On Monday, the National Federation of Independent Business sponsored a congressional candidate forum at the Broadmoor Golf Club. Six of the seven candidates seeking to represent Congressional District 5 were present.
Republican John Anderson was the only absentee, having been called away to Washington on business.
Each candidate made brief opening and closing statements. In the interim, each gave a one-minute response to eight questions posed by a media panel, which included this reporter.
The questions covered topics such as immigration, the minimum wage, transportation, the federal budget, health care, gasoline prices and taxation.
The event attracted a relatively sparse crowd, mainly comprised of reporters, candidate staffers and the forum’s organizers. It had a perfunctory, ritualistic flavor — clearly, the candidates were sick of campaigning, sick of the issues and sick of each other.
The candidates responded to questions with the fluency of long practice. After months of campaigning, it seemed clear that they had honed and fine-tuned their positions, and that they were used to expressing themselves in one-minute soundbites — the inevitable consequence of a seven-candidate field.
Asked whether the 5th Congressional District receives a fair allocation of federal transportation funding, all candidates agreed that it does not.
Jeff Crank pointed out that we only get about 80 percent of what we contribute in gas taxes, while other candidates decried the fact that states such as West Virginia get as much as 30 percent more than they contribute.
Lionel Rivera asserted that Colorado Springs was a special case, given our substantial military presence, and noted that he has worked diligently as mayor to bring more federal dollars to Colorado Springs.
Every candidate pledged to bring home the transportation bacon to Colorado Springs — even Doug Lamborn, who, on his Web site, calls for lowering the federal gas tax, which would drastically reduce transportation funding to every state.
Questioned about their plans for curtailing runaway congressional spending, all the GOPsters did an abrupt about-face, variously proclaiming their support for a balanced budget amendment, a line-item veto and/or the abolition of entire departments of the federal government.
Crank proudly articulated his detailed plan for abolishing the deficit — “Just go to my Web site!”
We did, and found that Crank wants to “stop wasteful park[sic]-barrel spending” by “changing the rules of the House to allow members to stop wasteful spending.”
Uh, Jeff, I think it’s already legal for Congress not to spend.
Crank also calls for the “General Accountability Office” to audit all major government departments and agencies. Trouble is, there’s no such organization, making one wonder whether Crank has even read his own position paper.
Hispania News publisher Bob Armendariz posed a two-word question: minimum wage?
The five Republicans were uniformly opposed to minimum wage legislation of any kind, implying that the minimum wage is simply an irrelevant artifact of the New Deal.
Lamborn was particularly dismissive, saying that the only workers who actually receive the minimum wage are “kids just entering the work force and minorities, immigrants …”
This extraordinary statement went unchallenged by any of the other candidates, although, in a conversation after the forum, Rivera acknowledged that he had been surprised by Lamborn’s remarks.
Democrat Jay Fawcett was invariably alone in his positions. He responded to most questions with pained, Delphic pronouncements, such as “I’m not [solving problems by] signing meaningless pledges.”
He noted that Congress has given itself three raises since last raising the minimum wage, and remarked that the national perception of Colorado Springs as a city intolerant of diversity hurts us economically.
In response, Crank pointed out that Fawcett’s Web site features a cartoon illustration of Fawcett punching Focus on the Family chief Dr. James Dobson in the nose — “tolerance has to go both ways,” Crank said.
Later, in discussing the estate tax, Crank again attacked Fawcett, this time for citing Warren Buffett’s opposition to the elimination of the levy: “I’m certainly not going to rely on the opinion of a Nebraska billionaire!” Crank said.
In their closing statements, the candidates stressed their particular competencies, seeking to distance themselves from the opposition. It wasn’t an easy task for the Republicans, given that all of them are well-credentialed conservatives.
Duncan Bremer reminded the audience that, in effect, he was a conservative when conservative wasn’t cool, having had a story published in the National Review in 1964.
Crank talked about his intimate knowledge of Washington, while Bentley Rayburn, a recently retired Air Force major general, spoke about the value of command experience at a very high level.
Lamborn trotted out the conservative credentials that he’s acquired after 12 years in the state legislature, having been named the No. 1 legislative taxcutter five times by the Colorado Union of Taxpayers.
And Rivera was delighted to share the then-fresh news that Colorado Springs had been ranked the No. 1 large city in America by Money magazine.
In a conversation after the forum, Lamborn was engagingly frank. When a reporter opined that he and Crank saw themselves as the frontrunners among social conservatives, and were each seeking to marginalize the other in order to prevent Rivera from benefiting from the split, Lamborn smiled in assent.
And asked whether he thought that Messrs. Anderson, Bremer and Rayburn might take moderate votes from Rivera, he said, with a visible twinkle in his eye: “Well, they’ve gone this far — they should definitely stay in the race.”
Rivera was just as forthcoming. Reminded that he had triumphed in the 2003 mayoral campaign by positioning himself as the most conservative of four incumbent council members, he was asked whether he was now trying to paint himself as the moderate conservative among ideologues.
“I’m just the same — I haven’t changed. It’s just a different race, with different candidates. But I must be doing all right — Crank says it’s between me and Jeff, and Lamborn says it’s between me and Doug — so I guess they must both see me as the frontrunner!”
And the “Best City” designation? While not claiming all of the credit, Rivera noted with wry amusement that, had the city been rated last instead of first, he would have received a fair share of the blame.
And although the NFIB had organized a smoothly professional event, not everyone was happy.
After the forum, Duncan Bremer’s campaign manager complained that, although the other candidates had been given the courtesy of titles — Sheriff Anderson, Mayor Rivera, Gen. Rayburn, Sen. Lamborn — Bremer had not. “He should have been ‘former County Commissioner Bremer,’” the exasperated staffer complained.
During the debate, however, moderator Wayne Heilman of the Gazette eschewed all titles, sticking to a simple “mister” — a decision that may have benefited Crank, the youngest candidate, and the only one without experience as an elected official.
So did any of the Ponderous Pachyderms lunge from the pack, and leave the rest in the dust? Nope — but we can give out some awards, anyway.
Best Dressed: Lionel Rivera. Perfectly folded handkerchief, French cuffs with gleaming gold cufflinks, a well-cut, expensive suit. Lionel, you’re almost too well-dressed to be a politician!
Best Posture: Bentley Rayburn. Ramrod straight, wearing his gray suit as if it were a uniform. He is the very model of a modern major general (apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan).
Best One-Liner: Jeff Crank, for his insouciant dismissal of Warren Buffett as a “Nebraska billionaire.”
Best Political Family: Duncan Bremer, whose four sons are all Air Force officers. Joking aside, it’s impressive that Bremer’s sons have inherited his willingness to serve his country — a characteristic which, in fairness, all of the candidates share.
Best Excuse for Ditching the Forum: John Anderson, whose campaign manager read a statement claiming that Anderson was in Washington consulting the government about critical homeland security issues.
Best Political Accomplishment: Doug Lamborn, who pointed out that he’d sponsored successful legislation reducing the state income tax by more than $1 billion — although he did neglect to note that the Taxpayers Bill of Rights would have required that the money be refunded anyway.
Best Triumph of Hope over Experience: Jay Fawcett, whose credentials would make him a shoo-in for Congress … in Denver.
And finally, another reason that Colorado Springs is No. 1: These seven serious, well-qualified, experienced and thoughtful candidates, all of whom are profoundly decent men who want to serve their country to the best of their ability.
No wonder I decided not to run.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 634-3223, ext 241.