Heidi Ganahl is an untested candidate in a crowded governor’s race, but where she's starting provides a strong indication of where Republicans are headed in 2022.
Gov. Jared Polis is expected to run on his record of lowering the cost of health care, cracking down on air pollution, promoting greener transportation and making free full-day kindergarten a reality.
Ganahl, like Republicans nationally, is teeing up concerns about rising crime. Colorado Politics told you about a report showing scary increases released last week by the Denver-based Common Sense Institute, where Ganahl is a former board member.
Ganahl wants to make fentanyl possession a felony again.
Two years ago Polis signed House Bill 1263 that reduced possession of 4 grams or less of Schedule I drugs, including fentanyl, from a felony to a misdemeanor. The legislation reclassified the criminal code for possession of an array of drugs, including up to six ounces of marijuana. Softening the partisan cudgel, however, is the fact the bill was co-sponsored by two Republicans, then-Sen. Vickie Marble of Fort Collins and Rep. Shane Sandridge of Colorado Springs, and picked up an aye vote from Senate GOP leader Chris Holbert from Douglas County.
Fentanyl is said to be 50 times more potent than heroin, and is 100 times more potent than morphine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last month that drug overdose deaths topped 100,000 across the country last year for the 12-month period that ended in April. That’s a 28.5% spike from the 78,056 deaths during the same period the year before, which was up from 56,064 the year before that.
Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, drove those numbers, the CDC reported.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment projects a record 1,838 deaths from drug overdoses this year, compared to 1,477 last year. In 2019, when Polis took office, the number was 1,072.
This year's toll grew last week, when a student in Animas High School died and two were hospitalized after smoking what Durango police think was the prescription painkiller Percocet and fentanyl. Also last week, the Department of Justice issued a bulletin warning about "significant nationwide surge in counterfeit pills" laced with fentanyl.
Today, Colorado's Democratic attorney general, Phil Weiser, along with legislators, cops and prosecutors are holding a press conference in Denver to discuss the threat of fentanyl and how the state can boost its response.
Regulating and criminalizing fentanyl could be done surgically, Ganahl said, while writing some sense into blanket edicts from the legislature on who gets locked up.
“I know that a lot of folks who are using these drugs or selling these drugs have horrible addiction issues,” Ganahl told me. “I think we've gotta go where it tips to being a very dangerous criminal activity. The other side is being compassionate and helping people who have addiction disorders get help.”
When she’s governor, Ganahl said there will be different leadership in public safety and her parole board appointees who will take a different view than the get-of-jail policies of her Democratic predecessors.
Democrats in the last session passed the Behavioral Health Recovery Act that Polis signed in June to steer $550 million in (ARPA) federal stimulus funds addressing substance use disorders.
Polis’ campaign passed on debating Ganahl over fentanyl. My assumption: Polis don’t want to grant Ganahl front-runner status or answer everything a wide field throws at him to try to get traction.
Ganahl, however, has an unlikely alley in Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette.
"The surge of fentanyl is having a dramatic and deadly effect on our communities," she said in a 2017 oversight subcommittee hearing on the opioid crisis. "We all see the headlines. These are our neighbors, our families, our friends. We need an all-hands-on -deck approach to fight this problem, which will involve not just the federal government, but states, localities and even international partners."
Ganahl is trying to break out from the ever-crowding GOP field for the governor's race.
The University of Colorado regent at-large is the only remaining Republican who was elected statewide. Among the better-known names in the race for the nomination is former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez, who outperformed expectations in the 2018 race and never stopped campaigning after that.
A handful of potential candidates are expected to join them at the Republican Women of Weld forum on Jan. 6. The traditional mixer gives those of us who watch early an idea of who can go the distance.
Four years ago, Colorado's political world waited for then-Attorney General Cynthia Coffman to join the race. She was expected to zoom to the front of the pack. She skipped the Women of Weld event, where she would have been the only woman candidate, because she was flying back from Palm Beach, Fla., where she attended a Republican attorneys general conference. Her campaign never got its footing.
Other potential candidates we know about who plan to attend the Fort Lupton forum are Danielle Neuschwanger, Jack Dillender, Darryl Gibbs, Jeff Fry, Jason Lopez, Jim Rundberg and Jon Gray-Ginsberg. I was told by a Polis insider they’re keeping an eye on as many as 14 Republicans who might enter the fray.
Circle Jan. 6 on your campaign calendar. If Ganahl makes a splash there, the Polis campaign will have to pay more attention.