Polis Decision to Skip Western Slope Debate Sparks Backlash

Candidate cites scheduling conflict

Jared Polis
Jared Polis / Getty Images

Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee in the Colorado governor's race, earned criticism when announcing at the end of July he would not be attending a Club 20 debate later this fall, a decision he says is unlikely to change.

Club 20 is a nonpartisan civic group comprised of governments and businesses in 22 counties all in the western half of the state. The region is less populous, but represents key political interests such as oil and gas exploration, environmental policy, and significant tourism elements of the state.

"It's a disgrace that Polis is ducking the Club 20 debate in Grand Junction on Sept. 8," the Denver Post wrote in a Sunday house editorial. "The debate is a political tradition for good reason. The Western Slope is easily skipped over in state-wide elections, in part because it doesn't have the population numbers to justify campaign stops and advertising."

Even after several days of criticism, the five-term congressman reiterated he would not be reversing his decision in a story published Tuesday by the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the largest paper in the Western Slope.

"I certainly look forward to repairing my relationship and working with Club 20 however I can, but the way that they've tried to somehow make this into a Western Slope issue when it just isn't, is more problematic for them than me," Polis was quoted as saying by the Sentinel. "I think it really hurts their inclusive, bipartisan brand to somehow say that they're the only way to listen to folks in western Colorado."

The Sentinel‘s editorial pages delivered a rebuke to Polis when the news of his skipping the debate first broke.

"The Club 20 snub is sort of like a presidential candidate deciding to skip Iowa. The Club 20 debate is the unofficial start of the sprint to Election Day. In the 30 years Club 20 has hosted a debate, every gubernatorial candidate has shown up."

Polis told the paper the decision to skip the debate was a scheduling conflict that was being described as a personal family matter.

State Treasurer Walker Stapleton is the GOP nominee who will face Polis in November.

"Congressman Polis' refusal to attend the traditional Club 20 debate is a slap in the face to the Western Slope," said Jerrod Dobkin, Stapleton's communications director for the campaign. "He is making matters worse by coming up with different excuses every time he is asked why he can't attend. Rural Coloradans deserve a governor who will fight for them, not someone who ducks questions and refuses to show up and debate issues important to rural Colorado."

In a separate interview with the Denver alt-weekly Westword magazine, Polis was again asked specifically about the debate decision:

Reporter: I hear that you're not going to be attending Club 20 for the gubernatorial debate.

Polis: Well, we challenged Stapleton to thirteen debates and forums. He challenged us to nine; I think there's an overlap of six. So obviously, I'll be at a number of places he won't be at, and he might be at some where I won't be at, but I will definitely be at more. I'm not sure which one that is.

Reporter: It's on the Western Slope.

The Sentinel quoted the director of Club 20 as saying Polis was missing a "huge opportunity" by skipping the debate.

The area represented by Club 20 includes the Steamboat and Telluride ski resort areas, contains the majority of the state's coal industry, and is also home to the Durango community where the Gold King Mine blowout occurred, an environmental disaster that was also a debacle for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Residents in Western Slope counties, when combined with some of the central mountain areas, have also faced some of the highest health care insurance rates in the nation.

The region could become more politically important as there is growing talk that the federal government could relocate the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to Grand Junction, the largest city in the western half of the state.

The Polis campaign did not respond to a request for comment from the Washington Free Beacon.