Crowded election primaries push candidates toward a party's more extreme positions, as candidates know they must attract support from the base. That may explain why the four candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination appear less moderate than we have known them in the past.
As our state faces the monumental decision of choosing a new governor to replace term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper, The Gazette's editorial board met with all four Democrats. We witnessed debates among them, including one sponsored by The Gazette.
Our due diligence left us impressed with the field. It also revealed policy positions starkly in contrast to our own, so much so we were unable to endorse.
Instead, we share here our observations and insights in the hope they will help Democratic primary participants with their research.
All four candidates are well-known Coloradans, with years of public service:
- U.S. Rep. Jared Polis served on the Colorado Board of Education before representing Colorado's Second Congressional District. He's an entrepreneur and the second-wealthiest member of Congress, which shows his ability to innovate, produce and succeed.
- Former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, a lawyer by training, spent nearly six years as the chief financial officer for Denver city government. In both roles she saved taxpayers from risky investments that went bad.
- Lieutenant Gov. Donna Lynne was Kaiser Permanente's top executive for Colorado, and worked at a high level for four New York City mayors — including Republican Rudy Giuliani, who is President Trump's attorney.
- Former State Sen. Michael Johnston worked as a high school principal and has a history of volunteer service. He earned his juris doctor from Yale and a master's in education from Harvard. He displays an immediate grasp of issues and high communication skills.
All of these candidates have impressive professional, academic, and public service backgrounds. Lynne and Polis have run large businesses and signed the front of paychecks. None of these candidates lacks knowledge of the issues or the ability to connect with voters.
Even if we agreed with most of their platforms, which is not the case, choosing among this field would be difficult.
Johnston and Lynne seem to attack issues more with a pure problem solving stance, versus Polis and Kennedy who mostly start with liberal dogma.
As examples of our key concerns with all candidates:
- All support raising taxes to fund transportation, regardless of state government's record-setting revenues and a surplus exceeding $1 billion and growing. They see little to no money in the budget to help fund transportation after this year's legislative transportation funding agreement shrinks to relative peanuts in a few years.
- All support substantial unraveling of Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, though each would maintain the requirement that voters approve tax hikes. Johnston made the most specific case for how to go about doing this.
- All embrace a progressive state income tax increase to fund transportation, education and possibly more initiatives.
- None consider Colorado's inadequate marijuana regulations an urgent problem.
"I voted against legalizing marijuana," Kennedy told us. "I have two teenagers and I think it sends the wrong message. That said, I think Colorado has done good job developing a regulatory system that is a model for the nation."
We call the model a cautionary tale.
- All want more excessive entanglement of government and health care. Each supports a universal public option for insurance, with none offering a plan to produce substantially more care as an alternative to more distribution of expensive third-party payer schemes.
Polis wants "Medicare for all," with private options to augment baseline coverage.
Paying for increased health insurance would likely come from increased spending, paid for by increasing taxes or shortchanging education, transportation, and other basic government services. Governor John Hickenlooper did the latter to increase state Medicaid at an expense to the general fund. In the wake of Medicaid expansion, Hickenlooper and others claim the state can't afford adequate funding of roads and schools.
The list could go on, but the board was simply too far apart from each of these candidates on everything from taxes, to civil liberties, to transportation, and more.
On energy, Lynne and Johnston offer the more moderate and reasonable positions. Lynne emphasizes the need for statewide drilling and extraction policies that apply evenly in all parts of the state. She says a 2,500-foot setback, to separate homes from oil and gas production, goes too far.
Though relieved by Lynne's moderate defense of energy production, we are troubled by her pledge during The Gazette's "Apple Pie, Issues, and Banjos" debate to never support rescinding any tax. The comment came during a discussion on the economic benefits of nixing the business personal property tax.
Education policy provides the greatest rift among these candidate, who otherwise agree on an assortment of key contemporary issues.
Johnston and Polis are leaders in educational choice. Johnston stands out for leading the charge to improve teacher outcomes. He authored Senate Bill 191 in 2010, which supported professional growth of teachers with a series of reforms to improve evaluations and reward good results.
Kennedy has the enthusiastic endorsement of the state and national teachers unions, which don't approve of educational improvements advocated by Polis and Johnston. The political action committee "Teacher for Kennedy" spent $1.1 million on an ad buy, so far, to blast Johnston and Polis as school choice advocates threatening funding for public schools. Of course, that's not true. Polis and Johnston unconditionally denounce vouchers. They support charter schools, but charter schools are public schools. Kennedy told us she agrees with that, and that charter schools &mdahsh; at least some of them, in her estimation — get good results. That leaves us wondering what her supporters are taking about.
In opposing vouchers, Polis references "separation of church and state." Johnston defends his voucher opposition by mentioning Colorado's Blaine Amendment, though not by name. Blaine is a troublesome state constitutional amendment rooted in a sordid history of keeping religious organizations from helping minority immigrants obtain formal educations in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Kennedy's concern for teachers and students seems genuine. We share her concern for low teacher wages, and agree they must be raised. So do other Democratic candidates for governor, but none offer a solution involving difficult decisions to re-prioritize state spending on non-essential government services — namely Medicaid.
While foregoing an endorsement, the board remains genuinely impressed with the quality of all four Democratic candidates. We applaud them for taking time to converse with us, and participate in our candidate's forum. For those wanting to reinvent Colorado with an expensive revolution of big-government solutions, any of these candidates could get the job done.
The Gazette editorial board