Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and his Republican challenger, Heidi Ganahl, met for their final joint event on Tuesday night in Grand Junction. They shared their views on issues vital to Western Colorado and the state as whole, at a forum that covered everything from water and climate, to transportation and crime.
The two painted starkly different perspectives of their visions for Colorado and views on the current quality of life in the state.
Ganahl described herself as a “mom on a mission.”
“I am mad,” said Ganahl. “I am a mad mom. We have skyrocketing crime, out of control inflation, a huge fentanyl problem that’s killing our kids, and our kids can’t read, write or do math at grade level. I have a right to be angry and I represent a lot of parents.”
Polis responded, “my opponent identified herself as a mad mom. I identify myself as a happy dad of two great kids, 11 and eight, raising my kids in the best state of all the states, great outdoors. We love our freedom. I will always protect our freedom.”
The forum was held at Colorado Mesa University which hosted the event along with Colorado Public Radio and the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. U.S. Senate candidates Joe O’Dea and incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet also debated shortly afterward.
The debate was testy at times as Ganahl sought to make her case why voters shouldn’t return Polis to the state capitol. There are two weeks left until Election Day, and with voting already underway, Ganahl trails significantly in the polls and in financial firepower.
On water policy in the drying West:
The Colorado River Compact governs how Colorado and six other states use one of the West’s most important water sources. It’s set to undergo major changes and negotiations as key guidelines expire in 2026.
The two candidates described how they would lead efforts to renegotiate that agreement amid worsening drought throughout the West.
They both pledged to prioritize Colorado in those negotiations to make sure the state does not get short changed in receiving the water it is due.
“We’re in a stronger legal position and also a stronger position because of the nature of water as an upper basin” state, said Polis. “The states that are going to have the harshest cutbacks are of course California, Nevada, and Arizona.”
Polis added that he does not support diversion of water from the Western Slope and across basins and that he would make sure that “one part of Colorado is not pitted against another part of Colorado.
Ganahl described conservation as an important part of the discussion and said Colorado has to make sure to “protect what’s ours.” She also wants to see the state rapidly increase its reservoir capacity.
“When we talk about water, we have to talk about storage: store, store,” she said. “We’ve got to store the water that’s rightly ours. And you’ve got to have a governor who won’t cede control to the federal government, but will hold firm and stand strong against the federal government and the other states who want to take the water.”
“You can’t store your way out of a drought,” Polis shot back in his rebuttal, “The water simply isn’t there.” However the governor did also say increased storage is part of the solution.
“But we also need to make sure that we have best practices in ag, increasing profitability for our farmers and ranchers who have more water efficient practices. And we also need to connect for the first time in Colorado, our housing policy with our water policy.”
On economic opportunity in rural Colorado:
Jason Hunter, the vice president of the student body for CMU, told the candidates that he hopes to build a career in Western Colorado when he graduates, but said he would face fewer opportunities compared to young people living along the Front Range. He asked the candidates how they would address the rural/urban divide that exists in the state.
Ganahl said she supports creating high paying jobs in the energy sector to make sure the “economy is thriving” in western Colorado.
“We produce the cleanest energy here. We have the strictest regulations. So if we want clean air, clean land, clean water, let’s produce it here and get our industry back on track.”
She also said if elected she would relax state regulations for residential construction, in an effort to create more affordable housing.
“I can make sure that we have a reasonable approach to green energy regulations on housing,” she added. “We’ve got to be realistic. We can go green. We can also provide affordable housing if we reduce regulations and provide innovations and new ways of doing housing… There’s a lot of exciting stuff happening around co-housing, community development, small houses, tiny houses.”
Governor Polis said there are a lot of great economic opportunities in western Colorado and he wants to build on them by continuing to support the outdoor recreation industry, and to ensure the infrastructures in place to allow remote work to settle in rural areas.
“Because many people want to live in and around the world class outdoor recreation areas of Mesa County, of Western Colorado,” said Polis, “and be able to work for a major global company or in Denver… Those opportunities continue to increase.”
He also took aim at Ganahl’s focus on increasing natural gas drilling, arguing that it’s lucrative because the prices paid by consumers are currently high. Instead, Polis said he wants to wean the state’s power grid off of natural gas.
“We want to make sure that we chart our energy independence in Colorado and across the country. We’re blessed with great solar and wind resources in addition to our traditional energy resources, as well as geothermal resources,” said Polis, who noted several times that CMU has installed an extensive geothermal system.
On wolf reintroduction:
Nearly two years ago Colorado voters narrowly approved a ballot initiative to bring gray wolves back to the state by the end of 2023. Most of the yes votes came from the Front Range, but the initiative said the canines must be reintroduced on the Western Slope, a process that has proven tricky. The candidates were asked how they would try to make this program successful for everyone.
Polis reiterated that he never took a position on the ballot initiative, but said he does respect the will of the voters and thinks the state is going about the process of reintroduction in a thoughtful way.
“(We’re) working to give farmers and ranchers the tools they need to reduce predation. By the way, there are wolves in Wyoming. There are wolves in most neighboring states that have strong ranching economies. We need to make sure we learn from that experience to make sure that wolves don’t jeopardize our livelihoods in rural Colorado.”
He said he will do that to the best of his ability irrespective of whether he backs the policy.
“I’m going to administer the law of Colorado as effectively and efficiently as I can with the integrity that I owe to the people of Colorado. And I’ll do that on every issue regardless.”
Ganahl said wolf reintroduction would decimate farmers and ranchers in rural Colorado .
“So it is a tragedy for ag, for game, for citizens here in Colorado that this was done,” said Ganahl. “Unfortunately, the citizens of Denver and Boulder don’t quite understand the implications of the vote they did. But, you know, we’re going to do our best to make sure that we deal with it and support our farmers and ranchers.”
She also used her answer to bring up a ceremonial declaration Polis signed last year designating March 20th as “MeatOut Day,” a day devoted to discouraging meat consumption. The declaration prompted the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association to launch its own campaign to make the 20th a “MeatIn Day,” and rural counties and neighboring states joined the movement with free beef-based events.
“I won’t be hosting a Meat Out Day anytime soon,” said Ganahl, who owns a chain of barbecue restaurants with her husband. “I’m married to one of the top barbecue cooks in the country and I won’t be poking the eye of the farmers and ranchers who produce amazing food across our state.”
Polis seized on Ganahl’s boast, noting that he distributed his personal recipe for brisket rub for people to use at their MeatIn celebrations.
“You can google ‘Jared Polis brisket,’” he said, urging the audience to search for his recipe. “I’m a novice, your husband’s a professional, but after the election, maybe for charity, we can have a brisket taste test and see whose brisket is better.”