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INSIGHTS: A clean campaign is an empty promise

June 11, 2018 Updated: June 11, 2018 at 7:14 pm

All four Democrats running to be Colorado's governor signed a clean-campaign pledge last year, promising a mud-free zone on the trail and on the airwaves. That's the spirit that can bind a party together.

But with about two weeks to go before the June 26 primary, the pinky swear came undone.

Everybody says they want honorable campaigns, but none dares spend political capital on calling off their attack dogs. More likely, they wink and nod.

As the crowded race tightens, operatives with money don't give a toot about their candidate's promise if they weigh it against tearing down an opponent. Going negative happens because it works.

Colorado Politics' Ernest Luning reported last week on Teachers for Kennedy, a "Super PAC," spending $1.4 million on a 30-second ad taking shots at her chief Democratic competitors, Jared Polis and Mike Johnston. The teachers union endorsed Kennedy. Media fact-checkers labeled their Super PAC ad misleading.

That set off a crazy week of debate over who was being negative and who was playing defense. The teachers ad landed the same day I was quizzing Polis' people - or trying to - about word that his PAC planned to take aim at Kennedy in its own ad.

Mike Littwin of the Colorado Independent heard the same gossip and was first to report it. Rick Palacio, who is running Polis' independent expenditure (IE) support group, Bold Colorado, didn't return Littwin's call or mine.

Ultimately, the ads that Camp Polis dropped were aimed to make Kennedy look bad - by noting that she and her allies were trying to make Polis look bad. Exhausted yet? Both campaigns complained to the state party about the other on the same day. Don't try to keep up. Just hold on.

As long as that fight lasts, it's great for Johnston, perceived to be in third place, who's standing clear of the fray so far.

This is how John Hickenlooper became mayor of Denver in 2003. Ari Zavaras and Don Mares went negative, and voters went to the guy whose TV ads showed him riding a scooter, dropping coins in expiring parking meters and promising, what else, "change."

I asked Mara Sheldon, Polis' campaign spokeswoman, what she thought of the pro-Polis ads, thinking the campaign might launch a pre-emptive strike to defend his pledge by saying negativity toward Kennedy is not what he wants.

"Sorry, Joey," she replied in an email. "I cannot comment on the PAC. There is no coordination and an IE is completely separate from the campaign."

That's true. Independent expenditure committees, by law, don't coordinate with candidates, at least not so anyone can prove for a law that's virtually never enforced. Campaigns and PACs have the same relationship as itching and scratching.

That same day, however, Kennedy's classroom friends released the attack ad on Polis, and then Team Jared found its voice on Kennedy.

"Cary Kennedy is turning to desperate and false negative attacks instead of putting forward a positive vision for the future of Colorado," Sheldon said in a news release. And so it began.

Hickenlooper shook his head at the mud-slinging in the race to take his seat. "I'm really disappointed," he said about the Teachers for Kennedy ad.

Hickenlooper famously eschewed negative ads as a candidate. "Every time I see one, I feel like I need to take a shower," he said in a 2010 campaign ad, as he showered in his clothes.

But by the end of the race, his hands weren't totally clean. In October 2014, the Democratic PAC Making Colorado Great accused Republican nominee Bob Beauprez, Hickenlooper's re-election opponent, of waging a war on women over reproductive rights.

"Sorry, Bob Beauprez, these decisions belong to us, and we won't give you the power to take them away from Colorado women," a female narrator said in the 30-second spot.

The governor has the power to "ban abortion"? No, but it doesn't have to be true if it gets the job done on Election Day - and the mud splashes away from the preferred candidate.

Hickenlooper was unable or unwilling to snap the leash on those attack dogs.

I don't recall Hickenlooper spanking his PAC, which spent $2.4 million to get him elected.

"The law says I'm not allowed to know or talk to or even shout out to the press what any independent expenditures should or shouldn't do," Hickenlooper said at the time.

That new Clean Campaign Promise was an edict from the top, authored by the state Democratic Party. Among its commandments: "I will encourage my supporters or volunteers to refrain from personal attacks or smears against other Democrats in this primary race."

The Democrats left the definitions of attacks and smears open to interpretation, a thin shade for cover in the hot summertime campaigns.

In a televised debate two days after Teachers for Kennedy got an F on fairness, Kennedy was asked to respond, a prime slot to say such tactics aren't what she's about, and the pledge means something.

"It's important that teachers have the ability to express their opinion in a race that matters to them," Kennedy said.

CBS4 political ace Shaun Boyd pushed back on the pledge versus the attack.

"I don't like negative campaigning, but this was the teachers' ad, not mine," Kennedy replied, nodding as if she gave an adequate answer.

Republicans are no better about tearing each other down, but at least they didn't make campaign promises their supporters don't respect.

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