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John Hickenlooper spent a lot of time on the Western Slope when he was governor, including facing his opponents at Club 20 debates and even being a member.

Although Club 20 officials and board members ponder why the now-Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate has declined to debate Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner next month at its fall conference in Grand Junction, Democrats say there’s a good reason: Club 20 is unfair to them.

Over the years when he was governor, Hickenlooper worked on several issues important to the Western Slope, Club 20 Executive Director Christian Reece and several of the group’s members said Monday.

“This decision is a stark change of course from the governor Club 20 had known for the past eight years,” Reece said. “Club 20 has known an amicable relationship with Governor Hickenlooper’s office, working together to advance statewide broadband deployment, building the historical Colorado Water Plan, developing career and technical education pilot programs and working together to make sure Colorado’s Constitution was more difficult to amend.”

Hickenlooper’s campaign wouldn’t say directly why the governor has turned down Club 20’s offer to debate — much like now-Gov. Jared Polis did two years ago — but it deferred that question to several of his surrogates.

Those people, including state Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat whose district includes Delta County, said it’s because Club 20 isn’t what it used to be.

The group that touts itself as the “Voice of the Western Slope” has increasingly become less of a general voice for people on this side of the Continental Divide, and more concerned about conservative ideals, including not addressing such things as climate change, she said.

“Club 20 in the past few years has moved further away from being a truly bipartisan voice of the Western Slope and has narrowed its focus to being more centered on Grand Junction, close-in issues,” Donovan said. “Some of my counties break away because they, too, have felt that same challenge of Club 20 not representing all the voices and concerns of the West Slope, and having a more Republican force to their issues.”

They also said the debates that Club 20 holds in election years have become more favorable for Republicans, and slanted against Democrats. Questions asked at its debates, which are moderated by Club 20 members, oftentimes are hostile to Democrats and softballs for Republicans, they claim.

“The Club 20 debates falsely give the public the impression that they are a public forum, which they are not,” said Scott Beilfuss, the Democratic Party’s nominee for House District 55 who’s running against Republican Rep. Janice Rich. “Club 20 is an elite group. They represent smaller and smaller parts of the counties.”

Rick Ridder, a Denver-based political consultant who solely works for Democrats but isn’t on anyone’s payroll at the moment, said not only has the group’s debates become one-sided to favor Republicans, but the group itself no longer seems to speak for the Western Slope.

“Democrats have increasingly shied away because it’s become a gotcha forum, and the issues that are directed are not the ones that they’re hearing on the streets of the growing areas of the Western Slope,” said Ridder, who has attended Club 20 events for more than 30 years. “It’s a very different environment now. There are very different agendas from a political standpoint from the old Club 20. It’s become a little bit of a hostile environment when those who seek questions on their issues are not necessarily reflective of the issues that candidates are hearing in other situations.”

Reece, of course, denies all this.

She said the group always has and continues to be a bipartisan organization that seeks to find a variety of solutions on such things as transportation, water, the economy and public lands.

Reece said because of the coronavirus pandemic, Club 20 has altered its debate format. This year, those debates, which are for legislative and congressional candidates, are to be shown live via a Facebook broadcast and available for free.

Normally, it costs $40 to attend in-person debates, as the group normally does.

“If you look at our record of working with both sides, even as recently as this past legislative session, I think it proves that narrative to be false,” she said. “We have made significant changes to our format for all for free, safe and expanded access for anyone who is interested.”

While Donovan said that’s better, and something the club should have done years ago, it doesn’t alter the fact that it will be moderated by Club 20 members with no guarantee they will be conducted fairly.

“Bravo for them to make that move, but I don’t know why a candidate who’s not running in a Grand Junction-close area would anticipate that a Club 20 debate is where they should best reach out to the people,” Donovan said.

As things stand now, the list of agreed-upon debates that Hickenlooper and Gardner have said they will attend don’t match up except for one, an October event sponsored by the Pueblo Chieftain.

Hickenlooper’s campaign said it has agreed to a Fort Collins debate that is to be broadcast by Grand Junction television stations, and Gardner’s campaign said the senator has two on his list that also will be aired on local television.

Thing is, Gardner has not agreed to the Fort Collins event, and Hickenlooper doesn’t include the other two, though both have said they are still willing to talk about adding debates.

Also, those debates are to be held on the Front Range and moderated by Front Range media, who generally don’t ask questions that focus on Western Slope issues.

At a Monday press event on the lawn of the Old Mesa County Courthouse, a group of Club 20 members criticized Hickenlooper’s decision not to come, saying a U.S. senator can’t hope to represent the entire state if he dismisses a part of it.

All of the speakers were Republicans, though they did read two statements from Democratic members of the group, which pleaded for Hickenlooper to change his mind.

“As governor, you worked hard to look for bipartisan solutions,” San Miguel County Commissioner Kris Holstrom, a Democrat, said in a statement read at the press event.

“I believe you were well informed and understood some of the significant differences in attitude, economy and opportunity throughout the state and in particular, Front Range politicians’ lack of awareness in our issues.

“I urge you to participate in the Club 20 debate or at the very least debate on the Western Slope outside of the I-25 corridor. All candidates need to be seen and heard in all areas throughout the state.”