PUEBLO — Gov. Jared Polis and University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl squared off Wednesday night for their first debate leading up to the Colorado governor election.
Ganahl focused largely on the widespread problems she sees within the state and Polis touted his record of policy accomplishments he views as addressing those same problems as a bid for voters to give him a second term.
“My opponent paints a bleak picture for the state of Colorado,” Polis said during his closing remarks. “One of the most important jobs as governor is to be a chief marketing officer for the state. You know what? We have a great state.”
The gubernatorial candidates appeared at Colorado State University Pueblo for the event hosted by the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Action 22 CEO Sara Blackhurst.
It was the first time Polis, a Democrat, and Ganahl, a Republican, faced each other this election season — Polis did not attend an earlier forum hosted by Club 20 in Grand Junction — and the conversation became heated, even about the type of cars they drive, as the candidates sparred over the future of energy policy, protection of water rights, how to respond to public safety issues and the size and scope of state government itself.
“Mr. Polis wants you to reelect him to fix the problems he created. Polis is the problem. Crime, drugs, inflation. When you vote, hold him accountable,” Ganahl said.
Ganahl doubled down on her criticisms of various “soft on crime” legislation that Polis has recently signed into law, including a measure that made many car thefts a misdemeanor and another that introduced harsher penalties for smaller amounts, though not any amount, of fentanyl possession — two laws that Republicans in the state often focus on as examples of administrative failure. She attributed Colorado’s higher than average inflation rate to the new fees and expanded government under Polis and claimed he did not understand what everyday Coloradans want and think.
Meanwhile, Polis spoke about his track record of accomplishing the promises he made during his first campaign, such as universal preschool and a reduction of rates in the health insurance exchange. He repeated findings from recent economic forecasts that show the state’s economy in an upward trajectory with a historic number of jobs.
“When my opponent talks about my record, I’m happy to talk about a record number of jobs here in Colorado,” he said.
While Ganahl criticized Polis’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the shutdown that put school-aged children in “crisis,” Polis said his administration’s response saved lives while respecting individual choice.
That pandemic response “empowered people in communities to have the information they needed to make their own health decisions,” he said.
“We can’t expect Pueblo and Douglas County and Weld County to handle the pandemic in the same way, so we empowered our local elected officials and our local county health (departments) to make sure we could get through this together,” he continued. “That’s why Colorado had the ninth lowest death rate in any state and one of the strongest economic recoveries in the entire nation.”
In a response to a question about how they would change the state’s energy economy as governor, Ganahl said the state’s effort to switch to renewable energy is too accelerated and the oil and gas industry needs to be better supported. She argued that Polis has “decimated” the state’s energy industry, even though Colorado producers create “the cleanest energy on the planet.”
“We can still go renewable, but he has gone too far too fast. We’ve got to back off and look at the people who are getting hurt most by his Green New Deal. It’s the poorest in our communities who can’t afford to pay 100 bucks to fill up their gas tank. They can’t afford the ridiculous amount of money to put a little heat in their house.”
She said she is an “all of the above energy candidate” and wants to see studies into options like nuclear and hydropower energy.
Polis applauded renewable projects such as CSU Pueblo’s on-site solar power fields and storage system and the use of geothermal energy at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.
He said that communities need to have a seat at the table in energy production conversations in order to put health and safety first, and that different regions of the state can and should have different energy production priorities. But ultimately, he wants to move away from coal power and fossil fuels, arguing that renewables are both cleaner and more affordable.
“We have to ask ourselves how much longer we should force Black Hills (Energy) customers to pay more just to keep coal alive for a few more years,” he said.
Even in an energy landscape with a majority of renewable options, he said there is still a place for options like natural gas to fulfill the baseload need.
Differing views on inflation reduction
Ganahl blamed Polis and the ballooning of state government under his administration for the state’s inflation rate, which is higher than the national average.
“The government has grown by 25% under his reign in Colorado. He has added 85 new taxes and fees. He’s added tons of regulations and new social programs on the backs of small business owners. That’s why inflation is such a problem in Colorado,” she said.
To reduce inflation, Ganahl said she would cut the state income tax to 0% by asking voters to approve permanently giving Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights refunds as income tax reductions. She wants to reduce the size of the state government by instituting a hiring freeze and bringing someone on to perform a waste-and-fraud audit.
Polis argued that inflation was due to a combination of national monetary policy, federal deficit spending and international supply chain issues, rather than the decisions of individual state governments.
“We have global inflation. What can a governor do? We can focus on saving people money,” he said.
He cited examples of ways he and the Legislature worked to do just that, from reducing the state park pass fee, removing the sales tax on diapers, moving up the timeline to distribute TABOR refunds and cutting fees across various other categories. Those cost savings are one of Polis’ key messages for his reelection campaign.
Ganahl argued that those measures aren’t enough, however, calling them “nibbles around the edges” at putting money back in people’s pockets.
Polis also took the time to criticize Ganahl’s choice of a lieutenant governor candidate, Danny Moore, who questioned the 2020 presidential election results on social media.
“The only appointee that she’s gotten to make was her lieutenant governor candidate. She chose an election denier who denies that Joe Biden won the election in 2020,” he said.
Ganahl responded by saying that Moore “respects Joe Biden as his commander in chief.”
The full debate is available to view on Facebook.
Polis and Ganahl have committed to only a few debates before Election Day on Nov. 8, including a debate hosted by CBS4 and The Colorado Sun and another hosted by the Colorado Springs Gazette, both in October.