Governor’s race debates offer a glimpse at Colorado political media’s warped priorities

With less than a month to go before Election Day, Democrat Jared Polis holds a comfortable seven-point polling lead over GOP rival Walker Stapleton in the Colorado governor’s race, and with mounting evidence that a major Democratic wave election is in the making, Polis looks like a sure bet to be sworn in as Gov. John Hickenlooper’s successor in January. With the race situated as it is, the eight debates between the two candidates this month were never going to make for very compelling television or any late horse-race drama; Polis is in full risk-averse frontrunner mode, content to smile and dissemble his way through questioning while Stapleton flails at him with a series of increasingly desperate attacks.

But what the debates have offered is a snapshot of how some of the most prominent members of Colorado’s political press are choosing to wield their considerable influence on the course of public affairs — which issues they’re prioritizing, how they’re framing those issues, how they’re using their agenda-setting authority to help shape Colorado’s future, which voices and perspectives they’re elevating and which they aren’t.

With four debates down and four to go, the answers so far are pretty discouraging. I’ve broken down the four hourlong debates held so far according to the issues that moderators and panelists asked about and how long the candidates spent discussing them (excluding their opening and closing statements). The results show a political discourse that is highly attuned to the priorities of a few powerful business lobbies, but severely out of step with the interests and welfare of the people of Colorado.

By far the most-discussed debate topic so far has been transportation, particularly in regard to a pair of ballot measures, Propositions 109 and 110, sponsored by the right-wing Independence Institute and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, respectively. There’s no doubt that Colorado’s infrastructure, like that of nearly every other state in the country, is in rough shape and road congestion in and beyond the booming Denver metro area is a headache for many people, but the notion that it’s the top issue facing the state — twice as worthy of discussion as K-12 education, four times more important than the cost of living — is absurd. The disproportionate attention paid to transportation issues in these gubernatorial debates is a clear indication of the influence that wealthy private business interests — like the long list of development and construction groups bankrolling Prop 110 — exert over the boundaries and contours of mainstream political debate.

Perhaps an even better indication is the second most-discussed topic on the list: economic development, the governmental term of art for the various tax credits, subsidies, and other state incentives doled out to private businesses in the name of fostering growth and job creation. Polis and Stapleton have spent far more time answering questions like “Do you see the need for changes in the way we attract and retain companies?” and “What new and specific steps would you take to increase incentives for companies to relocate to rural Colorado?” than questions about the stagnant wages, diminishing public services and rising costs of living being felt by working Coloradans all across the state. Again, the journalists running the debates seem more sensitive to the concerns of the C-suite crowd and its trickle-down ideology than to any genuine notion of the public interest.

Of course, just as notable as what moderators have asked at these debates are the issues that they haven’t raised at all. Polis and Stapleton are running for the governorship of one of the largest fossil-fuel-producing states in the nation, a state that is already suffering the effects of warming-induced aridification that threatens its water supply and increases the risk of devastating wildfires; neither candidate has faced a single question about climate change in four hours of debate. The opioids crisis now kills more Americans every year than either guns or breast cancer, more than were killed at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and the state of Colorado is now suing one of the country’s largest opioid manufacturers for its role in the crisis; no questions about that, either. Roughly 180,000 Colorado children live in poverty, and one in six Colorado families with children report experiencing food insecurity; no questions about that. No questions about labor issues, homelessness, the rising tide of white supremacy or Stapleton’s public embrace of avowed white nationalist Tom Tancredo.

Toward the end of Monday night’s forum in Pueblo, moderator Steve Henson, editor of the Pueblo Chieftain, finally asked the debates’ first question about environmental issues — sort of. Really, it was yet another example of how badly the discourse in this race has been skewed towards the interests and perspectives of private capital:

Gov. Hickenlooper recently signed an executive order that would lead to California-style vehicle emissions standards. A group of Pueblo-area auto dealers, along with the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association, say the move amounts to unneeded over-regulation that will drive up the cost of vehicles. Do you support the governor’s executive order?

It’s a trend that’s recurred constantly throughout these debates — even on issues of wide public interest, moderators nearly always frame their questions through the narrow lens of the concerns of trade groups and business lobbies. Just listen to how Grand Junction Daily Sentinel correspondent Charles Ashby broached the subject of immigration:

The current federal government has cut down on the number temporary visas for agricultural and service workers, known as H-2A and H-2B visas. How can you as governor help Colorado’s agricultural and tourism businesses get the legal seasonal workers they need to do the jobs that few Americans want?

Maybe the most striking example of the power that elite special interests have over our political discourse — enabling them not only to subtly shift the terms of public debate but dramatically yank them in a given direction when necessary — came when CBS4’s Shaun Boyd asked the following question about Proposition 112, the oil & gas setback measure:

If it passes, it would go into effect as soon as Gov. Hickenlooper certifies the election; he has just thirty days. The governor could call a special session and ask the legislature to delay enforcement. Would you support that?

This is insane! Proposition 112 made the ballot despite extreme industry-funded ratfucking efforts that included paying off signature-gathering firms and hiring goons to harass and intimidate canvassers; it’s reportedly polling at near 60 percent despite over $30 million spent by oil & gas companies to defeat it, on top of at least another $80 million spent on astroturfing campaigns in Colorado over the last several years. Public opinion on Prop 112 and oil & gas issues generally could not be clearer — and yet the question being posed to Polis and Stapleton is You’ll help the industry immediately subvert the democratic process and overturn the will of the voters if this passes, right?

Again, all of this matters not necessarily because this race hangs in the balance or because any one debate question is going to lead to a sudden epiphany on an issue, but because it’s a high-profile illustration of how Colorado’s political press views the most important issues facing the state and its own role in addressing them. Who are journalists listening to, as they prepare for these debates? Who are they speaking for, when they’re up on stage questioning the people who hope to become Colorado’s next governor? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be the wealthy and powerful, and their astroturf groups and lobbyists, rather than the average Coloradan, or even the average Colorado voter.

There are a lot of reasons why this might be the case, but with four debates remaining, one reason worth considering is simply that the journalists asking the questions at these debates are not at all reflective of the community they’re supposed to be representing. Eight of the nine moderators and panelists participating in the debates so far — accounting for 62 of the 70 questions Polis and Stapleton have been asked — have been white men. Nonwhite Coloradans, who make up over a quarter of the state’s population, haven’t been represented at all. There’s been no audience participation or direct public input of any kind. And it shows.