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John Hickenlooper, lower left, and Andrew Romanoff, lower right, square off in a remote debate on June 9, 2020, moderated by Kyle Clark.

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper and former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff met in a key matchup for the Democratic nomination and the issues focused on the times: social justice.

The two political veterans met in their first outright debate Tuesday night in a meeting televised statewide via 9News and other media partners, including Colorado Politics. 

The 30-minute debate began on social justice. Hickenlooper said Denver made strides when he was mayor, "but we didn't get far enough," saying the reforms must continue.

Romanoff charged out of the gate and right at the former mayor and governor. Hickenlooper did not return fire to go after Romanoff.

"Reform is not enough," Romanoff said. "We do need to shift resources and demilitarize the police. We need to invest in community services. John fundamentally misunderstands this moment."

Romanoff said Hickenlooper's policing policies did not help.

Hickenlooper answered for earlier saying "every life matters," saying he tripped over his words.

"Black lives matter," Hickenlooper said Tuesday night. 

Romanoff said that when he was a legislator, including House speaker, he helped put laws on the book and increase funding for civil rights enforcement and worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama when he was younger and is surprised he's still fighting the same fight of discrimination decades later.

"It is not enough to declare victory at this point until we act on these words: black lives matter," he said.

Hickenlooper talked about working with the Black Ministerial Alliance and created a police independent monitor, a civilian oversight commission and hired black police recruiters for the department.

As governor he worked on judicial reform and job training and ended administrative segregation.

"These are some of the most fundamental things you can do," Hickenlooper said.

9News moderator Kyle Clark asked Hickenlooper if the 2010 death of homeless street preacher Marvin Booker in the Denver jail at the hands of law enforcement was a murder.

"It was egregious neglect," Hickenlooper answered. "And I think (it) falls into that category of murder."

He did not favor reopening the case. "They've gone through that process thoroughly," he said. "At a certain point I don't think it's going to return benefit to the family or the community."

Romanoff replied simply, "Yes," as to whether he considered Booker's death a murder.  Booker was held down by officers and shocked for a prolonged period with a taser, investigators said. A federal civil jury awarded Booker's family more than $4 million in 2014.

He spoke about his support for reparations for black people.

"This crime against humanity, the centuries of slavery and segregation and discrimination that have followed needs to be remedied," Romanoff said. "We can't simply declare victory because we've abolished slavery." 

Romanoff answered for his apocalyptic campaign ad about climate change.

"Voters are living in that kind of Hell right now, perhaps not the circumstances portrayed in the ad," he said, talking about clean air and oil and gas development "that ad doesn't seem terribly apocalyptic at all."

He pivoted to Hickenlooper about why he has worked with and accepted donations from the fossil fuel industry.

"We have to have a fierce urgency to climate change," Hickenlooper replied. "And we have to recognize the Republicans are trying to stack the deck against us.  They're going to do everything in their power to rollback the EPA regulations to cut apart our protections for clean air and clean water that have been established over decades.

"I worked tirelessly to make sure we had a public health department ... that was doing the tests and the measurements and doing the studies to makes sure every neighborhood and every community got the protections they deserved."

He said the primary purpose of state and federal government is to protect the public.

County clerks mailed out ballots this week to participate in the June 30 primary (voters who do not receive a ballot by June 17 should contact their county's clerk and recorder). Ballots must be returned to vote-counters no later than 7 p.m. on June 30. After June 22, voters are advised to return their ballot at a designated drop-box instead of by mail.

The primary winner will meet incumbent Republican Cory Gardner in November. The race to the General Election is expected to be one of the most combative and expensive races in the nation, as Democrats see the Colorado seat as a vital pickup if the party is to seize the majority from Republicans. 

If that happens, history will repeat itself.

In 2014, Gardner edged out incumbent Democrat Mark Udall of Boulder to win his first term by 2 percentage points, the same election in which Hickenlooper won a second term as governor by 3 points. That's the same year Romanoff lost a challenge to then-U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, the moderate Republican who is now mayor of Aurora, by 9 points. Politico called Romanoff at the time "a top-tier recruit" to beat Coffman.

Romanoff said he won four elections to statehouse and helped the Democrats to the majority in back-to-back elections. He debated Gardner in the House, while he brought up Hickenlooper's charge of contempt and violations last week from the state ethics commission.

"I think that makes John the riskiest bet in this election," he said.

Hickenlooper took a question about failing to take a position on the death penalty in Colorado as governor.

"I try to get the information necessary to make a good decision," he said.

This year, Democrats recruited Hickenlooper for the must-win Senate race, after his bid for president fizzled without much pop, and the party apparently was cold on the large field of both political veterans and promising newcomers. The national party recruited another former governor and presidential candidate to run for Senate in Montana, as well, Steve Bullock.

"While Romanoff and Hickenlooper drag each other further to the far left, Cory Gardner will continue being a commonsense leader, focused on delivering real results for the people of Colorado," the Gardner campaign said Tuesday evening when Colorado Politics asked for a comment on the debate.

Despite his name recognition and ability to raise campaign cash, Hickenlooper has had perhaps the rockiest ride in his two-decade-long political career, dating back to his first win for Denver mayor in 2003.

Last week the Independent Ethics Commission ruled that Hickenlooper had violated ethics rule in accepting two trips while he was governor. The trips violated the state ethics law's ban of inappropriate gifts to public officials. The day before, Hickenlooper had been held in contempt for failing to show up for the online hearing, defying a subpoena that compelled him to do so.

The state party and various organizations have held dozens of forums — instead of debates — which allowed candidates to answer questions without being challenged by other candidates and usually with much less challenging questions than the nominee would face in a debate, from Republicans and from the press in the run-up to November.

"John Hickenlooper proved once again tonight that he is unfit to represent our state in the United States Senate," Joe Jackson, spokesman for the Colorado Republican Party said in a statement after the debate. "While Sen. Gardner is working to pass important pieces of legislation like the Great American Outdoors Act, Hickenlooper is dodging ethics hearings and being found in violation of the Colorado Constitution. We agree with Mr. Romanoff; Hickenlooper should drop out."

Joanna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, stated Tuesday night. "John Hickenlooper ducked questions tonight about as well as he ducks subpoenas. His unwillingness to apologize for violating Colorado ethics laws or being found in contempt was a stain on his candidacy. At least Romanoff had the courage to answer questions.

"One thing is clear from tonight: neither of these candidates has what it takes to represent Colorado."

Kyle Kohli, the Republican National Committee's spokesman in Colorado, piled on:

“For months, John Hickenlooper told anyone who would listen he would be a terrible Senator. Tonight he showed yet again he wasn’t kidding. As the first Coloradan in history to be held in contempt by the Independent Ethics Commission, Hickenlooper’s refusal to take responsibility for his illegal conduct was downright disgraceful. If he survives this primary, voters will hold him accountable and reelect Cory Gardner this November.”

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