There was a lot of name dropping at the Pitkin County Democrats annual dinner at the T-Lazy-7 Ranch Friday night — from John Hickenlooper to former President Barack Obama to, yes, several key players in the Republican party.
The speaker lineup comprised 10 candidates in the 2020 election, including seven running for U.S. Senate.
“I want to address the elephant in the room — and the elephant in the room is of course a Democrat in this case,” Senate candidate Dan Baer said to laughter from the crowd. Hickenlooper, the former two-term governor, announced his Senate campaign Thursday, a week after dropping out of the presidential race.
He went on to speak highly of Hickenlooper but remained committed to his own campaign. As governor, Hickenlooper appointed Baer as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education after serving as a U.S. ambassador in the Obama administration.
“Voting the right way is not enough — we need people ready to do the work,” Baer said during his presentation. “They need to be people who can compromise, yes, but not as an end in itself. At a time like this, the cautious bet is not the safe one.”
Like many candidates that night, Baer offered his diagnosis of what he feels are the biggest threats to the country right now, both existentially and concretely.
“We don’t have problems because we have a breakdown in civility; we have a breakdown in civility because we have problems,” he said. “Three things that are basic elements of what we recognize as a middle-class life — a home, an education and healthcare — have exploded in price in the last generation, while the one way that most people have to pay for it — the pay they get from their job — has virtually flatlined or shrunk for the bottom 80 percent of Americans. We learned this week that Greenland isn’t for sale, but the truth is that America is and has been.”
Still, the overall energy in the room was a hopeful one, albeit with some precaution.
“This 2020 cycle is about three things: who we have been, who we are in this moment and who we will become. We’ve spent the last three years with someone who wanted to take us back to who we have been. In this moment, many of us are afraid and paralyzed because ... we see the rise in all the things we fear,” Senate candidate Stephany Rose Spaulding said.
“I am not afraid of Cory Gardner. Every poll tells us that a potato can take out Cory Gardner. I am most afraid that we will not have the courage to become who we have always desired to be,” the Baptist pastor and University of Colorado Colorado Springs faculty chair continued.
Several candidates found comfort for the future in their past accomplishments in the public sector.
“I was elected by my peers to be the first [Colorado House] majority leader in the Democratic Party in over 60 years,” said Alice Madden, who subsequently worked on then-Gov. Bill Ritter’s senior staff. “We passed 56 bills on clean energy. I got to implement those bills. Little known, [Obama] actually cut and paste from Gov. Ritter’s website on clean energy use and used that in his campaign. He signed the Recovery Act right in Denver because he was so pleased with what we did.”
Senate candidate John Walsh similarly recalled his record to voters at the sold-out dinner, where seats started at $75.
“In 2010, President Obama named me Colorado’s United States attorney. In that time … we accomplished so much,” he said. “We worked on sentencing reform; we worked to address gun violence; we worked with the [Affordable Care Act] to make America a truly equitable place for all Americans on health care.”
Walsh didn’t mince words when assigning blame for policy setbacks during that time.
“There are so many different things that this president that we have now has systematically and in a knee-jerk way tried to disassemble all of that. Cory Gardner has been there with him every step of the way,” he said. “I was a lead witness for the Obama package of gun-violence measures. Why did they get stopped? The Republicans in the United States Senate.”
Lorena Garcia was a late addition to the program, but she was first in the race to unseat Sen. Gardner. She spoke passionately about her reasons for running.
“Betsy DeVoss, she continues to be my inspiration in this race,” she said. “The first thing she did when she was appointed Secretary of Education was eliminate the teen pregnancy prevention program. That program directly impacted Colorado. Over 180,000 students in Colorado lost access to highly trained sexual health educators. A nonprofit organization I worked at, Colorado Youth Matter, had to shut its doors. And the U.S. Senate has the power to confirm those people.”
In December of 2017, Colorado Youth Matter closed after losing $1.5 million in federal funding. The Denver-based organization had offered teacher trainings on sexual health since the 1980s.
“Thank you, Cory Gardner, for confirming people who are not in there to uphold the mission of these agencies, but who are in there to systematically dismantle the mission of these agencies,” Garcia said.
Andrew Romanoff — whose resume includes former CEO of Mental Health Colorado and four terms in the Colorado House of Representatives — characterized what he called Senate Republicans’ inaction as irresponsible.
“You and I might be able to indulge this kind of paralysis if we lived in some far-off land, where the air was too breathable; and the water was too drinkable; and college was too affordable; and health care was too accessible; and poverty was too scarce. But that’s not the place where we live,” Romanoff said.
Vail native Mike Johnston acknowledged that there’s much work to be done between now and 2020 for anyone in his political party.
“I’m going to zoom out a little bit and take a moment to talk about why we’re here,” the former state senator said. “When you look at moments in history … there are questions when you look at your country and don’t feel like you recognize it, sometimes. And the question is, what do you do in those moments?”
He then went on to recount the history of the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama in the 1950s. But instead of focusing on Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr., Johnston spent much time discussing the woman who first volunteered to chauffeur people to and from work in order to help the movement.
“On Day 383, the system finally says, ‘We break. We give up.’ Not because we weren’t ready for one press conference and one great speech by Dr. King — they were ready for that,” Johnston said.
What authorities weren’t ready for, he continued, was a sustained effort despite every literal roadblock.