By Jody Hope Strogoff
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
While there were some surprises in November, Mike Coffman’s victory in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District was not among them. The secretary of state handily defeated his Democratic opponent with about 60 percent of the vote. But getting to the finish line proved to be somewhat burdensome. Coffman survived a contentious four-way primary as well as early opposition to his candidacy from some party leaders concerned that his election would most likely signal the appointment of a Democratic replacement by the governor. On top of that, Coffman had a tumultuous year overseeing elections in the state following a series of voting equipment failures and public scrutiny over some of his rulings in the secretary of state’s office.
Now, with that all behind him and former state Rep. Bernie Buescher soon to be sworn in as his successor in Colorado, Coffman’s sights are set on his new job of representing the suburban CD 6. As he finished packing up his personal momentos in his state office last week, Coffman professed excitement, but also some anxiety, about assuming his new position in Washington, D.C.
“In a normal year I’d be more relaxed,” Coffman said. “But I’m very concerned about the economy and what Congress does short term and long term.” He worries about the gravity of the economic situation and the ability of Congress to forge a workable remedy in the near future.
The congresman-elect, who will be sworn into office on Jan. 6, has already spent time in the nation’s Capitol in a series of pre-session briefings. He has picked out an office (on the fifth floor of the Longworth Building), hired some key staff members (including former Tancredo chief of staff Jacque Ponder) and has found a place to live just a few blocks away (at The Hill House, where he’s paying $1375 for an efficiency apartment.) Coffman has also found a district office which he will share with the City of Lone Tree, and named Andy Merritt as district director.
While he tries to acclimate to his new job responsibilities and work schedule in the nation’s capitol, Coffman is in the midst of yet another campaign. The soon-to-be freshman has been lobbying members of the House’s 27-member steering committee which makes committee assignments for members of Congress. Coffman, known for his affinity for gladhanding whether it be at delegate receptions, county assemblies — even at bar mitzvahs — admits to already having spoken to all 27 members of the steering group about his preferred committee assignments. In fact, he casually admits, he’s just about finished with his second contact of each of them, having recently sent out handwritten letters to the entire group in hope that they’ll grant him a seat on the Armed Services, Foreign Affairs or Natural Resources committees.
He feels he’s uniquely qualified to serve on the first two because of his background in national security. A veteran of both the Gulf War and the Iraqi War, he came home a decorated officer with lots of experience overseas.
Coffman admits that those two commitee assignments are usually difficult to come by for incoming freshmen, plus he knows that those kinds of plum assignments tend to be reserved for those members of Congress likely to have tough reelection races in 2010. That’s why, he points out, that Democrat Betsy Markey, also a member of the freshmen class from Colorado, has been tapped for more senior committees.
His other choice, membership on the Natural Resources committee, stems from what he describes as his keen interest in water issues, a topic that was not particularly a mainstay of his congressional campaign. But Coffman says he is very cognizant of the fact that while the economy may be the main issue in his district in the short term, water is also of prime concern in the long term.
“The gravity of the water question in Douglas County” is huge, Coffman says. The county is totally groundwater dependent and with the increased growth especially in Douglas County, a solution must be developed, Coffman stresses.
Coffman met House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a reception for new members, and describes the powerful Democratic leader as “very nice” and “cordial.” He does, however, disagree with Pelosi’s handling of the bailout for the “big 3” auto companies. While Pelosi feels there must be some restructuring on such items as hibred vehciles and fuel efficient cars, Coffman said he is uncomfortable with Congress dictating what the specific market is. Coffman said he worries about the European model, where the government has a major stake in private business, because he feels it is the wrong direction for the country.
The new Republican member also has met with Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette who represents the 1st District in nearby Denver. Coffman said he is “very impressed” so far with DeGette’s solid leadership as so-called “dean” of the delegation.
Likewise Coffman says that Tom Tancredo, his predecessor, had the right approach in serving in Congress. His advise to him is to focus on all that matters in the district, but zero in on an issue nationally, such as what Tancredo did with his emphasis on immigration reform.
“Tancredo was criticized for being a one trick pony, but he had the right approach,” Coffman says. He plans on following a similar path by concentrating on districtwide issues primarily, but by also getting involved in a more national issue, albeit in a more piece meal fashion.
Coffman’s wife, Cynthia, will remain in Colorado for the next two years, continuing her work as deputy attorney general in AG?John Suthers’ office. She is anxious to attend the inauguration festivities and swearing-in ceremony, Coffman said. As for himself, he’ll accompany his wife, of course, but said he would prefer to watch it all on TV.