Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, is snubbing Club 20 — again.
Polis has decided not to attend the group's long-standing September debate, something that no gubernatorial candidate has done in the 30 years the Western Slope lobby and promotional organization has held them.
"It makes western Colorado feel like it's such an afterthought, and that the (Polis) campaign is really focused on the Front Range," Club 20 Executive Director Christian Reece said. "He is, for whatever reason that I haven't been given, choosing not to give the citizens of western Colorado the opportunity to hear from their potential next governor, and I think that's a shame. All Republicans and Democrats, whomever, throughout western Colorado should feel slighted by this move."
Instead of coming himself, Polis' campaign said he will send Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, one of his opponents during the primary.
Club 20, however, doesn't allow surrogates at its debates, and its board will have to decide if the group will let Lynne speak in his stead.
"He never asked us if he could send a surrogate," Reece said. "It's no slight to Donna Lynne. We adore her. She's a Club 20 member. But it's not a Club 20 policy at this point to allow surrogates. We have to have our executive committee convene to decide whether we're going to allow that."
This isn't the first time Polis has snubbed the popular Club 20 debates, the only major debate that is held on the Western Slope for statewide races.
Every two years since Polis has been in Congress, he has been a no-show at the debates, even though part of his 2nd Congressional District is west of the Continental Divide.
In contrast, the two candidates running to replace him — Democrat Joe Neguse and Republican Peter Yu — have accepted invitations to debate each other during the Sept. 8 event, Reece said.
Polis' spokeswoman, Mara Sheldon, said Polis didn't attend any of those past debates because the three counties in his congressional district that are on the Western Slope — Grand, Summit and Eagle — are not Club 20 members.
That, however, isn't entirely true.
While Summit and Eagle counties aren't members themselves, 30 other entities within those counties are, including the towns of Frisco and Silverthorne. Both counties have commissioners who are individual members.
Grand County and virtually all of its cities and towns, such as Kremmling and Granby, are members, along with 26 other individuals and entities there.
The only Western Slope debate that Polis said he will attend is a new one sponsored by The Daily Sentinel, Colorado Mesa University and Rocky Mountain PBS. Polis' Republican challenger, Walker Stapleton, said he, too, will debate him at that event, the date and location of which have not yet been determined.
Despite that planned matchup, Stapleton said Polis is disregarding rural Colorado by not agreeing to meet him at Club 20. Polis also isn't planning to attend a Greeley debate held by Progressive 15, Club 20's counterpart on the Eastern Plains.
"I am running to be governor of all of Colorado," Stapleton said in a statement. "Congressman Polis' choice to skip debates on issues facing rural Colorado is an insult to our rural communities and shows congressman Polis is not ready to represent all of our state."
Polis' campaign said the congressman was not invited to the Progressive 15 debate in Greeley. The executive director of that group, Cathy Shull, said they were.
"We do not have the history that Club 20 does, so we have times when the candidates do not participate with us," Shull said. "We are disappointed when they don't, but we realize we are still building our reputation to get to the level of the Club 20 debates."
The two are planning to meet in several other debates, most of which are along the Front Range, though the two campaigns dispute just how many. Polis' camp said there are 13 planned debates and forums, while Stapleton's people say there are only nine.
One of the debates Stapleton's campaign lists is to be sponsored by the Colorado Springs Gazette. Polis' campaign said there is no such event, and if there is, Polis wasn't invited.
"We're excited about doing 13 debates and forums, and we just can't participate in everything," Sheldon said.
"I figured we both were definitely going to do that one (the Club 20 debate) and we'd haggle over the rest," added Jerrod Dobkin, Stapleton's spokesman. "I'm shocked. You know better than me how important that is."
Reece said the whole point of Club 20's existence is to bridge the rural-urban divide in the state, and Polis' decision not to attend the debate is contrary to that goal.
Initially, the organization was formed in 1953 to get the Front Range's attention on the need to pave rural roads because, at the time, only about 10 percent of state transportation dollars were being spent west of the Continental Divide.
"When we talk about the urban-rural divide, it is behavior like this that furthers that division," Reece said of Polis' decision. "We've been working feverishly at Club 20 to try to build a bridge from the urban areas and elevate rural issues for 65 years. This kind of behavior is not helpful to that."
Reece said she plans to contact the Polis campaign in an attempt to get him to change his mind about not attending.
"We would gladly welcome him to change his mind and come to the debate and let western Colorado hear what he's advocating," she said. "All Democrats in western Colorado need to make a fuss about this. This isn't a political thing. Club 20 doesn't care about partisan politics, we care about western Colorado."