Despite the early hour, an estimated 150 voters attended the Club 20 debate Saturday morning between House District 54 candidates Matt Soper and Thea Chase, an independent candidate from Palisade.
They led off a series of debates that continued throughout the day and featured two other Republican candidates from Delta County -- Mike Mason, House District 61, and Olen Lund, Senate District 5.
In his opening remarks, Soper said he would like to be the first person in 54 years elected from Delta County to serve in the state Legislature. He listed his priorities as water, transportation, jobs and the economy.
Thea Chase described herself as a problem solver with a proven ability to work across the aisle. She said she is committed to fiscal responsibility and to using taxpayer dollars wisely. As an independent, she said she will be "100 percent focused on constituents and their needs," not what any political party is telling her to do.
Each debate followed the same format, with opening comments followed by four questions posed by Club 20 panelists. The first question for Soper and Chase addressed the biggest issues facing the state of Colorado.
Soper again pointed to water, transportation, jobs and the economy. "My goal is to find a way to fund the Colorado Water Plan. We can not conserve our way out of a drought." He cited the need to increase the volume of reservoirs, and fix old and outdated water delivery systems.
As for the economy, he said the rest of the state is booming, but western Colorado is lagging behind. It's important to get projects like Jordan Cove off the ground, he said.
In addition to protecting our water, funding transportation and boosting the economy, Chase pointed to education and the need for workforce training. Education is key to keeping our economy moving forward, she said.
The second question dealt with a skills gap identified during a survey of employers. Chase said it is important to work with industry, to ensure our students are receiving the education employers are looking for. Soper said high school graduates should be prepared to go either direction, to college or directly to the workforce.
Concerning the state budget, Soper said that with a general fund of $13 billion, it's hard to imagine we can't accomplish everything we as a society want to accomplish.
Without an additional source of revenue, Chase said it's critical to look for efficiencies in state government, and that's an area where she has gained a lot of experience over the years.
During cross-examination, Chase pointed to Soper's lack of experience and asked how he planned to be effective in a Democrat-controlled House.
Soper insisted he has built coalitions across the aisle; the first step is a simple handshake.
It's one thing to shake hands, Chase said, reiterating that Soper has no practical experience in bipartisanship.
Soper countered with the fact that Chase, formerly a Democrat, has thrown her support only behind Democrat candidates, which is hardly indicative of bipartisanship. Chase said she remains an independent, very much in favor of small government and the efficient use of taxpayer resources.
"Having observed your campaign finance account, I beg to differ with how well you manage your money. I've seen a lot of waste," Soper told Chase.
He continued on the offensive when he asked Chase about her switch from Democrat to unaffiliated. "What were the issues that made you realize the Democrats are wrong and misguided?"
"Well, that's going to get you really far in working across the aisle," Chase said.
Mike Mason faced Julie McCluskie, a Summit County resident who has worked in public education. She also worked at the state capitol as director of communications for former Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia.
Mason is a veteran with a degree in physics and 30 years of experience as an engineer. He and his wife Judy live on a 300-acre farm near Cedaredge where they raise alfalfa, wine grapes and hemp.
Mason said he is running for state representative because he wants to empower people. "I want people to have every opputunity to achieve all they can be."
He cited the need fror limited government, saying the more government, the more regulations, and the more difficult it is for people to achieve their dreams.
McCluskie said she is running for office to help every working family realize their Colorado dream. She said she supports strong, robust local economies through investing in a highly educated, well-skilled workforce. Making sure families can secure jobs that pay a living wage also means tackling the challenges of a broken health care system, so everyone has access to reasonably priced health care, she said.
In response to the panelists' first question, which was about health care in rural areas, McCluskie outlined several short-term solutions and voiced support for ongoing exploration of public options.
Mason said he sympathizes with people who have health issues, but questioned where the $33 trillion would come from to support a single payer system. "I just don't know how we can afford it."
McCluskie said she is also skeptical of the single payer option, but believes more can be done locally to improve access and affordability.
Both agreed on the importance of reliable, high-speed broadband service to our local and state economies, but differed on education. Mason is a proponent of choice and competition; McCluskie wants to ensure our public schools.
During cross-examination, Mason introduced the topic of climate change. Each cited data on global warming, with Mason telling McCluskie it's important to know the facts "if you're going to go out there and wreck the economy by eliminating fossil fuels."
"I'm not about eliminating fossil fuels," McCluskie said, adding that smart energy development means moving forward on several fronts.
McCluskie asked Mason about comments he's made about putting guns in the hands of teachers, even though most teachers are opposed to that idea, for themselves or their colleagues.
Yes, Mason confirmed, he is in favor of teachers being certified by local law enforcement -- if they're willing to take that step. Otherwise, anyone with a gun has free rein within a school, a gun-free zone, for at least five minutes and that's "insanity."
Olen Lund, a resident of Paonia and former Delta County commissioner, had the stage to himself for the 2 p.m. debate against his Democratic challenger.
He opened his comments with a jab at Kerry Donovan, saying her decision to forego the Club 20 event makes him question where her loyalties lie. Lund vowed to be the "rural voice for a rural district" in the state Senate.
He then responded to four questions posed by Club 20 panelists Kathy Welt and Rachel Richards. When asked how he would balance the diverse interests of the Senate district, he said he would not be a pawn to anyone, including the state Republican officials who view the November election as an opportunity to "flip" the Senate seat from Democrat to Republican.
In response to a question about the "moral and economic imperative" to assure the best education possible to students in western Colorado, Lund said the topic is one often addressed in the home he shares with his wife, a school teacher. He stressed the need for local involvement and local control for our schools.
The third question addressed the energy portfolio of the future, which Lund said should contain "all of the above," meaning coal and natural gas as well as renewable sources.
In a follow-up email, he said, "I think renewables are a great idea, but other than large scale hydro we, as a society, are not there yet. Even with the government subsidies, the amount of solar and wind energy available to us is very small. And that is to say nothing about the fact that the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow! We are still in the position where stopping the production of proven energy would stall our development of the future we all want."
As for his top issues, he reiterated that he wants to be the voice of the rural residents of Senate District 5. Second, it's important to keep balanced representation in the state House.