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Democrats slinging mud in race for Colorado governor

June 1, 2018 Updated: June 1, 2018 at 10:31 pm
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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cary Kennedy gestures after accepting her nomination for governor at the 2018 Colorado Democratic State Assembly, where Democrats soundly rejected school choice. Photo by Andy Colwell for the Gazette

It should come as no surprise that sparks are finally flying in the Democratic gubernatorial primary after the candidates finally landed on one of the state party's most charged third rails - education reform.

After a more than a full year of polite and relatively friendly campaigning, and four weeks before ballots are due in, a third-party group backing Cary Kennedy, the former state treasurer, unleashed an attack ad on May 29 targeting two of her rivals for the nomination, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and former state Sen. Mike Johnston.

Teachers for Kennedy, a newly formed super PAC - able to take unlimited donations to support a candidate, so long as the committee and the candidate don't coordinate strategy - is spending roughly $1.4 million airing the 30-second ad across the state through the June 26 primary, a spokeswoman for the group told Colorado Politics.

The spot landed with a splash in a cycle already teeming with TV and digital ads - data journalist Sandra Fish determined this week that campaigns are so far spending more than $12 million on TV ads, with wealthy self-funder Polis accounting for some 42 percent of the money spent in the governor's race.

Calling Kennedy "the only candidate who doesn't waver on progressive values," the ad says Polis "supported a voucher program to take money out of public schools" and brands Johnston as someone who "pushed conservative anti-teacher laws that experts say hurt students."

For most public school teachers and Democrats who side with them in what has become a increasingly contentious rift within the party, them's fighting words.

And immediately the fighting started - over whether the ad's charges were accurate, over whether Kennedy was responsible for her supporters' attacks, and over whether the primary had all of a sudden swerved off the high road into a ditch.

Polis campaign spokeswoman Mara Sheldon blasted Kennedy for "turning to desperate and false negative attacks" and called the ad's charge "totally implausible." Contrary to supporting vouchers, Sheldon said, Polis had voted against vouchers in Congress every chance he's had.

The ad rested its contention on a 2003 opinion piece Polis wrote defending then-Attorney General Ken Salazar when the Democrat was taking heat for supporting a bill passed by the Legislature that year to create a pilot program offering vouchers to certain disadvantaged children.

The Johnston campaign fired back with equal fury, calling the ad "typical negative politics at a time when Colorado needs positive, progressive leadership." What's more, Johnston campaign spokeswoman Grace Hanover said, the ad "has its facts all wrong" about the bill it cites.

"SB 191 was part of a broader set of improvements initiated by Democratic Governor Bill Ritter and endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, the NAACP, and Padres Unidos, among many other individuals and groups," she said.

(A representative of AFT Colorado, which has endorsed Kennedy and whose logo appears on screen at the end of the ad, told Colorado Politics that the union had initially supported the bill - one of the most controversial pieces of legislation passed by the General Assembly in the last decade - but was unhappy with the way it's been implemented and opposes it now.)

Invoking something called the Clean Campaign Pledge - a document created by the state Democratic Party last year that has been signed by all the Democrats running for governor, as well as numerous other candidates - the Johnston campaign said the third-party ad "violates that spirit" and called on Kennedy to "disavow the ad and to request it be taken off the air."

State party chair Morgan Carroll wouldn't say Kennedy had violated the Clean Campaign Pledge, instead pointing to the fact it was an independent committee that had produced the ad and suggesting that its charges didn't involve the "personal attacks or smears" forbidden by the pledge.

"Because independent expenditures and super PACs are legally barred from coordinating with candidates, campaigns, or parties, it is impossible to hold any one candidate accountable for the actions of an independent expenditure or a super PAC," Carroll told Colorado Politics in a statement. "However, per the Clean Campaign Pledge, candidates have the responsibility to encourage their supporters or volunteers 'to refrain from engaging in personal attacks or smears against the other Democrats' in the primary campaign.'"

In a statement to Colorado Politics and during a Colorado Public Television gubernatorial debate taped the day after the ad debuted, Kennedy decried negative advertising but wouldn't repudiate the ad, saying it contrasted the candidates' education policy records.

"I am honored to have the support of teachers and appreciate their desire to make schools better," Kennedy said on the Denver public TV station's program. "They took a close look at the candidates running for governor, asked hard questions, and decided my vision for education and record would best serve the students of Colorado. They produced this ad independent of my campaign and I cannot legally coordinate with them. I've pledged to keep my own campaign positive and I encourage all of the independent groups including those supporting my candidacy to do the same."

Not good enough for Gov. John Hickenlooper, the term-limited Democrat who famously took a shower with his clothes on in a campaign ad decrying negative campaign advertising.

Hickenlooper said he was "really disappointed" in the ad, which threatened to turn the campaign "into a mudfest."

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