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The Democratic candidates competing in the June party primary for U.S. Senate are Andrew Romanoff, left, and John Hickenlooper, right. (Colorado Sun photo illustration)

John Hickenlooper touted his record as governor and ability to find compromise, and his rival Andrew Romanoff called for bolder action to address racial injustice, health care and climate change in the first Democratic U.S. Senate primary debate.

The differences in style and substance between the candidates became clear from the start of the 30-minute virtual event hosted Tuesday by 9News. Romanoff took an aggressive approach and staked out progressive stances while Hickenlooper played defense and answered for the state ethics commission’s verdict Friday that he violated Colorado law.

WATCH: The Colorado Sun, CBS4 and PBS12 will host the second Democratic primary debate in the U.S. Senate race at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, June 10. Watch it streaming live at 

The debate unfolded at a crucial point as Democratic and unaffiliated voters begin to receive mail ballots this week ahead of the June 30 primary, and the candidates prepare for two more debates in a week’s span.

Here’s a breakdown of what we learned about Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor, and Romanoff, the former state House speaker, from the first debate.

John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff, pictured, outlined their differences in a virtual debate in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate hosted by 9News on June 9, 2020. (Screenshot)

Romanoff says Hickenlooper is “responsible in part” for racial injustice for his policies as Denver mayor

In the debate’s opening question, Hickenlooper declined to endorse calls from civil rights activists to defund police — a term that refers to reducing spending on police departments and diverting the money to social service programs. Instead, he said he supports banning the use of chokeholds and requiring officers to wear body cameras, as well as broader actions to address equal opportunity in housing and jobs. 

“I don’t think we should defund the police, but I do believe we need to reform the police,” Hickenlooper said.

Romanoff replied: “Reform is not enough. We do need to shift resources and demilitarize the police. We need to invest in community services. John fundamentally misunderstands this moment just as he misunderstood what Black Lives Matter means.”

The remark invoked a comment Hickenlooper made at a recent racial injustice forum. When asked what Black Lives Matter means to him, Hickenlooper replied that it means “every life matters.” Days later he clarified his position, saying he tripped on his words — and said the same again when given the opportunity in the debate.

But Romanoff didn’t let go at that point. He noted that Hickenlooper backed the unproven “broken windows” theory of policing when he was Denver mayor in 2006 and even hired the criminologist who led the push for the policy, which suggests that cracking down on small infractions will help reduce more serious crimes.

Romanoff said Hickenlooper’s approach is “responsible in part for this new era of mass incarceration.”

“We need a new approach, and that’s why I stand with the protesters in their effort to turn America into a source of equality and end the oppression that has persisted for generations and centuries,” Romanoff said.

Hickenlooper touted efforts he made to address police accountability shortly after taking office, including putting in police oversight measures, but he acknowledged the efforts didn’t go far enough.

MORE: Find more coverage of Colorado’s U.S. Senate race

John Hickenlooper, pictured, and Andrew Romanoff met for a virtual debate in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate hosted by 9News on June 9, 2020. (Screenshot)

Hickenlooper won’t apologize for ethics violations as Romanoff says he should withdraw from the race

Days ahead of the debate, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission determined that Hickenlooper accepted rides in a corporate-funded private plane and luxury limousine, twice violating the state’s constitutional ban on public officials accepting gifts.

In his first comments on the verdict, Hickenlooper said he accepted responsibility for his actions but declined to apologize. He also didn’t address the commission’s decision to hold him in contempt for ignoring a subpoena to testify.

“I made a commitment to travel anywhere and everywhere to try and bring jobs and created economic growth for Colorado,” he said, explaining why he took a private jet owned by homebuilder MDC Holdings and rode in a Maserati limousine in Italy paid for by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles on separate trips in 2018.

Romanoff said the violations should disqualify him from the race because it plays into the Republican opposition and helps U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s reelection chances.  

“The truth is that John Hickenlooper represents a threat that we cannot afford,” Romanoff said. “I believe he should consider withdrawing from this race.”

Hickenlooper, whose candidacy is predicated on his electability in November, came armed with a retort against his rival.

“I campaigned statewide in 2010 and 2014, difficult years for Democrats, and won both times. Andrew you haven’t won in what, 12 years?” Hickenlooper said, referring to Romanoff’s failed bids for U.S. Senate in 2010 and U.S. House in 2014. “I think it’s clear I have a relationship with Coloradans through thick and thin and they are going to recognize these as smear tactics.”

MORE: Hickenlooper makes campaign trail debut touting compromise. His rivals in Senate race say it’s the wrong approach.

The candidates offer voters a clear choice: compromise or bold change

The differences between the candidates became apparent on most issues throughout the debate.

On health care, Hickenlooper said he supports a public option to expand insurance coverage, calling the federal health care law signed by President Barack Obama “a great foundation” to build upon. And he defended his record working with the oil and gas industry to craft new methane emission standards.

Romanoff said he supports government-paid health insurance through “Medicare for All,” a plan that would dismantle the costly current health care system. On the environment, he reaffirmed his opposition to fracking and his support for the Green New Deal, a proposal to take quicker action to address climate change. He also announced support for trillions of dollars in reparations for African-Americans and Native Americans.

The candidates crystalized their viewpoints in the closing moments of debate.

Hickenlooper talked about compromise as an antidote to government dysfunction. “I worked to bring change to Colorado,” he said, adding a moment later: “I want to take that change to Washington.”

Romanoff responded with a more urgent call. “This is no time for timidity,” he said. “We need bold, structural change to address each of the challenges we discussed tonight.”

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