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Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to reporters on Aug. 22, 2019, in Golden, the day he announced he was running for U.S. Senate. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

John Hickenlooper, the national Democratic favorite in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race, is backtracking from a statement he made about Black Lives Matter during a racial-justice forum, saying, “I tripped over my words.”

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The former governor bumbled the first question in an online candidate forum Saturday hosted by a coalition of advocacy organizations for people of color. The forum took place as protests about the death of George Floyd unfurled across the nation, injecting race more firmly into the June 30 Democratic primary a week before ballots land in voters’ mailboxes.

When asked at the forum what Black Lives Matter means to him, Hickenlooper initially didn’t answer the question. Asked again by the forum moderator, he replied: “Black Lives Matter means that every life matters.”

“And the color of a person’s skin has nothing to do with the richness of their lives and their place in their family, in their neighborhood, in their community,” he continued. “And that every life is sacred and every life deserves the protections of our system of public safety and our system of justice.”

The line that “every life matters” is considered an insult by some because it ignores the systemic racism in American society that led to the Black Lives Matter mantra in the first place. And Hickenlooper’s response drew a backlash in the Zoom forum’s chat box. A representative for Colorado People’s Action, a progressive advocacy group, wrote: “‘Every life matters’ ain’t it.”

Hickenlooper’s rival Andrew Romanoff, a former state House speaker, spoke at the forum after Hickenlooper and immediately pounced on the remark. 

“When we say Black Lives Matter, it is not the same as saying, ‘white lives matter’ or ‘all lives matter.’ It is instead to recognize the racism that is baked into our nation from our founding documents,” Romanoff said.

“It’s not enough to say Black Lives Matter when every single day we act as if they don’t,” he continued. “This week’s horror in Minneapolis is not an isolated incident.”

Pressed on the issue Monday amid the criticism, Hickenlooper’s campaign tweeted a clarification and issued a statement to The Colorado Sun restating his answer to the question.

“So let me be very clear: Black Lives Matter,” Hickenlooper said in the statement issued by his campaign “It’s important that we say that because, for far too long, our criminal justice system hasn’t reflected that belief. So I’ll say it again: Black Lives Matter. And working to combat systemic racism matters.”

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The misstep is not the first for Hickenlooper on the topic of race. In January, he appeared on Facebook Live and initially couldn’t say what NAACP stands for. He eventually got it right when he said National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Ahead of the online forum last week, Hickenlooper’s campaign released an equity plan that said the continued use of deadly force by police against people of color is “an epidemic in our country.”

Meanwhile, Romanoff used the forum to highlight his prior work with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the state investigating civil rights abuses. “That experience fueled in me a lifelong commitment to racial justice,” Romanoff said.

He has established more progressive stances than Hickenlooper on key issues for communities of color, including endorsing reparations for African Americans. But he faced a question about his term as House speaker when legislation that targeted people living in the U.S. illegally won approval. Romanoff once again apologized for the bill that required local law enforcement to report arrests to federal authorities if the suspect was in the U.S. unlawfully.

He said the move was intended to block a more stringent constitutional ballot measure, but called it “a grave mistake, one that will haunt me for the rest of my life — and one that will for which I have apologized and will acknowledge here today.”

In an unscientific straw poll completed by the few hundred attendees watching the online forum, Romanoff was the clear crowd favorite, winning 20 times more support than Hickenlooper.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.