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Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, left, and former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff at a debate June 10, 2020 hosted by CBS4, The Colorado Sun and PBS12. (Screenshot)
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Former Gov. John Hickenlooper continues to avoid questions about state ethics violations and his decision to defy a subpoena, declining to say during a U.S. Senate debate Wednesday whether he did anything wrong or should be held accountable.

His rival in the Democratic primary, Andrew Romanoff, said he’s not sure whether he believes Tara Reade’s sexual harassment allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden and didn’t outline a clear plan to pay for the trillions of dollars in new federal spending he supports.

The two candidates left much unanswered in the second remote debate in two days, this one hosted by The Colorado Sun, CBS4 Denver and PBS12, even as they sharpened their criticisms when given the chance to ask each other a question.

Hickenlooper said he accepted responsibility for the verdict that he twice violated the state’s constitutional ban on gifts to public officials by taking rides in a corporate-owned jet and limousine. 

But he continued to blame the Republicans who filed the complaint and defended the travel. He said the trip aboard a company plane owned by a large homebuilder was necessary to do his job and he didn’t realize he didn’t pay the full cost of a conference in Italy that included the  limousine ride. The commission rejected both excuses as implausible.

On the first day of the hearing, the two-term former governor ignored a subpoena and court order to testify and became the first person to be held in contempt by the ethics commission. During the debate, Hickenlooper acknowledged “no one is above the law,” but defended the move, saying it came based on legal advice he received.

He dodged a question about whether he should pay back taxpayers for the cost of his state-paid attorney given his decision not to show until the second day. The attorney fees for Hickenlooper now exceed $125,000, according to state records.

Romanoff can’t say how he will pay for his plans if elected

Romanoff, the former state House speaker and mental health leader, outlined his support for government-paid health insurance through Medicare for everyone; the Green New Deal proposal and a new climate conservation corps; and reparations for African Americans and Native Americans. 

The plans combined would cost trillions of dollars, but when asked for how he would pay for them, Romanoff identified only one: the repeal of subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, which he says would generate $650 billion. Other estimates suggest the subsidies amount to roughly $20 billion at the federal and state level. He later said he favors trimming the federal budget for the military.

Romanoff also faced a question about the sexual harassment allegations against Biden. 

He said Reade’s allegations should be taken seriously, but he stopped short of saying he believed them. “I believe her allegations should be investigated and taken seriously. I don’t know if they are true or not,” he said, adding that if proved the party should replace Biden in the presidential race.

Hickenlooper said “to a large extent” he believes Reade’s story about the assault, and said she “showed a great deal of courage” coming forward. But said he would still support Biden. “Any woman who comes forward and talks about the sexual assault that they’ve had to endure, they deserve to be listened to and they deserve to be believed,” he said.

What the candidates asked each other in the debate

The candidates traded sharp barbs when given the opportunity to question each other for the first time.

Romanoff asked Hickenlooper to join him in taking the “no fossil fuel money pledge” put forward by environmental activists to not take more than $200 in campaign donations from oil, gas and coal industry executives, lobbyists and political committees.

Hickenlooper refused to answer the question, but he was one of the few Democratic presidential candidates to not take the pledge. He accused Romanoff of “mischaracterizing, as always” his positions and said he has not accepted money from oil and gas companies.

In prior bids, the industry’s executives have backed Hickenlooper and he has received support from outside political groups that received contributions from oil and gas companies.

When his turn came, Hickenlooper asked Romanoff to rank his most regrettable political stances, listing support for the Iraq war, passage of an anti-immigration measure in 2006 and support for a balanced budget amendment.

Romanoff quipped: “Your handlers in Washington are doing a good job on opposition research.”

The 2006 bill in the state House required local authorities to tell federal agents when they arrested someone they believed to be in the U.S. unlawfully. It also restricted government services for immigrants in the country illegally. Romanoff said it was designed to prevent a more far-reaching constitutional measure from reaching the ballot, but now looking back, called it the wrong move. “I made a mistake in 2006, and I’ll acknowledge that,” he said.

Romanoff poked at his rival on the issue, saying Hickenlooper congratulated him at the time for the move. Hickenlooper signed a repeal of the law in 2013. 

MORE: 3 takeaways from the first U.S. Senate debate between Democrats John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff

The candidates split on whether to defund police departments

One other significant issue in the debate that divided the candidates was the issue of racism and police accountability in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Romanoff disputed Hickenlooper’s call for reforming the policing system in America, saying more action is needed. “The most important thing we could do is shift resources from our  departments to other community resources — that’s the thrust of this movement right now and it’s long overdue,” he said.

Pledging to push the federal government to “root out racism in every form,” Romanoff touted his background working for a state civil rights agency and the Southern Poverty Law Center, where he tracked white supremacy organizations. He said federal legislation is needed to address discrimination in housing, employment, banking and education.

He added that “going back to normal is not good enough, incremental reform will not solve the crisis we face.”

Hickenlooper, who misspoke at one point and said Floyd was “shot,” said he implemented police accountability measures as Denver mayor from 2000 to 2008. But he acknowledged he could have done more. “We have worked hard, but when you haven’t delivered it becomes painfully evident.”

He said the keys to dismantling structural racism include better opportunities for education, health care, job training and free community college for low-income earners. “This has to be the time where the entire country comes together to address (racism),” Hickenlooper said. “When I go to the Senate, I will be the agent of change.”

The primary is June 30 and both registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters can participate in the election. The winner will face Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in November.

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