No surrogates allowed, officials at Club 20 told Democratic governor candidate Jared Polis on Friday.
Clearly still angry that the U.S. congressman declined their invitation to debate Republican Walker Stapleton at its fall meeting next month, the business and civic advocacy group said Polis doesn't have the right to send a surrogate instead.
Polis said he planned to send Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, a Democrat who ran against him for the party's nomination for governor, but the group said it doesn't allow candidates to send replacements.
Because of Polis' "unprecedented decision" not to attend the Sept. 8 debate, Club 20's executive committee met Friday to vote on the matter, saying Polis' campaign didn't even ask if the candidate could send a surrogate, but simply announced it in a press release last week.
"While we have the utmost respect for Lt. Governor Donna Lynne and greatly appreciate our close relationship with her and her office, we cannot allow candidates to send someone in their stead due to a scheduling conflict when our debates have been scheduled for more than a year in advance," the group said in a statement.
The group said it still hoped Polis would attend — Stapleton has agreed to appear — and called on him to reconsider.
"We expect the next potential governor of Colorado to represent all of Colorado and campaign vigorously throughout the state to learn the issues impacting rural communities," said Hinsdale County Commissioner Cindy Dozier, a Republican and Club 20's current board chairwoman. "Congressman Polis' decision not to honor the citizens of western Colorado by participating in our debates is simply outrageous and we continue to ask for his reconsideration."
The group said that in the 30 years it has sponsored the debates — the first of any election year's debate season — no governor candidate has declined.
Until this year, the debate also has been the only one held on the Western Slope. A new one is to be held Oct. 6 that both Polis and Stapleton have agreed to attend. It is to be sponsored by The Daily Sentinel, Colorado Mesa University and Rocky Mountain PBS.
Campaigning in Basalt on Friday, Polis said he, too, was taken aback by the matter, adding that he's regularly campaigned — "at free events" — west of the Continental Divide, and doesn't need Club 20, which charges admission to its debates, to learn about Western Slope issues.
"When Front Range politicians go to Club 20 and think they're listening to everybody in western Colorado, they're really doing the people of western Colorado a great disservice," Polis said in an interview. "Most folks can't afford to spend time away from family and pay to go to that kind of event. You need to be in their communities, in a home, in a coffee shop, to hear what's on their minds."
Since Polis has served in Congress, he's been invited to numerous Club 20 debates, but has never attended. His campaign has said that's because the Western Slope counties in his congressional district aren't members, but most of them — and numerous entities and individuals within them — actually are members.
In contrast, the two candidates vying to replace him in the 2nd Congressional District, Democrat Joe Neguse and Republican Peter Yu, both have accepted invitations to debate at the fall Club 20 meeting.
Polis' campaign said he has agreed to 13 debates and forums with Stapleton, most of which are on the Front Range.
"It's incredibly arrogant that congressman Polis decided not to attend the Club 20 debate himself and assumed sending a surrogate would suffice," said Jerrod Dobkin, Stapleton's spokesman. "Rural Colorado expects more than a stand-in governor. Walker looks forward to partaking in this important political tradition to discuss Western Slope issues."
Since Polis' decision, he's been both praised and criticized, even by people on his side of the political aisle.
While some have called Club 20 a purely business group that's focused on oil and gas, others have said it's far more than that, focusing on all things Western Slope, from agriculture to water.
Numerous Western Slope officials, regardless of their political ideologies, have said on social media that Polis should attend the Club 20 event.
"The Club 20 debates allow members and citizens from across western Colorado to hear from candidates for regional and statewide office," said Christian Reece, the group's executive director. "These debates are widely attended by more than 500 people with varying political perspective and have been scheduled since April of 2017."