Election 2020 Democrats Senate forum

Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Senate candidates participate in a forum sponsored by the Denver Democrats on Nov. 9, 2019, at Highlands United Methodist Church in Denver. From left, candidates Trish Zornio, John Hickenlooper, Lorena Garcia, Andrew Romanoff, Stephany Rose Spaulding, Diana Bray, Michelle Ferrigno Warren and moderator Milo Schwab.

Yes, yes, we know that former Gov. John Hickenlooper is running for the U.S. Senate, and that his entry into the race resulted in the exit of some high-profile candidates.

We understand why a number of Democrats are peeved that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is backing Hickenlooper, whose decision to jump in came after his failed presidential bid. We know others are miffed but, even so, believe that Hickenlooper has the best chance of unseating Republican Cory Gardner next November.

And so hats off to the Democratic Party of Denver for hosting Senate forums throughout the city. By the way, do NOT say debate; you will immediately and vigorously be corrected.

I attended the final forum, at Highlands United Methodist Church in my old ’hood in north Denver, on Nov. 9 because I wanted to get a feel for the candidates, including those I know of only by talking to politicos and reading stories on the race for more than a year.

As I listened to questions I was reminded of how much federal races are not my thing. Give me a juicy City Council race, a wild district attorney’s contest, a tantalizing mayoral showdown any day, although more and more federal issues are local issues — immigration, justice reform and so on.

And in a primary for any party, a lot of the answers can sound the same.

The question that most intrigued me had to do with what the candidates had done to show that they can get people to find common ground, to galvanize support for their ideas. I covered both Hickenlooper and former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff when I was a reporter, so I knew what they were going to say.

Hickenlooper talked about running for Denver mayor in 2003 when conventional wisdom said Denver hated the ’burbs and vice versa. After he won, he formed strong relationships with suburban mayors of all political persuasions and they worked together in 2004 to pass a tax for FasTracks, a mega transportation expansion program.

“Back then,” he said, “they said it was impossible but in the end … we got it done here in Colorado.”

Romanoff helped lead Democrats to their improbable takeover of the House in 2004, a streak that has remained unbroken except for two years, 2010 and 2011, thanks to the efforts of Republicans Frank McNulty and Amy Stephens.

Romanoff talked about how he teamed with GOP Gov. Bill Owens to craft an economic recovery plan to lift the state out of a deep recession, and with Democratic Treasurer Cary Kennedy to create the largest investment in school construction in state history.

“I got recognized among the list of most effective legislative leaders in America,” he said, “but what made us effective was our willingness to build a coalition across the state … and I hope to bring that same talent to the U.S. Senate.”

The remaining candidates are women, and several noted Colorado has never sent a woman to the U.S. Senate. (Or elected one as governor, for that matter.)

State Sen. Angela Williams of Denver was absent, as she had committed to other events, including festivities surrounding the 154th anniversary of Zion Baptist Church. She attended all the other Denver Senate forums.

Here’s a look at the other candidates and some of what they had to say about coalition building.

Lorena Garcia, a community organizer, has led nonprofit policy advocacy organizations in Colorado. She said they met with local communities and crafted policy ideas that they brought to the state Capitol and in turn became law.

“By bringing and engaging those who are directly impacted to be the leaders of the policy change, that is when you have effective, true, equitable policy,” she said. “When policy is being written, drafted and created behind closed doors without bringing in the diverse perspective of opposing sides, that’s when you have failed policy.”

Stephanie Rose Spaulding, a University of Colorado Colorado Springs professor, talked about her 2018 run for Congress in the conservative 5th Congressional District, which includes El Paso County.

“I actually had people ask me if I knew I was black,” she said, drawing a big laugh among those sitting in the church pews. “But we earned 126,000 votes in a district that does not have 126,000 Democrats.”

They did that, she said, by being honest and authentic and listening to people with different viewpoints, and she said she would do the same in the Senate.

Diana Bray, a psychologist and climate activist, encouraged voters to look at the candidates’ websites and see what they have accomplished.

“I will be advocating for a way to stop the stranglehold the oil-and-gas industry has around our necks,” she said. “I will not take money from the oil-gas industry, insurance companies or the NRA because if you take money, then you are finding a way to be beholden to them.”

Michelle Ferrigno Warren, a nonprofit leader and immigration advocate, said she’s not a career politician, but she has spent the past decade behind the scenes putting together coalitions with a variety of leaders and faiths on various issues, from mass incarceration to affordable health care to quality education.

“It is quite a feat to be able to bring leaders from the Jewish community, the Mormon community, the Muslim community, the Christian community, all to unite on issues of immigration reform and others,” she said. “I would bring that to the Senate as well.”

Trish Zornio, a biomedical scientist, said she once served on a committee concerning climate change. A member on the first day admitted to being a skeptic, but said he would try to keep an open mind. Some were upset this person was on the committee, but Zornia she said she was able to talk to him.

“Because I came from a rural background myself and I have a family that actually denies climate change but does more to recycle and work on sustainability than a lot of different places, I understand where they’re coming from and the things that resonate and the things that don’t.”

Romanoff was known for his zingers the four years he led the House, and he did not disappoint during the forum when the candidates were asked what committee they want if they could request a dream assignment from Sen. Schumer.

“I’m not sure Chuck Schumer is going to give me the committee that I want,” Romanoff said. “He’s not keen on my candidacy.”

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