Electricity is in the air at Romanoff headquarters

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The only time when things aren’t hopping at Andrew Romanoff’s Senate campaign is the dead of night, and even then the candidate and his top managers keep busy until the wee hours. Things start at the crack of dawn for the Denver Democrat, who has a daily appointment at 6:30 a.m. with campaign manager Bill Romjue and his deputy, Berrick Abramson, at the campaign’s storefront headquarters in a strip mall in southeast Denver. It’s precious time before staffers and volunteers fill the place by 8 a.m. and keep things buzzing until at least 9 p.m. But the candidate and his top managers don’t stop there.

“We do a late-night wrap-up on the day,” Abramson says, describing a conference call that often ends past midnight. “It’s the only time Andrew can’t be calling anyone else, so it’s a good time for us to talk.”

Romanoff, a former speaker of the Colorado House, is mounting a primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who was appointed early last year to fill the term of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The challenger holds a roughly 15-point lead among delegates to this weekend’s state assembly in Broomfield, where both Democrats are expected to win a spot on the August 10 primary ballot.

On a Tuesday morning last week, Romanoff headquarters were swarming with more than 50 staffers and volunteers, the enthusiasm palpable. Behind the giant windows inside the reception area — the space was most recently an early childhood education center so retains an area for parents to watch the kids at play — supporters tap away at laptops, make phone call after phone call and gather in energetic bunches to discuss the insurgent campaign.

Staff and volunteers gather after a weekly meeting at Romanoff campaign headquarters in southeast Denver. Top row: Anne Collins, Larry Dunn, Bryan Rose, Mary Pritchard, Kelly Moura, Patrick Anderson, Susie McMahon, Sheila Canfield-Jones, Dan Erickson, Colin O’Connor, Dave Sabados, Andy Weis, Thomas Young , Kevin Paquett. Second row from top: Delana Maynes, Carmi McLean, Andrew Romanoff, Jason Gromley, Bobby O’Mara, Marcia Stubbs, Katie Fleming, Diana Calie, Sam Lopez, Bill Romjue. Third row from top: Andrea Merida, Paul Laden, Kirsten Boyd, Rebecca Bliss, Sarah Morris, Denice Edwards, Patricia Barela Rivera, Carrie Herren, Polly Baca, Berrick Abramson. Front row: Bob Hullinghorst , Mike Zielinski, Doran Kaye, Dana Cousteau, Emily Katsimpalis, Meghann Ashley, Michele Fry, Melissa Caplan.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

“It’s a passionate group,” says Abramson, who got his start in politics working for Gary Hart. “I’ve worked on a lot of campaigns, and this is certainly one of the most energetic ones.”

Focusing all that energy is the job of Romjue, who took the helm in December. The campaign veteran has decades of experience stretching back to Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign, including a stint organizing Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential bid. He most recently managed a congressional campaign in South Carolina and before that headed Joe Biden’s 2008 operation in Iowa.

Romanoff’s field director, Kelly Maura — another alum of the Iowa ’08 Biden campaign — works with Sheila Canfield-Jones, who organized in Colorado for the Obama campaign. Communications Director Roy Teicher, who joined the campaign early in April, works with deputy Katie Fleming to get the message out through media outlets.

“Data guru” Colin O’Connor brings expertise in data analysis and voter targeting to the campaign, Abramson says, praising O’Conner’s record when he handled the task across several regions, including the Rocky Mountain states, for the Obama campaign two years ago. “He’s one of the five best at voter targeting in the country,” Abramson says, pointing to pinpoint results “within 1 percent for voter turnout on a precinct level.”

Romanoff campaign volunteer coordinator Dana Cousteau greets supporters at campaign headquarters in southeast Denver.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

The hive of activity in the shopping center at the corner of Evans and Monaco is just the command center, though, not the whole show. The campaign already has satellite offices open — or set to open by the end of May — in eight locations across the state: Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Lakewood, Adams County, Boulder, Fort Collins, Grand Junction and Greeley. As the race heats up over the summer, more remote offices could be unveiled in mountain towns and the southwest corner of the state, staffers said, to bolster Romanoff’s grassroots, block-by-block strategy to woo Democratic primary voters.

“The people-powered nature of this is going to allow a grassroots campaign to reach as many voters as others would spending a lot more money,” Abramson says.

Confident that person-to-person contact with Romanoff is the campaign’s best asset, Abramson says scheduler Carrie Herren and advance coordinator Alexis Bentley have their hands full setting as many as 40 events every week in front of “anybody and everybody that wants Andrew to come talk.”

Included on the schedule are plenty of house parties — including at least one “Fondue with Andrew” — where supporters invite friends and neighbors to meet the candidate or gather to discuss the campaign. “More than 400 people want to host house parties between now and the primary,” Abramson says, adding that the campaign has scheduled as many as 100 of the get-togethers since precinct caucuses in March. Operations Director Bryan Rose is in charge of setting them up — a full-time job, Abramson says.

Jefferson County field directors Bobby O’Mara, left, and Dan Erickson, seated, talk strategy as Patrick Anderson, information technology director, looks on at Romanoff campaign headquarters.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

From house parties and town halls to civic groups and street fairs, Romanoff is constantly delivering his message to voters. And getting him there is the job of Melissa Caplan, Romanoff’s cousin and nearly constant sidekick. “She’s one of the hardest working people on the campaign,” Abramson says, “often putting in 20 hours a day, going everywhere.”

Romanoff spends much of his travel time — as much as six hours a day, including stints at the office — on the phone calling potential donors. It’s part of the fundraising operation run by finance director Kirsten Boyd — daughter of state Sen. Betty Boyd, a Lakewood Democrat — who handled fundraising for 2006 congressional candidate Angie Paccione. Tallying it all up is campaign treasurer Patricia Barela Rivera, a former U.S. Small Business Administration district director.

The campaign situates its finance team in an unmarked office near headquarters, which also houses a work area for Romanoff. It’s easier that way, Caplan says, keeping her cousin on necessary fundraising calls, instead of endlessly talking politics with supporters and volunteers at the main headquarters.

Though Romanoff is unlikely to match Bennet’s fundraising totals, the challenger is planning an advertising campaign as the August primary approaches. “We’ll have enough to do what we need to do,” Romjue assures.

House party coordinator Jason Gromley works at his desk at Romanoff campaign headquarters next to a giant jar of animal crackers.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

While Abramson declines to go into too much detail, he says to expect four to six weeks of TV ads and “a solid radio buy.” The campaign will be “on air well before the first ballots drop in mid July,” alluding to extensive early voting and mail-in ballots for this year’s primary.

Strategist Joe Trippi — who helped pioneer use of the Internet in campaigns and launched Howard Dean into what he terms “an unlikely frontrunner” for the 2004 presidential nomination — will be in charge of Romanoff’s media. He’ll meet with the campaign team at the state assembly. Along with former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pollster Celinda Lake, Trippi has been part of regular conference calls since early this year.

A short video “talking about how (Romanoff) got here,” including a portrait of Romanoff’s upbringing and the roots of his commitment to public service, premieres at the state assembly, Abramson says. It’ll be part of the 20 minutes each candidate gets for nominations and an acceptance speech before delegates vote. The video, produced by Linda Petrie Bunch and Donna Dewey, will be the first of “a number of videos highlighting Andrew’s background, his life story — what in his life story has made him into the person he is,” Abramson says. After that, “we will be making very strong use of (Web) videos,” he promises.

A wall of photos, newspaper clippings and inspirational quotes are on display at the Romanoff campaign headquarters.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Pairing videos with viewers will be partly the job of Dave Sobados, who handles new media — blog outreach, social networking, Netroots — for the campaign. His corner of the campaign reaches far and wide, Abramson notes, tapping into a “whole new level of communication on a mass level.” For a grassroots campaign, new media allows “viral growth — people spread the message to hundreds or thousands of others in an instant.”

Not everything at the Romanoff campaign moves at the speed of light. Sometimes it’s home to canine supporters, including First Dog Zorro. The candidate’s border collie mix bunks most of the time with state Rep. Lois Court, a Democrat who represents Romanoff’s old house district in southeast Denver, but is a frequent presence around headquarters too.

“The campaign is very dog friendly,” Abramson says. “We’re not a particularly high paid staff, but when we’re asking people to be here 12, 15, even 18 hours a day, this becomes a second home for a lot of people.” Helping achieve that are “are “several refrigerators, several coffee machines,” he notes, and even the occasional napping staffer. “This campaign has much more of a family and grassroots feel than a typical suit-and-tie campaign office.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com