The Battle in the 6th CD

Romanoff versus Coffman
The Colorado Statesman

The contenders in what could be the most closely fought congressional race in the country clashed over immigration, federal spending and campaign finance at their first debate on Thursday morning, but it was one candidate’s punt and the other’s fumble that drew the sharpest barbs from both sides.

Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and his Democratic challenger, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, sparred for nearly two hours in front of a standing-room-only crowd that overflowed a ballroom at the Hilton Garden Inn in Highlands Ranch. The debate was moderated by Aaron Harber and sponsored by the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce and other economic development organizations representing Highlands Ranch and Douglas County.

Congressional candidates Mike Coffman, Republican, and Andrew Romanoff, Democrat, chat during a brief intermission at their first debate on Aug. 14 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Highlands Ranch as moderator Aaron Harber addresses the capacity crowd.

“I’m about finding solutions, I’m about working across the aisle,” said Coffman, who is seeking a fourth term representing the suburban 6th Congressional District, evenly divided by registration between Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. Coffman name-checked Colorado’s two Democratic senators during the debate, saying he’s working with Michael Bennet and Mark Udall on various issues involving the military and national security.

18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, left, greets former state Sen. Dick Mutzebaugh of Highlands Ranch at a debate between 6th CD candidates Mike Coffman and Andrew Romanoff on Aug. 14.

“If every district were as evenly divided as Colorado’s 6th,” said Romanoff, “Congress would be a much more productive institution, because it would actually force members of Congress to work across the aisle to get things done.”

Congressional District 6 candidates U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff prepare to debate on Aug. 14 in Highlands Ranch.
Photos by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

In his closing remarks, Romanoff sounded a theme central to his campaign.

“I cannot promise that we’ll get everything that I just listed done — certainly not in my first term and maybe not in our lifetime,” he said. “But I guarantee you this — if we elect the same crowd that is running Congress today, nothing is going to change, and that is unacceptable to me — not just as a candidate for office but as an American, too.”

Coffman — the only veteran among Colorado’s congressional delegation, and the only member of Congress to have served in both the Gulf and Iraq wars — stressed his military experience in his closing remarks, retelling a lengthy story about how he grew up in Aurora after his father was stationed at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center and then launched his own career in uniform. He asked voters to reelect him “so that I can continue to serve this country with the same honor and integrity I served this nation in the Army and Marine Corps.”

The candidates’ resumés were a point of friction earlier in the debate during a discussion about campaign finance.

“You went to Harvard and Yale, I went to the Army and Marine Corps,” Coffman said to Romanoff. “There’s a difference there.”

“I’m glad that I was able to get a good education, and I’m running for Congress because I want to make it possible for every student in America to get a good education,” Romanoff said over gasps from the audience — several hundred strong, roughly evenly divided between the two camps from the sound of things.

“I have tremendous respect for you, and I’ve asked everyone in my campaign to treat you with the same respect as well,” he continued.

Then Romanoff, who has disavowed contributions from political action committees, challenged Coffman to join him “right now here on this stage in turning down contributions from special-interest groups,” and offered to return contributions from lobbyists, earlier identified by Coffman as a hedge in Romanoff’s pledge.

“We can lead, we can make national news right now,” he said.

“I think everybody in here is a special interest somehow,” Coffman responded as audience members groaned. “The difference is, I lead and you follow. People decide whether to support me based on what I do, I think, for you, it’s different.”

The two also differed on their approach to fixing the immigration system, a hot-button issue in the district, where Hispanic residents account for roughly 20 percent of the residents, though both agreed that Congress has to do something.

“I believe in a step-by-step approach to immigration reform,” Coffman said. Asserting that, “the system is broken,” Coffman touted a bill he’s sponsoring that would allow young immigrants brought into the country illegally the chance to advance toward citizenship by serving in the military.

“That’d be fine, if Congress were willing to take a single step,” Romanoff responded, pointing out that it’s been more than a year since the Senate passed bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform legislation. “If you oppose the bipartisan plan passed by the Senate,” he said, “then you’ve got to identify a comprehensive plan that you support.”

Asked to identify a significant cut that would go toward balancing the federal budget, Coffman replied, “One way to save money very quickly is repealing and replacing Obamacare with a patient-centered healthcare system that has protections in it, that are important, but doesn’t bankrupt the country,” drawing hearty cheers from his supporters.

Romanoff ticked off a list of suggestions, including cutting redundant programs — praising Coffman for his work trying to do just that — giving the government the power to negotiate better discounts on pharmaceutical spending and cracking down on tax evasion. “The best way to balance the budget is to grow the economy,” he said.

As for Obamacare, Romanoff said it was a “good idea to fix the law rather than repeal it and replace it with nothing other than empty phrases.”

They split on whether Congress should reauthorize the Export-Import Bank of the United States, answering one of numerous detailed questions submitted by audience members and posed by Harber.

“I’m going to vote against it because I think it’s unnecessary,” Coffman said, calling it a “taxpayer subsidy,” and then adding, “Here we have Speaker Romanoff railing against corporate welfare. Let’s see what he has to say about this.”

“I support the reauthorization of this bank, with the reforms it deserves, to make the process more accountable,” Romanoff answered, saying that the institution has been turned into a “political football” but has paid back more than $1 billion to taxpayers with a default rate under 1 percent.

“If you’re looking for a candidate who is going to always agree with the administration, you won’t find it in me, but, on this issue, happen to believe the business community and the administration are correct,” Romanoff said.

It was a hedge by Romanoff on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that drew the debate’s sharpest retort from Coffman.

Noting that the pipeline’s route is the subject of a court case, Romanoff said he’d wait until that was resolved before taking a position, and then added, “There are some folks who want to push this project through, no matter what. There are other folks who want to stop the project, no matter what. I take a different view.”

“I think Speaker Romanoff’s answer is what’s wrong with Washington D.C., and that is, they’re afraid to make a decision,” Coffman shot back. “Afraid to make a decision.”

Coffman’s campaign soon blasted out an attack based on the exchange, saying it “expose[d] Andrew Romanoff for what he is — super slick, super weak, and super out of touch with this working class district.” The email continued, “Romanoff hides, Coffman leads.”

But it was Coffman’s inability to bring to mind the phrase “birth control” that elicited howls and jeers from his opponents. Asked to discuss the differences between the candidates when it comes to women’s reproductive rights, Coffman grasped for words.

“I’m pro-life,” he said. “You know, I believe that — I am pro-life, and I’m proud of that, and I do not support personhood, but I support a woman’s access to, uh, to, certainly, certainly to — this Hobby Lobby decision, to, uh, to get” — a sympathetic audience member eventually shouted out the words he was looking for and a relieved-looking Coffman enunciated them before setting the microphone down — “birth control.”

“I don’t support the Hobby Lobby decision, and I don’t support and I’ve never supported personhood, and I believe a woman’s right to choose should be protected,” Romanoff said, adding, “I don’t want the government, and I don’t want an employer telling a woman how to make her own health care decision.”

Amid a flurry of swift attacks on Coffman’s rambling answer — some at the debate dubbed it a “Rick Perry ‘oops’ moment,” recalling when the Texas governor froze during a GOP presidential debate three years ago — the Romanoff campaign argued that it revealed much about the incumbent’s priorities.

“Congressman Coffman didn’t just flub an important question; he showed how little thought he believes it’s worth,” said a Romanoff campaign spokeswoman in an email to supporters. “Access to birth control and reproductive rights are fundamental concerns for thousands of women in the 6th Congressional District — but clearly not for Congressman Coffman. That might explain why he’s been voting to restrict birth control, defund Planned Parenthood, redefine rape, and deny our right to choose for the last 25 years.”

The candidates were scheduled to meet for five more debates before the election — including one on Friday morning sponsored by the Aurora Chamber of Commerce after press time. In what could be a first for major party candidates in Colorado, Coffman and Romanoff are set to conduct a half-hour Univision debate entirely in Spanish on Oct. 30.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com