The Colorado Democrats vying for their party’s nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020 made their pitches to progressive activists Sunday at a forum at Barnum Park in West Denver.
More than a year before the primary, nearly every Democratic candidate in the race converged for the first time to speak at the forum sponsored by Colorado Indivisible and other left-leaning organizations.
"A lot of people, including myself, hadn't heard most of the candidates speak — I'd only heard two of them before — and now they're all together, and they were really having fun," said Katie Farnan, an organizer with Indivisible Front Range Resistance and one of the forum's planners.
At the outset, event organizer and moderator Tania Van Pelt of Indivisible Denver told the crowd to set aside questions of electability.
"We decide who's electable by electing them," she said. "So for everyone running and everyone voting, let's not worry about electability, because we're the deciders, we vote — that's who's electable."
The nine candidates took turns at the microphone delivering five-minute versions of their stump speeches, each customized to address a policy topic drawn at random from a box, ranging from impeachment to the Green New Deal.
"The reality is, and I think everybody here knows, that today we are facing a crisis in our democracy," said John Walsh, a former U.S. attorney under the Obama administration and the first of the candidates to speak to the crowd of more than 200.
He added: "The 2020 election will be the most consequential of our lives."
After drawing the topic of immigration, Walsh described how he joined with fellow former U.S. attorneys to denounce the Trump administration's family separation policy and how his law firm advocated for detainees held at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Aurora.
"This is an issue that goes to the heart of what the United States of America is about," Walsh said. "We can have secure borders and still be an open, welcoming country that lives up to what the Statue of Liberty and its wonderful poem says."
Andrew Romanoff, a former state House speaker and the past president of Mental Health Colorado, addressed the filibuster, a Senate procedure that requires a super-majority to move most legislation.
"That means I have unlimited time, apparently," Romanoff quipped, and then said: "I'll be brief. I think we ought to eliminate it. It doesn't serve a useful purpose, and it's blocking progress on a lot of the core changes that we need."
Romanoff added: "I joined this race because I think we are literally running out of time — to rescue our planet, to repair our democracy, to restore the American dream."
Mike Johnston, a former state senator and candidate in last year's gubernatorial primary, drew the Electoral College — a flashpoint in Colorado this year, as conservatives seek to overturn legislation to pledge the state's electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.
"Yes, I support reforming the Electoral College; I support the popular vote. I think we ought to believe the idea that one person, one vote is what this country was built on," Johnston said.
Lorena Garcia, head of the statewide Colorado Parent Coalition and a community organizer, drew loud cheers from the crowd when she selected "impeachment" from the topic box.
"That's a pretty easy one; actually, it's not that easy," she said.
She said that although Americans enjoy the ability to vote public officials into and out of office, "if we can't vote them out because it's too long from now, and they're destroying our democracy right now, in office, then we have an obligation to investigate their criminal behavior, and if that leads to impeachment, then that's what that leads to."
Garcia continued: "We have an obligation to investigate. And the fact that we have career politicians right now who are refusing to even open impeachment investigations shows that they are not willing to stand up and fight for each and every one of us. That is why I am running for U.S. Senate."
"If we really and truly want to get to a place of liberty and justice for all, then we need to get back to our original sin," said Stephany Spaulding, a professor and Baptist pastor, after drawing the Census as her topic.
"This crisis that we believe our democracy is in comes with naturalization acts, comes with document like the Declaration of Independence, comes with documents like the Constitution that literally did not regard all human beings or peoples in this place as citizens," she said.
The controversy over whether to include a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census, she said, should encourage those at the picnic to reflect on the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Utes who once occupied Colorado and "were forcibly removed from a place."
Ellyn Burnes, a natural resources economist and former chair of the Boulder Democratic Party, discussed the importance of the Supreme Court.
"One of the reasons I'm running is increasingly too many of us are being left behind — undervalued, overlooked," she said.
"Some of those who can't be here today are those who are facing decisions of the Supreme Court," she said, calling for a Supreme Court that will protect women's rights "and that's going to support our immigration, our young people coming to this as young children who didn't have a voice or a say and who deserve to be here and be educated."
Alice Madden, a former state House Democratic leader and Obama administration official, said she's running for Senate because she "looked at the state of our country and thought, 'I cannot sit back and watch.' We are facing two man-made disasters like no others. One is Donald Trump himself, and the other is climate change."
Addressing China, the topic she pulled from the box, Madden said her father was among the first Americans to visit China and negotiate a deal with the Chinese after President Nixon opened relations with the mainland.
"They are a country to be reckoned with," she said, adding: "America used to be the country of ideas. China's taken that over. They have more patents issued every year than we do."
"It's important for us to think about a real manufacturing renaissance in this country," she said. "We can demand a living wage, we can demand good governance of these companies, and, you know what, there's environmental protections here that do not exists in China."
Climate activist Diana Bray drew her signature topic, the Green New Deal.
"I would love for you all to also organize a climate debate for the U.S. Senate candidates that are here — and show the (Democratic National Committee) how it's done," she said, referencing recent calls for the party to hold a debate among its presidential hopefuls devoted to climate change.
"The reason that I decided to get into this race is because of the urgency, my alarm, the catastrophic, existential crisis that we're in because of climate," she said.
Bray called the Green New Deal — a broad legislative framework aimed at battling climate change — "an aspiration" but said she'd go further by ending the country's reliance on fossil fuels.
Dan Baer, a diplomat in the Obama administration and former executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, talked about the topic of reproductive rights in his speech, saying that a recent spate of anti-abortion laws passed by some states is part of a broader plan to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
"If there is a silver lining to the Trump era, it will be this: It will be that people like all of you, people like Moms Demand (Action), people like Indivisible, people who are not career politicians but are throwing themselves into the political scene at all levels, decided to get engaged because of the moment we are living in," he said.
A surrogate spoke on behalf of scientist and educator Trish Zornio because the candidate was in New Hampshire with family after her mother suffered serious injuries in a car accident. Like Zornio, her surrogate made a case for sending a scientist to the U.S. Senate.
After the forum had concluded, Farnan, the Indivisible organizer, declared it a success.
"We are early. This is a Sunday evening, summer, 2019 — and you're looking at an event that had a couple hundred people, organized by working mothers, retirees, absolutely volunteers, all of us doing this just because. That is how fired up we are, because the Senate campaign is the most important in 2020, bigger than the president," she said.
A spokesman for the Republican National Committee said in a statement that the Democratic candidates had left no doubt about the party's leftward shift.
“This weekend's first Senate Democrat primary forum made one thing perfectly clear: The days of so-called 'moderate' Colorado Democrats are officially over. From silencing Colorado's voice in presidential elections to instituting government-run healthcare and the Green New Deal, it's clear this primary is quickly becoming a race to the extreme left," said Kyle Kohli, the Colorado spokesman for the RNC.