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FORT COLLINS — Before the pandemic, James Howell was a lifeguard at a city pool. Dion Perkins, a father of seven, worked security at a theater. Sarah Slaton was a touring musician.

On Tuesday afternoon, they and three others sat in an otherwise empty bowling alley in this college town and talked about their struggles with unemployment — and unemployment insurance. Across from them, in black boots, black jeans and a salmon polo shirt, was John Hickenlooper.

“We will get through this,” the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate said through a mask that bent his ears forward. “I know sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but we will get through this, especially if we stick together.”

For the better part of an hour, Hickenlooper listened to the hardships of those six northern Colorado residents. He offered bleak assessments — “These are the worst of hard times” — followed by positive platitudes and mild criticisms of the Senate: “They have spent two weeks on vacation.”

Hickenlooper, who often stumbles through speeches and debates, is at his best in settings like these — the beer halls, the bowling alleys — playing consoler-in-chief to Coloradans who have suffered from wildfires, mass shootings or economic calamity. He remains an unpolished speaker after nearly two decades in politics and unpolished speech sounds about right in an empty bowling alley.

As Congress debates its next pandemic response package, there are few policy differences between Hickenlooper and Sen. Cory Gardner, the Yuma Republican he will face in 96 days, on this topic. Both believe further negotiations are needed, both are open to the idea of direct payments, and both believe extending a $600 per week unemployment enhancement could be a good idea.

“Yeah, I think that’s where I come down right now but again, I want to (negotiate),” Hickenlooper said of the $600 enhancement when asked if he supports it Tuesday. “Part of the reason people do negotiations is so you learn what the other side is thinking and go back and forth.”

Gardner’s campaign says he also supports further negotiations and isn’t drawing any lines in the sand. He is open to extending the unemployment enhancement at $600 per week but could vote for a bill that extends it at some amount less than that. Gardner is also open to sending more direct checks to Americans, but again isn’t requiring that be in a bill before he votes for it.

They may differ on eviction moratoriums, however. Hickenlooper supports a House bill that would extend a federal eviction moratorium. Gardner’s campaign was less than adamant about extending the moratorium, saying only that the senator would consider any proposal that provides targeted assistance for impacted Americans.

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Top Line

DPS board member Tay Anderson leads ...

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

DPS board member Tay Anderson leads the crowd in an 8-minute and 46-second moment of silence during a Black Lives Matter march on June 7, 2020 in Denver.

Denver Public Schools board member Tay Anderson was taken to a hospital Wednesday after he was injured during a protest outside a homeless camp in downtown Denver.

Capitol Diary • By Saja Hindi

A race to the ballot

The road for citizen-led initiatives to get on the November ballot has been long and difficult amid the coronavirus pandemic, as many face a looming Aug. 3 deadline.

Three campaigns for ballot initiatives submitted their petitions to get their questions on the ballot this week, ahead of next week’s deadline to turn in signatures.

The Secretary of State’s Office is verifying signatures for:

  • Initiative 257, a measure that would allow communities to change gaming limits through local elections
  • Initiative 295, a measure that would ask voters to approve through statewide elections any future fees for new state programs in which the projected or actual revenue exceeds $100,000 in its first five years
  • Initiative 306, a measure that would ask voters to reduce the state income tax rate from 4.63% to 4.55%

A fourth that would ask voters for approval of a paid medical and family leave program is expected to turn in its signatures Friday.

If approved, the initiatives will land on the statewide November ballot alongside questions asking voters to approve the reintroduction of gray wolves in the state, disallow Colorado to join the National Popular Vote Compact, ban late-term abortions and reiterate that only citizens can vote in elections. The Colorado state legislature also referred a measure to the ballot asking voters to approve an increase on tobacco taxes and a new vaping tax.

The Secretary of State’s Office has until Sept. 2 to make a final determination on signatures.

To get a question on the ballot, campaigns have to collect at least 124,632 valid signatures of registered voters on their petitions. If the question is an amendment to the state Constitution, they need to collect signatures from 2% of the registered voters in each of Colorado’s 35 state Senate districts.

Colorado’s November ballot was expected to be lengthy when campaigns started discussing their planned initiatives last year. But after temporary forced closures and social distancing guidelines, campaigns began to push for changes to the process.

That’s when Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order allowing campaigns to collect signatures by mail and email. Then a business group sued. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled against the governor, saying the state constitutional requirement that signatures must be made in person was clear.

Some campaigns have had to call it quits. Others are likely to make the same announcement in the days ahead. We’ll keep you posted.

More Colorado political news

  • Gov. Jared Polis urges Coloradans “not to be stupid” during the health crisis
  • Colorado Republicans requested a return to the Capitol. Democrats called it a political stunt
  • Colorado is suing Trump over an attempt to exclude some immigrants from the census count
  • Residents share their fears of eviction with high unemployment rates, lapse in federal benefits

#COSen 2020 • By Justin Wingerter

RIP RMV, 2019-2020

Last September, a dark money group cropped up in Colorado, called itself Rocky Mountain Values and announced that its goal was to hold elected officials accountable. Before long, it was a leading anti-Gardner group in the state, dropping $2.5 million on TV and another million dollars on digital ads.

Ten months later, on Friday, the group will close its doors for good.

“We’ve seen our messaging stick,” said Vanessa Harmoush, RMV’s spokesperson, “and we’ve seen people take our messaging and go beyond RMV. So to see the work that we’ve done extend beyond us was kind of the moment that we realized we had accomplished our mission.”

With a focus on health care and the environment, RMV combined typical grassroots organizing tactics with deep-pocketed ad budgets and occasionally corny gimmicks. On July 4, it released a playlist of breakup songs to inspire Gardner to split with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“The first ad we did — the McConnell puppet ad on prescription drugs — we launched that on a Monday and by that Thursday we were over 500,000 views,” said Marie Aberger, spokesperson for an RMV campaign that constantly tied Gardner to McConnell, who is unpopular in Colorado, according to polls.

Olga Robak, state director for Protect Our Care, a health care advocacy group that often partnered with RMV, said RMV was undeniably successful at capturing the public’s attention and highlighting Gardner’s connections to another unpopular Republican: President Donald Trump.

“(RMV) allowed our voices to be heard,” said Penny Potts, a 35-year-old teacher and cancer survivor in Centennial who was featured in RMV ads and at RMV events, “and it allowed me to feel like I matter in the political landscape that many times feels like it lacks humanity.”

More federal election news

Mile High Politics • By Conrad Swanson

Waiting on the next shoe to fall

It’s only a matter of time.

Denver police, Colorado state troopers and city staff swept out the longstanding homeless encampment in Lincoln Park, just west of the state Capitol early Wednesday morning and the city’s remaining large encampments now sit in the crosshairs.

The highest profile encampment remaining is likely the one outside Morey Middle School, but Public Health Director Bob McDonald said city officials are likely to break others up too. Mayor Michael Hancock’s spokesperson, Michael Strott, confirmed the strategy as well.

McDonald, police and troopers didn’t wait until the city’s first sanctioned homeless encampment opened. That camp could be ready early next month, though no site has been formally proposed yet. Anyway, it will be much too small to host anything more than a fraction of the now-scattered downtown encampment, let alone any other encampments.

It’s no secret that federal experts say encampments should be left untouched during the pandemic unless cities have a place for those sleeping outside to go. And city officials have zeroed in on that qualifier.

There are shelter beds, they say.

And they’re right. Sort of.

Indeed, Denver has congregate shelter space available, hundreds of rooms at times. But it’s painfully obvious to experts and advocates alike that those sleeping in outdoor encampments have little or no desire to stay in those shelters.

In the best of times they can be dangerous, many say. People fear that what little property they own could be stolen. Or they fear attacks from others inside the shelters. Often those seeking a spot in the shelter are separated from their loved ones or pets, adding to the isolation and desperation of living on the streets.

And now the country is in the middle of a pandemic. Social distancing is one of the most oft-repeated prevention measures for those hoping to avoid contracting the novel coronavirus.

So who wants to stay in a shelter, mere feet from the next person over, touching the same doorknobs, sink handles, tables, chairs and railings as everybody else?

Many would rather take their chances on the streets, where they feel safer and can distance themselves relatively well from others. There is safety in numbers, they say.

And indeed, it’s no secret that drugs, crime, litter and even infestations can follow.

During my most recent pass through the encampment near the Capitol, I interviewed a woman as she prepared a syringe full of what she said was heroin. She shuffled and arranged her cache of needles, pills and pipes in a tin box casually while we spoke, as if she were merely flipping through her daily calendar.

At least one person died in a shooting there the next day.

Neighbors near Morey Middle School complain of drug sales, prostitution and more. Absolutely valid concerns and worth the resources of the Denver Police Department.

But the campers themselves remind us daily — and we should listen — that they have no desire to stay in a shelter and breaking up their camps will only force them to pitch tents elsewhere until the cycle repeats.

Some yell until their voices run hoarse: breaking up the encampments will only move the problems a few blocks, appeasing some residents for days or weeks at most.

Instead, they call for the city to police encampments more heavily, provide trash receptacles and portable toilets. And now those advocates, people experiencing homelessness and even public officials are watching the remaining encampments to see whether city officials will listen.

I doubt they’re holding their breath, though.

More Denver and suburban political news

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