Hickenlooper, Romanoff clash in first TV debate

Andrew Romanoff called on John Hickenlooper to drop out of the Democratic U.S. Senate primary after a recent ruling that he violated the state ethics law, while Hickenlooper pointed out Romanoff — once a rising star in state politics — hadn’t won an election in more than a decade.

Several feisty moments played out in a televised debate Tuesday night that was the first between the two men vying to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in November. And Hickenlooper frequently found himself on the defensive, given his recent gaffes and Friday’s ethics ruling.

But he pushed back, making a case that his familiarity to Coloradans and more moderate positions put him on a strong footing to challenge Gardner.

Hickenlooper voiced skepticism toward a recent push by participants in mass protests against police brutality to “defund the police,” meaning that cities should shift money away from police departments to other community resources. Hickenlooper, who finished two terms as Colorado’s governor early last year, previously served as Denver’s mayor.

“Well, I don’t think we should defund the police,” Hickenlooper said during the brisk 30-minute debate on 9News, “but I do believe we need to reform police. When I first became mayor (in 2003), I made some efforts at police reform, but we didn’t get far enough. … We also have to look beyond just police reform and make sure that we’re getting equal opportunity in housing and education, equal opportunity in jobs.”

Romanoff, a former state House speaker, took Hickenlooper to task for his past approaches to policing and expressed support for defunding the police: “We do need to shift resources and demilitarize the police. We need to invest in community services. John fundamentally misunderstands this moment — just as he misunderstands what Black Lives Matter means.”

He was referring to Hickenlooper’s recent comment that “Black Lives Matter means every life matters,” which some activists took as downplaying the meaning. “I stepped on my own words,” Hickenlooper said Tuesday.

Both Hickenlooper and Romanoff said that in the Senate, they’d support a bill to strip police officers of qualified immunity, as Colorado’s legislature is debating. Both agreed that the recent death of George Floyd during his arrest by Minneapolis police was murder.

Moderator Kyle Clark asked Hickenlooper about the death of Denver jail inmate Marvin Booker at deputies’ hands in 2010, his last year as mayor. A jury later found deputies liable and the city paid Booker’s family $6 million.

“It was egregious neglect and I think falls into that category of murder,” Hickenlooper said, but he disagreed that the district attorney’s office should reopen the criminal investigation.

The candidates’ differing agendas draw clear distinctions on how they’d approach health care, climate change and other issues, with Romanoff, who’s won wide support from the party’s liberal base, taking markedly more progressive positions ahead of the June 30 primary.

“This is no time for timidity,” Romanoff said. “We need bold, structural change to address each of the challenges that we discussed tonight.”

Hickenlooper, who jumped in the race last year after ending a short-lived presidential campaign, has drawn heavy establishment support.

But he had a rough week last week.

On Friday, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission found that he was wrong in 2018, when he was governor, to allow corporations to cover the cost of a private jet trip to Connecticut, a Maserati limousine ride at the Bilderberg meetings in Italy and several expensive dinners. The commission found Hickenlooper committed two violations of Amendment 41, the state’s law restricting gifts to public officials, out of six remaining allegations by a GOP-affiliated group in its ethics complaint.

Hickenlooper had been held in contempt by the commission after he initially refused to testify earlier in the week by video conference, a setup prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, he said he took responsibility for a misunderstanding about the Bilderberg expenses and defended against the other violation.

“Look, John Hickenlooper just wrote the Republicans’ ad against him twice now,” Romanoff said, also referring to “when he told everybody in the state he’d be a terrible senator” while he was running for president. “I believe he should consider withdrawing from this race.”

Hickenlooper responded by bringing up that Romanoff has lost two previous high-profile races since he left the state House in 2009.

“I think it’s clear that I have a relationship with Coloradans through thick and thin,” Hickenlooper said. “I think they’re going to recognize these smear attacks that would be used against any Democratic candidate, no matter what their background.”

Tuesday’s debate was co-sponsored by Colorado Politics and other TV stations around the state. Another debate will air at 6 p.m. Wednesday on CBS4. The Denver Post is cosponsoring a primary debate at 6 p.m. June 16 with Denver7, Colorado Public Radio News and the University of Denver.

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