Here’s What’s On The Minds Of Voters In The Hickenlooper-Romanoff Primary

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Courtesy Pears Photography, Carlos Valverde, Katherine Newell, Kymora Jaxson.
Clockwise, starting at the top left: Voters Emma Tang, Carlos Valverde, Katherine Newell and Tamra DeBrady.

Colorado voters could well decide this fall which party controls the Senate. 

First things first, voters need to pick which Democrat will challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. The June 30 primary election is rapidly approaching.

Former two-term governor and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper was asked by Democratic party leaders in Washington to compete for the nomination, and is getting support from the Democratic Senate fundraising committee, but his campaign has hit several road bumps in recent weeks leaving some voters unsure of what to do.

The other name on the ballot is former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who is more progressive and won the state Democratic party's assembly and caucuses. He’s unsuccessfully run for Congress twice before.

Among the first-time voters watching these candidates is 18-year-old Emma Tang of Colorado Springs. Earlier in the race, she volunteered for one of the 11 original Democratic candidates in the race, Stephany Rose Spaulding, one of the two black women who had been running.

“At this point, I'm just so torn that my conscience doesn't want me to vote for either candidate,” Tang said.

As a child of Tawainese immigrants, Tang said she doesn’t support Romanoff’s endorsement of a tough immigration law earlier in his career, back in 2006. He has since apologized but she doesn’t think he’s done enough to rectify it.

“Everyone's made a mistake in their life, which is true, but making a mistake is not the same as hurting thousands of immigrant families, and he hasn't done anything to try to repair his relationship,” she said.

As for Hickenlooper, she thinks he’s run a sloppy campaign. She sees him as too soft on the environment and has concerns about his answer to a question in a racial justice forum during the height of the George Floyd protests in Denver. He was asked what the term Black Lives Matter means to him. 

“Black lives matter means that every life matters and that the color of a person's skin has nothing to do with the richness of their lives,” Hickenlooper said. 

It was a problematic answer for Tang.

“I feel like he should have done some research on ‘all lives matter’ versus ‘Black Lives Matter’ because that's been all over the news, all over social media,” she said. “I think there's nothing he could do or say now that would honestly make me want to vote for him.” 

Hickenlooper later apologized and said he “stepped on my own words around Black Lives Matter.”

“There is a time where we have to step back and recognize that slavery is a nagging, persistent shame of this country that’s denied the promise of equality for far too long, to far too many people,” Hickenlooper continued. 

Colorado Black Women for Political Action has not yet endorsed anyone in the race. The group’s president, Tamra DeBrady, was the one who asked Hickenlooper that question and said his answer was both telling and disappointing.  

“Everybody understands ‘all lives matter,’ that's not what it's about. It's about understanding the importance of Black lives, especially being in a society that seems to over and over again, show us and treat us like our lives have no value.”

Hickenlooper’s answer is one of several mistakes that Carlos Valverde, a community activist and the state director of the Colorado Working Families Party, thinks could make the primary race closer than he thought it might be. During a televised debate Hickenlooper mistakenly said George Floyd was shot, and then a video surfaced from 2014 where he compared politicians to slaves.

“Given Hickenlooper's name ID, given the amount of money he has to buy TV ads, given the support from really establishment Democrats, I would have said he was gonna run away with this thing fairly easily,” said Valverde, whose group is not endorsing a candidate. "And I would say right now, Romanoff has the momentum.”

Another problem for Hickenlooper is that the state’s independent Ethics commission determined he ran afoul of Colorado's gift ban in two cases when he was governor. Hickenlooper defied a subpoena to testify remotely in the ethics commission hearing. He argued that it would violate his due process rights before eventually he backed down and testified.

“Hickenlooper always, in my opinion, has been a little bit bumbling and I think sometimes it's hard and maybe I'm making an excuse for him. I don't know. I think his ethics violation was absolutely ludicrous on his part,” said Democratic voter Jennifer Riley from Craig. “The fact that he didn't comply with the subpoena was found in contempt. I was just like, that is just so stupid. You know, instead of just owning it, that is frustrating,” 

Despite her frustrations, Riley still backs Hickenlooper and feels he has the broadest appeal to compete against Sen. Cory Gardner. Hickenlooper led the state through an economic boom and recovery, and unlike his primary opponent, he doesn’t back the Green New Deal or Medicare for All.  

“I'm OK with moderate,” Riley said. “I'm OK with compromise. When he was governor, he did compromise and he got people on both sides of the aisle to support him.”

Her husband, however, retired teacher Steve Martinson, has been on the fence. He pointed out that the supposed front runner candidate has given Republicans plenty of ammunition to use against him. 

“He's saying that the Republicans are going after him with everything they can cause they are afraid of him and that there may be some truth to that. But he should have handled it straight on,” Martinson said of the ethics complaint.

Even with campaign stumbles, in recent days Martinson has come around to the idea that Hickenlooper may be the most electable candidate compared to Romanoff. 

The relatively long moderate track record of the two-term governor and mayor is why a lot of Democratic insiders, like Colorado’s House Speaker KC Becker, say Hickenlooper may be somewhat insulated.

“He has always come across as someone who's really relatable and friendly. And that's an important trait in a time when things are so divisive,” Becker said. “So I think people see that and like it, and even with some missteps that's going to work well for him.”  

Whether friendliness and Hickenlooper’s oddball nature set the right tone for this historic moment is one of the things voters grapple with as they feel the weight of potentially deciding control of the Senate. The field of candidates started as a diverse group of mostly women, including people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. 

Katherine Newell, a 31-year-old unaffiliated voter from Highlands Ranch used to be a registered Democrat. She left the party “because it's not really living up to its ideals.”

“We have an opportunity right now to shift the paradigm in Washington, we are evolving so rapidly as a state,” she said. “I'm really loving many of the changes that we've been able to make in the past couple of years, which is why I have been so shocked at, Oh gosh, the male pale and stale choices we now have in the Senate primary.” 

Newell’s position is something that speaks to the tensions the Democratic party faced in the recent presidential primary race that ended with Vice President Joe Biden as the nominee. It could also be a warning that needs to be heeded if the Democratic party hopes to galvanize enough support to take control of the Senate. 

“I think as a millennial, a lot of people my age feel very similarly,” Newell said. She hasn’t decided who she’ll vote for yet but added. “If you're no one's first choice. If we're all settling for you, why are you even going to Washington?”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the support for Hickenlooper from Democratic party leaders in Washington, while Romanoff has received support from the party's faithful in Colorado at preliminary contests this spring.