs (which can raise and spend unlimited funds) aren’t supposed to coordinate. So could a candidate tell a supportive PAC what to do? Should a candidate think he can? That’s a gray area that confounded Mitt Romney in 2012 and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2014. As Colorado elections lawyer Chris Jackson puts it, “there isn’t much caselaw in Colorado on the scope of ‘coordination,’ so there are still lots of open questions on that topic.” Setting the legal stuff aside, this spotlight on the PACs surrounding three candidates who tout in their campaigns that they’re not taking PAC money illuminates the influence of soft money in Colorado politics where direct campaign donation limits of $1,150 are significantly lower than other states and the national median of $3,800.

Related: Jared Polis, Walker Stapleton, and Colorado’s low campaign cash limits

Now, about that Teachers for Kennedy ad, SB-191, and education reform as a third rail

Denver’s KDVR fact-checked the now-infamous Teachers for Kennedy ad and found its claims that “Jared Polis supported a voucher program to take money out of public schools” and “Johnston supported anti-teacher and conservative education efforts” misleading. But the teachers attack PAC doesn’t just have ads on the air— a different version of them is also hitting mailboxes and ripping into Polis, as Sandra Fish reports.

There has been little daylight in the Democratic primary for governor on policy issues, and what little there has, up until now, has been about guns. This week, the big rift opened up over education policy, and it isn’t likely to mend.

So how exactly did education reform become such a wedge issue in this Democratic primary for governor anyway? Erica Meltzer dug into that for ChalkBeat Colorado in a piece we published this week that couldn’t have come at a more apt time. Bottom line: It was a long time coming.

Meanwhile, in this week’s Official Unofficial #COgov ranking by our columnist Mike Littwin, former Hickenlooper top strategist Alan Salazar called wielding a bill Johnston drafted as an attack in a Democratic primary “painfully ironic.” The bill in question, called SB-191, which Johnston introduced as a state senator in 2010, Litwin writes, was, in part, in response to then-President Barack Obama’s Race-To-The-Top agenda. “And, as Salazar points out, it was one of the seminal achievements of Gov. Bill Ritter’s tenure.” But Johnston has been dogged by teachers— some protesting outside of his events— for its reliance on testing to assess teacher performance.

In Wednesday’s debate, Johnston said even Kennedy supported the bill, which she said she did not recall doing. He was relying on her co-chairmanship of the Colorado School Finance Partnership when she signed her name on a report that called SB-191 a “system that provides the necessary accountability and data tools to drive student achievement and provide meaningful targets for improvement.” The Kennedy campaign says flatly, “Cary Kennedy has never supported SB 191,” and also, “every participant agreed to have their name on the report with the caveat that they did not support every aspect of the report.” To which the Johnston campaign notes the report itself actually says the recommendations developed by the School Finance Partnership Kennedy co-chaired “are the result of a full-consensus model, where all present members of the Steering Committee agreed to each recommendation and, ultimately, to the full set of recommendations.” Kennedy’s campaign says she agreed to the recommendations, but “the purpose of the project was school finance, not evaluating Colorado’s current education policies,” and she didn’t agree with every line in the final report.

Also during the debate, Polis offered this line when talking about the Teachers for Kennedy attack ad: “Of course I support making sure kids have choice in our public school system, but I’ve never supported vouchers.”

But a Teachers for Kennedy mailer quotes this line from a 2004 piece in Denver’s alt-weekly Westword: “[Polis] voiced his support for vouchers.” The full sentence from the piece is: “In 2003, for instance, he voiced his support for vouchers as long as laws concerning them are initially tailored to assist disadvantaged youth — a position not far from the one espoused by conservative icon Bob Schaffer.”

In 2007, a Denver Post reporter looked into his stance on vouchers when it flared up in his bid for Congress that year. The report says Polis “publicly backed a measure four years ago that was touted as the country’s largest school voucher bill and which eventually was signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Owens. The law was later struck down by the Colorado Supreme Court.” In the piece Polis says he didn’t support the final version of the bill, which, prior to amendments, “clearly addressed vouchers,” the Post reported, by allowing districts “to provide assistance for an eligible child to attend a participating nonpublic school, under the terms of an opportunity contract between the child’s parent and the school.” Before the bill passed, the story goes on, Polis also wrote in a Rocky Mountain News opinion piece in defense of then-Attorney General Ken Salazar, that “this experiment deserves a fair test, an honest chance” and called the legislation a “modest voucher proposal.” And even back then Polis was pushing back at the idea he supported vouchers, saying he did not support “any vouchers that harm the public education system.” In Wednesday’s debate, he said, “I have a track record of voting against vouchers every time they’ve come up,” and said Kennedy worked for an organization that was pushing the legislation in question.

Oh, by the way, in case you’re wondering where Donna Lynne is in all this, debate moderator Shaun Boyd summed it up when she said to Lynne, “I do not have a question for Donna because you were not in the attack ad.” Watch the full hour-long debate here.

Elsewhere in the air wars…

Spending on TV ads in the eight-person governor’s has now topped $12 million. We break it down here.

(SPOILER: One candidate accounts for 42 percent of all the spending in the entire race, and it comes from just one pocket— his own. Any guesses before you click?)

On the Republican side, Walker Stapleton gets hit on his Bush family connection

On Tuesday, I caught up with Victor Mitchell, who is running as a businessman outsider in the four-way primary that includes State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, retired investment banker Doug Robinson, and former Parker mayor Greg Lopez. Mitchell was at a campaign stop at a bar called the Boardroom in Littleton and we sat for 30 minutes before his event. He unloaded on Stapleton, calling him “totally bought and paid for.”

Here’s a full quote of Mitchell spitting that fire:

“If we think as Republicans we’re going to elect a career political dynasty candidate that’s taking millions of dollars, is not going to put the people first, has a checkered past as a state treasurer… I mean, come on, he’s absent all the time. The unfunded liability of the public pension system has doubled in the eight years he’s done a miserable job as state treasurer. And now we’re going to elect him? It’s almost a certainty that he would not be a good candidate in a general election.”

I asked Mitchell if he was saying similar things in speeches to voters on the campaign trail (he did not in his speech that evening) and he said only if he’s asked. I noted he wasn’t saying it in his ads, either. He didn’t say he had plans to run any and instead explained how he’s been running a campaign based on substantive policy positions and authenticity. A day later, though, his campaign posted a new ad directly taking aim at Stapleton. In it, two preppy men on a tennis court— one is Winston, the other Brooks— talk about how they’ve tapped Stapleton, a Bush family relative, for governor. So it will be “business as usual,” one says. “Indubitably,” says the other. “Don’t vote for a Bush insider in Colorado,” says a narrator, sounding like he’s wearing a cowboy hat on the ranch. “Vic Mitchell is the outsider conservative businessman running for governor.”

Mitchell told me he was happy to see a new poll showing him rising in heavily Republican El Paso County with 18 percent to Stapleton’s 32 percent. He now sees it as a two-person primary.

Stapleton, meanwhile, is getting some help in that part of the state. As Sandra Fish reported for us this week, a new group has emerged to air ads for him in Colorado Springs. Stapleton this week also snagged the endorsement of John Suthers, the mayor of Colorado Springs and a former GOP attorney general and U.S. attorney.

And for the follow-up file, last week we reported how Stapleton was amending his personal financial disclosure forms after we asked why he didn’t list his blind trust on them. A trustee of that trust, the campaign said, would take care of its status as being delinquent with the Secretary of State’s Office. We can report Rocky Mountain Trust LLC is no longer delinquent. Stapleton’s campaign, meanwhile, is still sending out mail pieces that are not accurate.

A change of mind on stumping with Trump

Something else that came out of the Mitchell interview: He has changed his mind about not being willing to campaign with President Donald Trump. In August, Mitchell appeared for a video interview of the liberal ColoradoPols blog. Asked if he would accept an offer if Donald Trump wanted to campaign with him, Mitchell said no. “Donald Trump and I agree on many issues, but his style and temperament are different than mine,” he said. “And at the end of the day, I really love Colorado and I think it would insincere to have him come out and campaign for me.”

Now, nine months later, he has a different take on that. “If Donald Trump as the president of the United States wants to come campaign with me I would certainly accept,” Mitchell told me when I asked. “But I’m not going to aggressively court him.”

Asked when that changed, Mitchell said he supports Trump in many respects and tries to separate his “crudeness to what’s actually happening.” The economy is booming, he said, and he likes his new tax plan and how he’s rolling back regulations. “His style is different than mine and will always be, but he deserves the reverence of the presidency,” Mitchell said. “So if he wanted to campaign with me I would accept his ability to campaign with me.”

Stapleton, too, when asked that question in April, declined to answer, telling a reporter at the time he wouldn’t play the “what-if” game. When I asked him a month later, on May 15, if he would campaign with Tom Tancredo, the former controversial immigration hawk congressman and Breitbart author who nominated him at the state assembly, Stapleton said he would campaign with “any Republican that wants to add their support.” Asked if that included Trump, Stapleton said, “Sure. He’s the sitting president of the United States. I would campaign with any Republican who wants to lend a hand to our efforts in Colorado.”

Robinson finds himself once again on the wrong side of a punctuation mark

Republican Doug Robinson is slipping in what he once hoped was some forward momentum in the name game. He told me many months ago he’d noticed in news reports his qualifier had changed from “Mitt Romney’s nephew, comma, Doug Robinson, to Doug Robinson, comma, Mitt Romney’s nephew.” At the time he saw it as “a little bit of progress.”

But, on May 31, this lede appeared in The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent: “Mitt Romney’s nephew, Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Robinson, made a campaign stop in Glenwood Springs Wednesday afternoon at The Pullman.” That must be getting old.

Where will the candidates be debating this week?

On Saturday, the four Dems will be at a forum hosted by Service Employees International Union Local 105, the Colorado People’s Action, and the Working Families Party of Colorado. “The forum is expected to attract more than 300 attendees,” organizers say, and the candidates will take questions from voters.

The Republican candidates will debate on TV, moderated by reporters for KUSA 9News, on June 7, also at 7 p.m. on Channel 20 in Denver.

Also on June 7 at 6 p.m., “One Colorado, the state’s leading advocacy organization for LGBTQ Coloradans and their families, will host a gubernatorial forum on LGBTQ issues at the EXDO Event Center in Denver,” the organization says. The address is 3500 Walnut St.


Photo by Mo Riza for Creative Commons on Flickr.