Political candidates spar at Summit Daily News election forum Wednesday
October 5, 2016
Scores of people packed in to the Colorado Mountain College Auditorium in Breckenridge Wednesday for a whirlwind tour of their November ballots. All of the local candidates up for election were in attendance, along with government officials and local activists who gave their perspective ballot issues. The Summit Daily News, Summit Association of Realtors and Summit County Builders Association hosted the event.
In an election cycle marked by unprecedented nastiness at the national level, the exchanges between candidates last night were, for the most part, cordial. A common theme was growing pains in Summit County—particularly the housing crisis—and rising health care costs for rural Coloradans.
Thomas Davidson, the Democratic incumbent for district 2 County Commissioner, twice urged voters to approve Ballot Measure 5A, which would levy a sales tax to fund workforce housing construction. His independent challenger, Bill Wallace, emphasized the effectiveness of private-public partnerships.
"As the Front Range grows, we grow," he said. "We're not going to block the tunnel. Visitors should help pay for some of these things."
Independent District 2 county commissioner hopeful Jonathan Lerner took a somewhat different tack, saying the government shouldn't be in the landlord business and that private development is the way forward.
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Millie Hamner, Democratic incumbent for State House District 61, sparred with Republican challenger Bob Schutt of Crested Butte over her party's alleged role in the housing crisis at the state level. Hamner said that her record of bipartisan cooperation was strong, and that she had fought for her district in a statehouse dominated by urban area representatives.
"I am a non-traditional politician and change from the establishment," said Schutt. "We have a broken system, and she is part of the problem."
Schutt was not the only political first-timer of the night. Sanam Mehrnia, a Frisco defense attorney looking to unseat District Attorney Bruce Brown as an independent, was vocal in her criticism of the status quo.
"I am sick of complaining about politics," she said. "I'm scared about what will happen if there isn't a change in this county."
Mehrnia and her Republican counterpart, Bruce Carey, both accused Brown's office of over-charging minor offenses and not doing enough to stop recidivism.
Brown, a Democrat, largely took the high road, focusing instead on his credentials as a seasoned prosecutor at a time when violent crime has spiked across Colorado's 5th Judicial District, in part due to steadily increasing populations.
Remarks by candidates frequently returned to the swelling ranks of people moving to and visiting Summit County, straining infrastructure and inflating the cost of living.
"We've come back from the crash [of 2009] and have a lot of jobs now," County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said. "But the government now needs to step in and help subsidize housing prices."
Her independent opponent, Garry Horine, agreed that the cost of housing was exorbitant. He suggested back loading home purchase fees and having them paid when a person sells, not buys, their house. That, he said, would allow people to build up equity in their homes that could help pay those fees.
Republican state Senator Randy Baumgardner was delayed on I-70, creating an opening for him and his Democratic challenger, Emily Tracy, to spar over transportation issues, particularly the death of a traction law in March. The incumbent said he killed the bill because it was unnecessary and redundant, while Tracy argued it would have made High Country roads safer in the winter.
Both candidates, along with most of their counterparts in other races, bemoaned the high cost of health care in rural parts of the state. Beyond that, however, positions on the issue largely fell down partisan lines, with Democrats favoring more government intervention and Republicans less.
That was the division between two local doctors who traded arguments for and against Amendment 69, also known as ColoradoCare. The measure would create a universal health care system for all Coloradans, funded largely by a payroll tax.
Both agreed that the current health care payment system was broken but differed sharply on whether or not a state-run, single payer system was the answer.
"ColoradoCare saves money," said Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos, a pediatrician in Frisco. "Opponents say it's risky, but it's only risky for money-grabbers and power brokers."
"The numbers don't add up, and it will fail," countered Dr. Andrew Catron with Swan Mountain Women's Center in Breckenridge. In particular, he argued that estimates for savings that would be generated by cutting administrative costs were unrealistic.
Two veteran lawmen squared off for the final remarks of the night, as interim Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons and former Undersheriff Derek Woodman offered up their credentials. It was a study in contrasts: FitzSimons, a former big-city cop during particularly violent years in Los Angeles, and Woodman a 35-year veteran of the rural Summit County Sheriff's Office.
FitzSimons traded his LAPD badge for a deputy's star 12 years ago and was appointed sheriff when John Minor stepped down from the role earlier this year. He touted his experience in dangerous situations, while Woodman focused on his deep roots in the community.
After the event, Summit Cove resident Keith Bond said he has been a longtime Millie Hamner supporter and came out to see her in action. He stayed to the end, however, to hear the sheriff candidates, both of whom he was impressed by.
"I'm not sure if I've made a decision yet, so we'll see," he said. "The candidates are all such dedicated people. You've gotta be impressed with their service, and with all of the people who showed up tonight to listen."
He said housing was one of the most important issues for him and that he was glad to see the Lake Hill workforce housing development finally coming to fruition.
"Bob Schutt impressed me the most tonight," said local GOP activist Kim McGahey. "He's got awesome qualifications; he's got integrity; he's just the kind of guy we need to represent us."
In the lobby, candidates shook hands and gave out campaign paraphernalia and literature.
Forrest Rouser, who lives north of Breckenridge, however, wasn't here for the candidates so much as the talk on ballot issues—particularly Raise the Bar, an initiative that would make it harder to amend the state constitution.
Earlier in the evening County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who has been campaigning heavily for the measure, made his case, and Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos followed with counterpoints.
The exchange, however, still hadn't quite moved the needle for Rouser.
"I did a lot of research on the amendment, but I try to see both sides," he said. "I want to set the bar higher because I'm all for less amendments, but I also want there to be enough access."
— Jack Queen, Summit Daily News reporter