Hickenlooper pressed on ethics violations in feisty US Senate debate with Romanoff


The two Democrats competing in Colorado’s June 30 primary to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner met on a virtual debate stage Wednesday night as ballots are beginning to arrive in voters’ mailboxes.

The feisty, hour-long debate between former Gov. John Hickenlooper and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff focused on the same issues that have dominated the Democratic primary — health care, climate change, how to grow an equitable economy and which candidate is best suited to challenge Gardner — as well as topics that have taken center stage in recent weeks, including police accountability, structural racism and criminal justice reform.

Hickenlooper also faced persistent questioning from one of the debate’s panelists over last week’s ruling by the state’s Independent Ethics Commission that he violated state law by accepting a ride on a private jet and fancy dinners while on trips to promote the state when he was governor.

The debate, sponsored by CBS4 Denver, the Colorado Sun and PBS12, was held via videoconference, with Hickenlooper beaming in from his Denver home on a sometimes halting internet connection and Romanoff speaking in front of a wall of yard signs at his campaign office.

It was the second debate between the candidates, following a 30-minute matchup sponsored by 9News, Colorado Politics and The Gazette. A final, 90-minute debate, sponsored by Denver7, The Denver Post, Colorado Public Radio and the University of Denver is scheduled for 6 p.m. next Tuesday.

“You have a choice in this race between timidity and bold leadership,” said Romanoff, who repeatedly dismissed Hickenlooper’s proposals as too moderate.

“I’ll be perfectly clear,” Romanoff said at another point. “It’s not enough simply to flip the Senate from red to blue, although that’s important. We need to change the chamber itself from paralysis to progress.”

As he did during his brief presidential campaign last year, Hickenlooper talked about bringing opposing sides together to solve seemingly intractable problems but also regularly took aim at Gardner, linking the Republican incumbent to President Donald Trump.

Both sides claimed victory after the debate — or all three sides, counting the Republicans who declared the debate had only bolstered Gardner’s prospects.

Gardner and his allies no doubt hit the record button when Colorado Sun reporter John Frank repeatedly grilled Hickenlooper about a state panel’s determination that he violated a constitutional ban on accepting gifts from corporations, twice asking the candidate why he defied a subpoena and considered himself “above the law.”

At one point, Frank cut Hickenlooper off when he ignored Frank’s question about whether he would pay back state funds spent to defend Hickenlooper and inside started repeating points he’d made earlier about his enthusiasm for bringing jobs to Colorado.

Frank didn’t get his answers, but Hickenlooper’s opponents probably didn’t get the killer sound bite for the attack ads strategists say are certainly in the works, either — not that they’ll need it to blanket Colorado’s airwaves this summer and fall with 30 seconds’ worth of shady-looking Hickenlooper images as a narrator details the violations.

Some of the ads might even be financed by donors behind the “dark money Republican group” Hickenlooper blamed repeatedly during the debate for instigating the complaints.

“Let’s be very clear, these are trips I took while I was governor. I said I would go anywhere and everywhere to try to bring jobs in economic growth to the state,” Hickenlooper said.

After describing the trips — to an international conference in Italy and to a christening ceremony for the USS Colorado attack submarine in Connecticut — and explaining why he thought he had complied with the law, Hickenlooper added: “I accept responsibility for this, but we should remember, this was a dark money attack group, a Republican dark money group that was going to smear my reputation no matter what, and they were going to smear any Democrat no matter what.”

Romanoff faced less pointed questions from PBS12 producer Dominick Dezutti, who asked whether his support for single-payer health care and the Green New Deal made him too liberal for Colorado, which counts more unaffiliated voters than members of either major party.

“If you look at every single one of the priorities that we have laid out, I think you’ll find broad support among the majority of Coloradans,” Romanoff responded, shrugging off the suggestion.

Making a case for the Medicare for All proposal, Romanoff said that the current health care system drives half a million Americans into bankruptcy every year and leaves 72 million Americans uninsured or underinsured.

“Cory Gardner and John Hickenlooper both parrot the insurance industry in their opposition to Medicare for All,” he said. “But this is a time for bold leadership, not for timidity, and going back to normal in this broken health insurance model would be a disaster, especially when as many as 43 million more Americans may lose their employer-based coverage before we hit rock bottom.”

Following up, Dezutti asked how Romanoff would pay for his pricey proposals — including Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and reparations for African Americans and Native Americans — on top of the trillions of dollars spent on the recent stimulus.

Romanoff didn’t directly answer, but said he would end what he said are $650 billion in annual direct and indirect subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, instead putting the money into renewable energy.

Given the chance to ask each other a question, Romanoff called on Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, to sign a pledge renouncing contributions from the fossil fuel industry, and Hickenlooper asked Romanoff to rank which past policy position he most regretted from a list that included support for the Iraq War and spearheading tough anti-immigrant legislation when he was speaker of the Colorado House.

“Andrew, you’re mischaracterizing, as always,” said Hickenlooper, who has been endorsed by campaign finance reform group End Citizens United. He maintained that he doesn’t take any money from corporate PACs but acknowledged that among more than 100,000 individual donors, some must work for oil and gas companies. He didn’t, however, address criticism that he’s accepted donations from leadership PACs that accept the kind of contributions Hickenlooper rejects.

“Your handlers in Washington are doing a good job on opposition research,” a salty Romanoff said with a derisive chuckle after Hickenlooper asked about his political past.

“I made a mistake in 2006, and I’ll acknowledge it,” Romanoff said. He explained that he thought he was working to keep a more draconian constitutional amendment off the ballot by brokering a special session to pass a legislative package that restricted services for immigrants in the country illegally and required local law enforcement to report suspected illegal immigrants they to the feds when they arrested them.

Romanoff noted that Hickenlooper, who signed a 2013 bill repealing the harshest of the measures, congratulated him on passing the legislation in 2006, when Hickenlooper was mayor of Denver.