It’s time to fire up the Colorado Pols Debate Diary once again.
It has become something of a tradition here at Colorado Pols for us to give you, our loyal readers, a live blog, play-by-play of political debates in Colorado. Yesterday in Grand Junction, Secretary of State candidates Joe Neguse (D) and Wayne Williams (R) took to the stage for the first SOS debate hosted by the Colorado Clerks Association. Colorado Pols was not in attendance at the debate (you wouldn’t drive to Grand Junction on a Monday, either), but thanks to the miracle of YouTube, we’re watching the video and providing a blow-by-blow rundown of the action.
*NOTE: Unlike a regular “live blog” Debate Diary, we're posting the most recent update at the bottom of the page, so you can read like a normal person. As always, unless it is in direct quotes, consider all statements paraphrased in the interest of time.
We’re looking at the stage at the Two Rivers Convention Center in Grand Junction. El Paso County Clerk Wayne Williams is to the left of the screen, while CU Regent Joe Neguse is on the right. Maybe it’s just a weird camera angle, or maybe Williams is standing on a couple of phone books, but he looks absolutely ginormous. Williams looks like Godzilla preparing to destroy the convention center.
Our moderator is Gary Harmon from the Grand Junction Sentinel, who is sitting at his own table between the two candidates.
Let’s get right to the opening statements. Each candidate is allowed 3 minutes to start, which seems kind of excessive. If either candidate is able to coherently talk about the Secretary of State’s office for 3 consecutive minutes, we should just let them have the job.
Neguse is up first. He’s wearing a dark suit, with a white button-up shirt and a white t-shirt underneath. That’s a lot of layers, but maybe he just likes to be prepared.
“My name is Joe Neguse, and I’m running for Secretary of State for a pretty simple reason. I believe the right to vote is sacred.” Neguse talks about how his parents immigrated from East Africa.
And…we have our first Scott Gessler mention. Neguse criticizes the current SOS and makes sure to mention that Gessler has endorsed Williams.
[SIDE NOTE: Is there a lightbulb shortage on the West Slope? Neguse looks like he’s speaking from a dark alley, with half of his face shrouded in shadow.]
Neguse says that Williams is the only county clerk in the state who is NOT a member of the Colorado Clerks Association. That’s really strange – it will be interesting to see what Williams says about this. Why would the El Paso County Clerk not be a member of the Colorado Clerks Association? Is there a competing organization in which Williams is the sole member?
Neguse finishes up his opening statement with a story about doing bipartisan work as a CU Regent.
Now it’s time for Williams to speak. He’s wearing a brown jacket, a shirt of indeterminate color, and Max Headroom’s tie from 1984. He also has a “Wayne Williams” campaign sticker on his lapel, just in case.
“I had an interesting conversation in 2011 with my wife. I explained to Holly that I would not be at our house for her birthday.” Seriously, that’s the first thing he said.
Williams says that the Saguache County Commissioners scheduled a recall for January 24 (the same day as Holly Williams’ birthday) and asked him to run the recall election. So he sacrificed his wife’s birthday for the greater good of Saguache County, or something.
“I have been committed for many decades to working hard to ensure that everybody has the ability to vote.” Good work on the English, Wayne. Maybe he really IS Max Headroom.
Williams is now telling a story about serving on the Canvas Board in El Paso County for the first time in 1997. This is going to be a looonnggg 45 minutes.
Williams criticizes the 2000 election process in Florida, which resulted in a team of lawyers making sure that
Al Gore George W. Bush was elected President. Didn’t see that one coming.
“I’m proud of the record we have in El Paso County. As the Clerk and Recorder in the state’s most populous county…”
Wait, what? El Paso County is the most populous county in Colorado? Apparently so, according to the Census Bureau – El Paso is now slightly larger than Denver County.
Williams concludes his rambling opening statement. Harmon, the moderator, is a bit discombobulated as he stares at his phone. That was just about 3 minutes on the dot, was it not?
First question: How will you administer House Bill 1303, the same-day voter registration law?
[Harmon has to repeat the question a second time when various audience members complain that they can’t hear him. Harmon then mumbles the question again into the microphone; nobody bothers asking for a third reading.]
Williams goes first. He says elected officials take an oath to uphold the constitution whether or not they agree with a particular law. “I will administer it in the same way that we have in El Paso County…but there will be some differences.” What?
Williams says there were problems with HB-1303, and that he testified in front of the legislature about those problems. “It disenfranchised everybody who moved, from voting, in school board races and in special district races.” Williams has a really bizarre way of constructing sentences. Listening to him talk is like getting directions in a foreign country from somebody who kind of speaks English; you get the gist of what he is saying, but it’s a weird journey to get there.
Williams says there are holes in the bill that have created problems in recall elections. No idea what he is talking about now.
Williams is finished speaking. Harmon might be asleep.
Neguse: “I think this may be the most salient difference between me and my opponent.” Good – maybe Neguse can explain whatever the hell Williams was talking about.
Neguse mentions again that Williams has the endorsement of Scott Gessler. Says that Williams has spent the last year and a half trying to dismantle election reforms. Neguse makes a strong point about how voters who miss one election were being removed from the “active voter” rolls and did not automatically receive a mail-in ballot. Says Williams supports rules that made it harder for people to vote.
Neguse: “If you want a Secretary of State who is going to roll back the important reforms that we’ve made in the State of Colorado, I’m not your guy.” Good line.
Next question: Do you agree with the traditional way that business fees were used to support elections and the SOS office budget? How will you change business fees?
This question is really about the budget problems in the SOS office under Gessler, which Neguse explains. The SOS office had a budget surplus when Scott Gessler took office, and is now in the red. Neguse talks about the problem with “fee holiday gimmicks,” which is another swipe at Gessler.
“I don’t think the taxpayers should be forced to foot the entire bill for election administration,” says Neguse. Overall, Neguse provides what seems like a good answer to the question, but this is such a complex and obscure issue that nobody outside of the County Clerks Association probably understands anything about it.
Williams talks about how he meets with the County Commissioners in El Paso County to discuss the budget for his office and how fees are used to implement services.
Williams: “The question is, how should elections be funded? Should we pick a few people, a few businesses…and say, you must pay for the entire election process…I don’t think that makes sense.”
“Elections is one of the core functions of government, and it ought to be funded with core government funds,” says Williams, mostly in English. He says again that a few people who pay business fees should not fund elections on their own, which of course isn’t actually happening. Williams is trying to sound like he is a champion of business owners, but he’s greatly exaggerating here.
Every time one of the candidates finishes answering a question, the moderator (Harmon) looks completely surprised. This is the best part of the debate thus far – after each candidate finishes speaking, the room is silent while everyone waits for Harmon to look up, lock eyes with someone in the front row keeping the time, and react by reading the next question. It’s almost like Harmon forgets that he’s even there.
Next question: Explain the relationship between the county clerks and the SOS office.
Williams says he also has the endorsement of former Secretaries (?) of State Natalie Meyer, Gigi Dennis, and Mike Coffman. [Meyer was SOS from 1983-1995] Williams uses this as an intro into saying that he has meetings with people from the SOS office.
Basically, Williams spent two minutes talking about how he likes to work with other people.
Neguse: “I think you all should be far more interested in what we do than what we say.” Neguse then mentions again how Williams is the only county clerk in the state who is not a member of the County Clerks Association. Says he will call each county clerk on Nov. 5 to hear their ideas.
Great answer by Neguse. He took a vague question and used his time to differentiate himself from Williams.
Next question: What is your view of uniform voting systems?
Now this is really getting exciting.
Neguse says something about flexibility and then moves into talking about technological advances that other clerks are using (such as iPads in Denver County).
Williams sounds exactly like Andy Bernard from “The Office” (Ed Helms played the character). If you closed your eyes you wouldn’t know the difference.
Williams runs out of time before he can wrap up his answer, which ends up being to his benefit. It sounded like he was talking for two minutes, but you’d be hard-pressed to remember anything he just said.
This is getting painful.
Harmon mumbles another question. Audience members ask him to repeat whatever he just said.
Question: What is the best way to deal with the process of rulemaking in the SOS office?
Ugh. Why don’t we just start asking them about their favorite movies?
Williams: “I am not enamored with rules that come out at the last second. With rules that come out after we have already printed our documents…and by the way, put a sticker over the envelope!”
Williams says he is going to use the remainder of his time on this question to finish answering the last question, which nobody remembers anyway. Just stop talking.
Neguse says the process for elections should be more open and collaborative. Then he starts talking about Scott Gessler again, and says that Williams has stood side-by-side with Gessler in recent years. Neguse says he doesn’t think it’s true that Williams can say he will be collaborative given his close affiliation with Gessler.
Finally, somebody starts throwing punches.
Question: How do you see yourself working with elections officials nationally and how would you advise Congress to improve the process.
This is why we don’t see much attention given to debates for Secretary of State – there just aren’t that many questions to ask. Let’s skip ahead…
Neguse says something about HAVA. Or maybe he said, “Chupacabra.” Hard to tell.
Williams says he recently finished his last course in some sort of elections administration class. This debate has suddenly become very confusing.
Williams: “I don’t want mandates coming out of Denver. I don’t want mandates coming out of Washington D.C.” Immediately, Williams starts talking about how he worked with legislators to craft bills on election matters. He knows the legislature is in Denver, right?
Question: Explain the process and challenges of a metropolitan area election versus a rural election.
Can we not?
The audience again says they can’t hear the question. Harmon has eaten the microphone.
Williams is up first on this question. He smiles broadly, as if to say, I have nothing else to discuss that you haven’t already heard from me.
He’s right, but we have to keep going anyway. Can’t we do “feats of strength” or something instead?
Now the candidates get to ask each other questions. $10 says that Neguse mentions Scott Gessler here.
Someone owes us $10.
Neguse: How can we trust that you are going to work with the county clerks in a positive way given your record?
Williams goes into several different stories about how people have called him from the SOS office and asked him to help them with stuff.
Williams finally starts to explain why he is not a member of the County Clerks Association. “My leaving was because…past leaders of the Association did not share information with all of the clerks.” Williams says that his beef stems from not being informed by the Association that they were taking a position on H.B. 1303 – that he learned about it from a reporter.
If Williams’ goal was to sound petty and disagreeable, he hit that one out of the park.
For some reason Neguse gets to talk again. Was he given time to respond to his own question? This is odd.
Neguse says that he is not a “party insider” like Scott Gessler, and mentions that Williams was once the Chair of the El Paso County Republican Party. This is what a good debater should do – use the stage to introduce information and facts about you and your opponent.
Williams now gets to ask a question. “Do you support the two initiatives represented by Representative [Jared] Polis, or do you oppose them?” Williams butchers Polis’ name, pronouncing it PAUL-ESS. Williams then asks how Neguse would replace “$500 million” in lost revenue should these fracking ballot measures pass in November.
This has absolutely nothing to do with the Secretary of State’s office.
Great response from Neguse that draws laughter from the audience. “That’s your best question? You only have one, Wayne.”
Neguse says that this question crystallizes the difference between himself and both Gessler and Williams. “You could have asked me, Wayne, about uniform voting systems” or about employing new technologies.
“If you want to work on fracking or other issues, you should run for Congress. I’m running for Secretary of State.” I believe, that we need somebody who is going to focus doing on the job…and empower people to participate in our democracy.
“And I’ll leave it there.”
Lots of murmuring in the crowd for the first time all night. This was an absolutely ridiculous question for Williams to ask, and Neguse made him pay for it.
Williams says he asked the question because he recognizes the importance of the Colorado economy after having been a county commissioner and an elected official for many years. “Yes, it’s a relevant question,” says Williams.
Closing statements, at last.
Neguse: There are clear differences between us. Says Williams would bring 4 more years of partisan politics to the office, comparing him to Scott Gessler. Says Williams only talks about what he has done before, and doesn’t talk about what he is going to do.
Now to Williams, who thanks Neguse for coming “over to Grand Junction.”
“I believe in local control. That’s one of the things I’ve been involved in for many years.”
Yes, Williams really just said that – only a few minutes after ripping the fracking ballot measures that are all based on LOCAL CONTROL!
What the frack?
Williams: “There are too many people who view the Secretary of State’s office as a stepping stone to something else. Or were just passing through. Or got it because they didn’t get something else or were waiting for something else…someone who is actually committed to this office.”
That was strange. Those were direct shots at Gigi Dennis, Scott Gessler and Mike Coffman – and Williams just finished talking about their endorsements.
“That’s why you’ve seen me at various things.” Sure, yeah.
Williams finishes by saying he supports the idea of requiring photo ID at polling places.
A debate for the office of Secretary of State is never going to be particularly exciting, and this debate didn’t fail to unimpress. At the same time, Neguse is clearly more well-spoken and prepared than Williams, and it would be hard for an undecided voter to compare the two in this debate and not feel more comfortable voting for Neguse.
The end of the debate, when the candidates were able to ask questions of each other, provided an unmistakable contrast. Williams’ question about fracking was out of place and just plain dumb, and Neguse handled it brilliantly. In general, Neguse did a much better job of explaining concrete differences between himself and Williams.