5 takeaways from the final Democratic debate for Colorado governor

The final televised debate among the four Democrats running for governor in Colorado didn’t elicit the kind of fireworks of previous showdowns, but there were some pops. Some daylight also emerged between them and they drilled down on at least one issue — drilling. Ballots have been out for about a week and Election Day is June 26. 

FLASHBACK: 6 takeaways from Colorado’s first Democratic gubernatorial debate

On Monday evening, Democratic Lt. Gov Donna Lynne, former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, and Boulder Congressman Jared Polis took questions for 90 minutes at the University of Denver in a debate moderated by The Denver Post’s John Frank and Anne Trujillo of Denver7. 

Here are five takeaways.

Would a Democratic governor declare Colorado a “sanctuary state?”

Republicans along the campaign trail for governor have been warning that if voters elect a Democrat to the governor’s mansion then that Democrat would turn Colorado into a “sanctuary state.” So, when asked directly if they would do that, what did they say?

Lynne said she’s looked at the issue and, “We don’t even know what the definition of sanctuary state is. It’s a nuance that I think many people have.” But she added that it’s important to defend the rights of immigrants who live here. So that’s a no, she said, because of the lack of definition. 

Kennedy, who noted she is married to an immigrant, agreed. “Without a definition, the answer is no.” She added that she would make sure immigrants living in communities in Colorado can take their kids to school, pick up their paychecks or go to the courthouse, report child abuse or domestic violence without fear of being deported. 

To which Johnston said: “We do know what a sanctuary state is,” and the question is about what Republicans believe the state’s role should be regarding its cooperation with ICE. He said Colorado should not share information about small infractions like busted tail lights with federal immigration authorities, but reporting when undocumented immigrants commit larger crimes like violent sexual assault and murder is appropriate.

Polis said he wouldn’t let the administration of President Donald Trump commandeer local law enforcement.

Polling shows a top issue for more than 40 percent of Republican primary voters is a desire for the Republican candidates for governor to address enforcing immigration laws. The importance of the issue has also been reflected in conversations with Republicans over the past year at party events.

Related: GOP candidates for governor aligned against so-called sanctuary cities in Colorado

A small rift opened up over how to tackle gun violence

There have not been many major policy rifts among the four Democratic candidates, but when they’ve disagreed it has generally been about education and guns. So when asked how teachers might talk to a four-year-old about firearms, some daylight broke through.

Johnston, who has two fourth-graders at home, said it’s always appropriate to talk about gun safety, but school isn’t a place for it.

Polis said no government body should be telling people about the plusses and minuses of guns. “I trust responsible gun owners,” he said. “I trust those who don’t own guns in their household to tell their kids about safety.” He said the discussion isn’t one “the government should be pushing out [with] a particular propaganda effort to defend guns or attack guns.”

Lynne, who pledged as governor to declare gun violence a health crisis, said young people are experiencing gun violence in school and so school is an appropriate venue for discussion. “What we’re dealing with right now is a mental health crisis and sometimes the schools are best suited to deal with that.”

Kennedy said she tells her kids the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding responsible citizens but it’s time to ban assault weapons. 

Is Jared Polis trying to buy this election?

One remarkable aspect of Colorado’s governor’s race this year is that one candidate, Polis, has spent nearly $11 million of his own money so far in the primary alone. What it means in practice is that his messaging is on your TV, in your mailbox, and everywhere else in between.

So, naturally, the other candidates wanted to talk about that.

Lynne expressed support for limits on money in politics and flat-out said, “I think this election’s for sale.” Asked who in particular is trying to buy it, she didn’t offer a name. 

Kennedy, however, noted Polis has spent more money on the race than all candidates combined spent in the last gubernatorial election. She said the race is “exactly what is wrong with campaign finance in this country,” noting Polis is spending his own money with no limit and Johnston is taking millions from people outside the state. Asked what she would do about big-money’s influence on politics, she said she would support publicly financed elections.

Johnston asked, “Is this an election or is this an auction?” He said he knew he would be running against a self-funder and is proud that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose to support him because of his stance on gun safety.

Polis, who styles himself a campaign finance reformer, said he wanted to spend more time with actual voters than dialing for dollars, so that’s why he’s self-funding. He said he supports public financing of elections and more public disclosure of political expenditures. He added that it’s time to ban PACs and special interests donations “altogether.”

Johnston challenged Polis, saying if he was going to advocate for campaign finance reform while not limiting his own unprecedented spending it means he can buy in while others can’t keep up. To that, Polis sniped back, saying, “Mike, look, if you didn’t have all these out-of-state donors, I wouldn’t have needed to put in my own money to keep up with you.” 

As of last week, Polis had spent $10.5 million of his own money. A PAC supporting Johnston raised $4.3 million.

How far would they want to set back oil-and-gas drilling from homes?

The current state law for setbacks is 500 feet. Would they extend that?

Lynne said she is open to a conversation about bigger drilling setbacks, but, “I do think that a 2,500-foot setback is not something that most people support,” she said, referencing a proposed ballot measure increasing the distance by 500 percent. As governor, she said she would strengthen the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission by making it a full-time, paid board that would work with public health officials on deciding which setback distances would be most appropriate. She wouldn’t nail down a specific distance she would prefer, saying she’d rather rely on professionals.

Kennedy said she supports giving local municipalities the authority to make setback distances longer than current state law. “I don’t think we should have the same setback requirement for every single building in the entire state,” she said.  

Johnston said he would increase the current statewide setback requirement, and, “I do think we need one set of statewide rules.” As governor, he said he would fix abandoned wells around the state and get to “zero leakage” along pipelines, though he didn’t specify how. “I think 500 is not far enough, I agree that 2,500 is too far.”

Polis, agreed that 500 feet isn’t enough. He said he supports 1,500 to 2,000 feet in cases where there isn’t a surface usage agreement in place. “We need additional setbacks statewide which should be guided by science, health and safety-first, objective data.” He said it’s important to keep in mind the rights of home and landowners, as well.

What’s their most annoying trait?

In a lighter moment of an extended part of the debate that wasn’t aired on TV, moderators asked the candidates what their spouses would say is their most annoying trait.

“I work too hard and don’t take enough time off,” Polis said.

“I’m fastidious and orderly and my husband is the exact opposite,” said Lynne.

“I can’t believe I’m going to say this on Facebook live,” said Kennedy. “I snore.”

Johnston said he likes to keep his kids up about an hour later than he should.

REMINDER: We are rolling out our in-depth profiles of all eight major-party candidates for governor. Keep checking back here to read them.

The four Republicans debate Tuesday night in the same place at 6 p.m.

Watch tonight’s full debate below:


  1. Minor math lesson for non-mathematicians:

    Doubling is 100% (i.e. 500 –> 1,000 ft)
    Tripling is 200%
    Quadrupling is 300%
    Quintupling is 400% (i.e. 500 –> 2,500 ft)

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