DENVER – Perennial swing state Colorado has been the center of debates about women’s health, energy and legalized marijuana. But the closing days of its tight governor’s race are coming down to an old-fashioned issue: crime.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez is slamming Gov. John Hickenlooper’s record on public safety, hoping a debate over crime and punishment will help him knock off a Democratic incumbent who’s overseen an improving state economy.
Beauprez and GOP allies have criticized Hickenlooper for state prison and parole policies, for a law making it harder to charge juveniles as adults, and for Colorado Democrats’ failure to pass tougher penalties for repeat DUI offenders.
And two starkly personal issues continue to command attention in the race’s closing days: Hickenlooper’s indefinite stay of execution for multiple-murderer Nathan Dunlap, and the slaying of Tom Clements, the governor’s prisons chief. Clements was killed at his doorstep last year by a former inmate released after spending much of his sentence in solitary confinement.
With Colorado voters already casting ballots, Beauprez’s campaign last week unveiled what essentially is part of its closing argument – a television ad summing up Republicans’ public-safety indictment of Hickenlooper. The ad cites reporting from The Denver Post that found prisoners who completed their terms were released even though they threatened to commit violence.
In its original form, the ad referenced the case of Evan Ebel, who authorities say was responsible for the deaths of Clements and Nathan Leon.
The ad closes with the line: “With John Hickenlooper as governor ... is your family safe?”
Beauprez’s strategy of painting Hickenlooper as soft on crime is not without risk.
“It strikes me as a contrived and manufactured issue, and voters ... have an intuitive sense about what fears are real and what fears are manufactured,” said Colorado independent political analyst Eric Sondermann.
After the ad launched, it got an immediate rebuke from Clements’ widow.
Lisa Clements accused Beauprez of attempting “to use our family’s tragic loss for your personal and political gain” and asked him to stop. Beauprez quickly removed the reference to Clements.
“It’s very disappointing to see the death of a public servant and friend used to try and score political points,” Hickenlooper campaign spokesman Eddie Stern said.
He also noted Hickenlooper “has no legal authority to prevent a prisoner from being released from prison after serving their court-ordered sentence.”
Clements’ death exposed several problems in the department, including whether parolees were being monitored properly and whether correction officials were overusing solitary confinement – a question Clements was working to address.
Beauprez said he didn’t mean to offend Clements’ widow, but he’s remained steadfast in his latest round of criticism of Hickenlooper’s administration.
The reference to Clements’ death was replaced with the mention of a policy to grant death-row inmates four hours of leisure time. The governor’s office says the policy has been mischaracterized, saying it was a staff-safety measure aimed at lessening interaction between prison employees and death-row inmates.
“I think we need leadership that is willing to recognize that evil does exist,” Beauprez said last week, flanked by two prosecutors and GOP lawmakers at a news conference. Beauprez planned another rally based on public-safety today with U.S. Republican Senate hopeful Cory Gardner and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“We need a governor that starts to care about public safety,” said Jefferson County District Attorney Pete Weir, a Republican who served as the public safety director for former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter. “The last four years, I can say without hesitation or equivocation, have been the most offender-friendly years in my entire career.”
Hickenlooper’s administration said Republicans are using hyperbole.
“That’s partisan nonsense, and the kind of thing you hear in an election year but you don’t hear in the regular course of business,” said Alan Salazar, one of Hickenlooper’s top advisers.
The bill making it harder to charge juveniles as adults had GOP support. And legislation in recent years to reduce penalties for drug-possession offenses had bipartisan backing.
This year, Hickenlooper also signed a Republican-sponsored bill that would make parolees subject to immediate, warrantless arrest if they tamper with their electronic monitoring device.
Ebel had removed his ankle-monitoring bracelet, but it was days before authorities found out.
However, a bill to remove earned time for inmates who misbehave failed in the Democrat-controlled Senate after passing with bipartisan support in the House.
Ebel received 115 days of earned time – which could not be revoked – even though he was cited 28 times for offenses that included fighting and assault during his nearly eight years in prison.
Hickenlooper’s campaign said the governor would like to see the issue addressed again next year. He also supports tougher DUI penalties, but his party has expressed concern about the implementation costs.