Club 20 is an important group, but it's not the only voice for the Western Slope, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis said Monday.
Speaking to The Daily Sentinel's editorial board by telephone, Polis said he has no plans to reconsider his decision to skip Club 20's fall debates, saying he has a "scheduling conflict," which the campaign described as a personal family matter.
While Polis acknowledged the civic and advocacy group's importance, he said it is far more important to attend free events that anyone can attend. Club 20 charges $25 to attend its debates.
"I certainly look forward to repairing my relationship and working with Club 20 however I can, but the way that they've tried to somehow make this into a Western Slope issue when it just isn't, is more problematic for them than me," Polis said. "I think it really hurts their inclusive, bipartisan brand to somehow say that they're the only way to listen to folks in western Colorado.
"I totally get the perception among the elite that somehow Club 20 is the only voice of western Colorado, and from my perspective they are a legitimate voice, they're an important voice, (but) I also want to hear from the same voices that compose the electorate for our county commissioners and just go right to the people."
The Democrat, who currently serves as representative for the 2nd Congressional District, has been highly criticized for his decision not to attend the Sept. 8 debates, making him the first governor candidate to do so in the 30-plus years Club 20 has held them.
Numerous newspaper editorials and opinion pieces called his decision a "disgrace" and "insulting," and shows "arrogance" and "ignorance."
"Our friends on the Front Range have a little misunderstanding at times about western Colorado and what it means, and among a certain elite class in Denver, they see Club 20 as a proxy for western Colorado," he said. "While of course Club 20 is an important part of western Colorado, there's a lot more to our western Colorado economy."
Polis said the criticism is much ado about nothing, especially since he plans on being in Grand Junction and Montrose the weekend before the debate, and has already campaigned in the region 36 times.
The matter has become a political football, with the Walker Stapleton camp and the Republican Governor's Association using it as campaign fodder.
While Polis contends he's spent more time on the Western Slope than his opponent, Stapleton's campaign manager, Michael Fortney, begs to differ.
"Walker has easily spent more time in Grand Junction and on the Western Slope than Congressman Polis, who I think just realized I-70 doesn't end in Vail," Fortney said. "More importantly, Walker isn't afraid to show up and debate Western Slope issues in front of Club 20."
While Club 20 Executive Director Christian Reece said Polis is missing a "huge opportunity" to connect with Western Slope voters at the debate, she expressed hope that if Polis becomes governor he will work with the group.
"We are one of the oldest and most respected nonpartisan advocacy organizations in the state," Reece said. "If elected governor, it is our most sincere hope that Mr. Polis will be a governor for all of Colorado, not just the metro areas on the Front Range. Regardless of the outcome of the November election, Club 20 will work extremely closely with the Colorado governor's office to ensure that the voice of western Colorado is not forgotten."