A leader of one of the state’s most prominent LGBT advocacy organizations says U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s recent attack on former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is “cynical” and “beneath” the Gardner campaign.

Jason Marsden, vice president of the Mathew Shepard Foundation, told the Colorado Times Recorder that Gardner, a Republican, misrepresented a decade-old interview to attack Hickenlooper, his likely Democratic opponent in November’s election.

Gardner’s attack came during a virtual campaign event with Teller County Republicans in southern Colorado last week, in which the first-term senator recounted being “offended years ago” with Hickenlooper’s characterization of rural Coloradans.

“I was offended years ago when John Hickenlooper was asked to describe rural Colorado he said that we were just a bunch of backwards-looking people,” said Gardner during the virtual event. “That’s what he thinks about rural Colorado–we’re just a bunch of backwards-looking people and we have to change our mind in order to stop being backwards. Remember what happened in rural Colorado. You had a whole bunch of counties that tried to secede under his leadership and what he did.”

Gardner’s claim that the Hickenlooper was “asked to describe rural Colorado” is false, based on a recording of the interview, which took place in 2009 at the opening gala for the Denver headquarters of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

The interviewer actually asked then Denver Mayor Hickenlooper why the organization chose to locate in Denver rather Wyoming where the Shepard family lived and where Matthew was murdered.

“I think a couple things, I mean, you know, the tragic death of Matthew Shepard occurred in Wyoming,” Hickenlooper began. “Colorado and Wyoming are very similar. We have some of the same, you know, backwards thinking in the kind of rural Western areas you see in, you know, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico.”

“We’re neighbors,” said the interviewer.

“Right, well in a sense we’re all community,” Hickenlooper replied. “At the same time Denver has I think one of the more robust politically active gay lesbian, bisexual & transgender communities really in the United States.”

Marsden of the Matthew Shepard Foundation remembers the conversation well.

“I was standing right there when he was being interviewed,” said Marsden. “I think everybody and I assume Hickenlooper himself would agree that wasn’t the right choice of words, but he was in no way trying to convey disdain for rural people. He was trying to convey compassion for rural LGBT kids– and adults, for that matter.”

“Honestly, for Senator Gardner’s team to take a quote that came out of a compassionate and charitable event and portray it as John Hickenlooper expressing hate for rural people is the exact inverse of what was really going on there,” Marsden continued.

“It’s really pretty cynical, especially given that eleven years have gone by and he’s continued to be an ally to all the diverse communities in Colorado.

“And Senator Gardner has tried to present a kinder, more compassionate conservatism throughout his career as well. This is really just beneath them.”

The Gardner campaign did not return an email request for comment. This article will be updated with any response received.

Gardner’s attack isn’t new. Former U. S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) raised it ten years ago when he was running against Hickenlooper for governor. At the time Tancredo released a statement saying, ““To suggest that people in rural Colorado are ‘backwards’ because they don’t share your left-wing values reinforces once again just how out of touch you are.”

Reached for comment, Tancredo recalled the LGBT rights context of the original quote.

“It was about that kid who was killed in Wyoming,” he said, before noting that some people didn’t believe it had actually been an LGBT hate crime, citing a book that proposed an alternate theory for the murder.

Tancredo said he took Hickenlooper’s remarks to apply to conservative values more broadly.

“It was like when Obama talked about people clinging to their Bible and their guns,” Tancredo said. “It was a good example of that elitist condescending attitude liberals have with folks who don’t agree with them.”

Gardner also blamed then-Governor Hickenlooper for the 2013 secession attempt by eleven Colorado counties. Voters in five of the counties, including Gardner’s own Yuma County, ultimately supported forming a new state.

Gardner has never disavowed the movement and has referred to it sympathetically over the years, but he has steadfastly refused to say whether he cast his ballot for or against seceding from Colorado.