The top-of-the-ballot candidates for the U.S. Senate seat squared off again in a slightly more calm setting Thursday, with a forum, not a debate, hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Foundation.
The forum was moderated by Ed Sealover of the Denver Business Journal, with questions to Sen. Cory Gardner, a Yuma Republican, and Democratic candidate and former Gov. John Hickenlooper, on immigration, oil and gas, healthcare, COVID-19 relief, education and one of the chamber’s favorite topics, transportation.
Gardner began by questioning the format, indicating he preferred an open debate to the forum in which each candidate was asked a series of questions rather than debating the issues.
In his opening comments, Gardner pointed to his sponsorship of the Great American Outdoors Act and said he has passed more laws in Congress than the entire rest of the Colorado delegation. He pledged to continue working on "four corners" solutions for the entire state, not just the I-25 corridor.
The candidates were first asked about additional recovery measures tied to the pandemic. Gardner cited his vote for a $100 billion Senate package on education, child care, small business and assistance for the post office, a measure that failed to clear the Senate. He said three things must be addressed: the pandemic, getting businesses back open and getting people back to work.
“We can’t cut back right now,” Hickenlooper responded. He cited a need for relief for school districts, municipalities and county governments, creating a supply chain to boost testing capacity for schools, as well as relief for small business & workers who lost jobs, although he didn’t say how he would pay for it.
The candidates next addressed what they would do to lower healthcare costs. “The promise of Obamacare was never realized,” which was to reduce costs, Gardner said. He pointed to his bill to offer protection for preexisting conditions, a 77-line measure that critics, including Hickenlooper, have charged would not protect those with preexisting conditions from exorbitant health insurance rates.
He also said he would advocate for helping those up to the age of 26 stay on their parents’ insurance plans, and to build up reinsurance and risk pools to deal with high healthcare costs. He also spoke in favor of price transparency as it relates to healthcare.
Sealover pointed out that most of the things Gardner advocates for are already law.
Hickenlooper said he would support bulk discounts for prescription drugs, which would then be used to pay for a public option in health care, as well as more efficiencies and transparency in the healthcare system. He also said he did not support getting rid of private insurance. “We need to incentivize transparency and competition to control costs.”
On to immigration reform: Gardner said the country needs an immigration system that recognizes “that value that everyone came from somewhere else.” He noted he had voted for every immigration reform bill, and advocated for fixes to the visa and entry problems as well as the DREAM Act.
The immigration system is a “mess,” said Hickenlooper, because nothing happens in Washington. He would first address the humanitarian disaster at the border. “We should never have federal agents snatching children from their families,” and said he would push for resources to the border to treat immigrants fairly and humanely. He also said he would support the DREAM Act, as well as a system that would protect American workers while granting work visas in areas where American workers aren’t taking the jobs.
Both candidates strayed from the topic of transportation infrastructure. Gardner said he supported a bill to extend the highway bill for five years, but added that the country needs a major infrastructure bill, something President Trump began promising in 2016 and as recently as last June but never delivered.
Gardner pointed to his efforts to bring in $300 million to improve I-25 north and south of Denver, $60 million for I-70 improvements in Eagle County and his support for the Ports to Plains interstate. He then began talking about his support for water projects, including the southeastern Colorado conduit, a project that has been in the works since the Kennedy administration and would bring clean drinking water to the region.
Transportation infrastructure is a great way to get people back to work, Hickenlooper said, yet the state is far behind in infrastructure investments. He then began addressing broadband, stating that Colorado would be first in the nation where all counties have broadband. He also pointed to his efforts on a 2017 law that brought in $1.7 billion for transportation, as well as calling for public-private partnerships on transportation and transit investments.
On education, the candidates were asked about the role of the federal government in closing educational achievement gaps and what measures they would propose. Gardner cited his work on the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bill President Obama signed into law in 2015. Gardner also spoke of his efforts for mandatory funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, that he would seek additional dollars for concurrent enrollment, a desire to simplify the federal college aid application and to help with student debt.
Hickenlooper noted that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had threatened to take away funding from schools that weren’t opening because of the pandemic, including schools with at-risk students. He also said that Title I (money for low-income students) and funding for students with disabilities has never been adequate, and pointed to efforts by his administration and that of Gov. Jared Polis on kindergarten and early childhood programs.
Hickenlooper also noted that college tuition was frozen the last year he was in office. He also pointed out that 70% of high school students don’t go to college, and cited a program he started as governor on apprenticeships.
Oil and gas and renewable energy allowed the candidates to show their differences. Gardner called himself an “all of the above” energy guy who believes in traditional energy, renewable energy, and has backed legislation on solar power and battery technology. He blasted Hickenlooper for wanting to get rid of the oil and gas industry in Colorado. “I’m not willing to turn to 230,000 families in Colorado to tell them where to work,” Gardner said.
Gardner also said he opposed a ban on fracking and does not support the Green New Deal, but also pointed to his efforts to obtain funding for renewable energy initiatives with the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden and the NIST lab in Boulder.
Hickenlooper stated he believes in climate change, as opposed to President Trump’s position, and one that Hickenlooper said Gardner shares, and pointed out that Gardner voted for a coal lobbyist to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We need to follow the transition to a clean economy,” Hickenlooper said, advocating for more fuel-efficient vehicles and noted that under his administration, two coal-fired electric plants in Pueblo are converting to wind and solar power and will result in lower electricity costs, the first time in the nation’s history. There will be six times more jobs created in a transition to a clean energy economy, he said. As to fracking, Hickenlooper said he preferred to see it reduced, not to make it illegal, as a ban would do.
In a broad question on priorities, Gardner cited the success of the 2017 federal tax cuts, which he said resulted in household incomes increasing for African American and Hispanic families.
However, the New York Times reported in 2018 that the average tax cut that went to a white taxpayer was double that for a taxpayer of color.
Gardner briefly diverged from the president’s opinions on trade, stating that he favored the TransPacific Partnership, which the United States left under Trump. He also cited the nation’s record-low unemployment, which lasted until the pandemic hit.
Hickenlooper said that 10 months into the pandemic, the nation still lacks sufficient testing capacity and more is needed to support small businesses.
He also spoke about the lack of small business owners and entrepreneurs in Congress, stating he hopes to be one of the five or six who knows how to balance a budget. “If we don’t send new people to Washington, nothing will change.”