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WATCH: Sharp exchanges from Polis, Stapleton at 9News/Coloradoan debate

Author: Ernest Luning - October 17, 2018 - Updated: October 19, 2018

Colorado gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Jared Polis, right, and Republican Walker Stapleton shake hands after participating in a debate Oct. 17, 2018, at the Lory Students Center on Colorado State University’s campus in Fort Collins. (Timothy Hurst/The Coloradoan via AP)

Sparks flew Wednesday night as Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton, the major-party candidates vying to be Colorado’s next governor, met for an hour-long, televised debate in Fort Collins.

Stapleton sought to brand Polis as a free-spending liberal determined to drive Colorado “off a cliff” in an effort to keep a slew of campaign promises. Polis rebuffed his rival, saying he plans to move aggressively to lower health care costs and harness innovations to move toward an all-renewable energy future.

WATCH the entire debate below.

The candidates didn’t plow much new policy ground during the fast-paced debate — it was the sixth time they’ve met this month — but left little doubt voters will have a clear choice, disagreeing about nearly everything except their love of cooking and kombucha, a trendy fermented beverage.

The debate, which took place on the Colorado State University campus, was presented by KUSA-9News and The Coloradoan newspaper of Fort Collins.

Stapleton said he would make Medicaid in Colorado more efficient and sustaining by working with health care providers, community health care centers and other government agencies involved in expanding the program to cover more residents.

He said when the federal government pulls back its funding — it now pays 90 percent — states will have to figure out how to pay for coverage and care.

“I will do so without a fake promise and no way to pay for it,” he said.

Colorado gubernatorial candidates, Republican Walker Stapleton, right, and Democratic candidate Jared Polis participate in a debate, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, at the Lory Students Center on Colorado State University’s campus in Fort Collins, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Coloradoan via AP)

Polis said he can’t promise universal coverage instantly when he becomes governor, but he can cover more people by making the system more efficient.

“Of course our goal is to cover more people, not less people — and reduced cost is the only possible way to do it,” he said.

He said Colorado could copy other states’ health care programs, including bundling Medicaid payments and establishing high-risk pools to prevent driving up costs for everyone, as well as reducing the cost of prescription drugs by demanding more transparency from pharmaceutical companies.

“Americans and Coloradans are getting completely ripped off on prescription drugs,” Polis said.

Both candidates agreed public schools need more money but disagreed on how to come up with it.

“We need to end decades of underinvestment in our schools,” Polis said.

He estimated it would cost $200 million to pay for full-day kindergarten. He proposed establishing public private partnerships and instituting a state plan to issue social-impact bonds, like schools in Westminster have done, which are paid off with future savings derived from the program.

“When you have preschool and kindergarten, you have lower special education rates and lower grade repetition rates, and that can repay the investors who put the money up front,” Polis said.

Stapleton said he’s also committed to preschool in Colorado and called the widespread move to four-day school weeks as the “most tragic thing” happening in the state’s schools.

Vowing to take “a numbers-based approach to education,” Stapleton said “full transparency and accountability” across all school districts will lead to more money for classrooms. He pointed to the rapid growth of administrators — outpacing the growth of students or teachers in some many districts — as an instance where better awareness will lead to savings.

“I will ask for full transparency across all 178 of our school districts, because all of us should have it — as investors in the future of Colorado’s education, as parents, as grandparents, all of us as taxpayers,” he said.

Colorado gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Jared Polis, left, and Republican Walker Stapleton participate in a debate, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, at the Lory Students Center on Colorado State University’s campus in Fort Collins, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Coloradoan via AP)

Asked about two divisive members of their respective parties, Polis and Stapleton deflected.

Polis said he shares many, but not all, of the policy positions taken by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a “Democratic Socialist” and will campaign for Polis in Colorado next week.

“I believe in the power of the free market,” Polis said, contrastinghis views to those of Sanders. “I’m a capitalist. I’ve started several companies, and I’m proud to have created hundreds of jobs.”

“[Sanders] is  an idealist, and I think people admire that in him,” Polis said. “I have to operate as a pragmatist.”

9News anchor Kyle Clark, who joined political reporter Marshall Zelinger in posing questions at the debate, asked Stapleton about remarks disparaging women, immigrants, minorities and others made by President Donald Trump, who endorsed Stapleton last week.

Stapleton told Clark that such remarks don’t have any bearing on the race.

“I’m not going to sit here and defend President Trump’s personality, because I don’t really know President Trump well enough to defend his personality,” Stapleton said. “I will defend President Trump’s policies, which … by and large, I think, have benefited Coloradans.”

Clark then pressed Stapleton on Trump’s behavior, asking the candidate, “Why not just say, ‘Don’t treat people like that; treat people with decency’? What prevents you from saying that?”

Stapleton replied: “Because the president’s personality is not going to make life better for Coloradans, as grating to some as it may be, or, others may actually find it amusing or appealing.”

Stapleton has toned down the tough rhetoric he employed during the primary about cracking down on the state’s so-called sanctuary cities, which refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities in some cases.

Sanctuary cities, he said, can be narrowly defined as involving undocumented immigrants who “committed a felony,” Stapleton said. He added that the state needs a consistent policy on holding undocumented immigrants for federal agents in order to to “have the back” of law enforcement agencies caught in the middle.

Pressed by Clark whether he would withhold funds — including transportation dollars, for instance — from cities like Denver that have adopted sanctuary policies, Stapleton wouldn’t say but insisted he would look at all options.

Polis, for his part, said he would veto a bill declaring Colorado a sanctuary state.

Asked whether he would support a carbon tax at the state level, Polis — who has supported a federal version — said he would support one if it was revenue-neutral. He suggested it could be tied to a cut in state income tax.

“Would I rather tax polluters than individual, hard-working families?” Polis asked, and nodded.

But it was a discussion that took place across several exchanges near the end of the debate that generated the most heat.

Clark asked Polis whether he considered it “morally and ethically all right” that he pushed a woman, a former employee who was attempting to steal business documents from a company Polis ran, according to police reports describing the 1999 incident.

Stapleton and his allies have recently surfaced the police reports in attempt to attack Polis, even though police listed Polis as the victim, and the woman was the only one charged with a crime, after authorities determined she had been trying to make off with company property.

Polis said he wished he could have “prevented that confrontation from even happening,” but maintained that the woman was swinging at him, and he pushed back.

“It was unexpected, it was my right, and I defended my property, which is my right in Colorado,” Polis said.

Then he called it “a sign of desperation it’s even brought up,” adding, “It wasn’t fun to be the victim of a crime.”

Just minutes before Wednesday’s debate started, Colorado Politics reported that KMGH-Denver7, an ABC affiliate, had decided to stop running a TV ad — paid for by Stapleton allies — attacking Polis over the incident. The Polis campaign is asking station managers to pull the ad, calling it “false, defamatory and malicious.”

As the debate neared its conclusion, an angry-looking Stapleton returned to the topic.

“You forcibly pushed a woman into a filing cabinet,” he said, glaring at Polis. “It is inexcusable ever to forcibly push a woman, regardless of the circumstances.”

Polis responded: “I think it’s completely inappropriate, Walker, for you to politicize me being the victim of a crime.”

Stapleton got the last word.

“Mr. Polis, he doesn’t view pushing a woman as anything wrong, and I do,” Stapleton said, as some in the crowd booed. “And if I pushed a woman I wouldn’t be living in my house anymore.”

The candidates are scheduled to appear Friday in Greeley at a forum sponsored by rural advocacy group Progressive 15. Their final debate, sponsored by The Denver Post and KMGH-Denver7, is set for Oct. 23 at the University of Denver.

Joey Bunch of Colorado Politics contributed.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.