Cantor loss spotlights sticky immigration politics shaping Coffman-Romanoff race

Hours after the bombshell defeat last Tuesday of U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, politics observers across the country pronounced immigration policy reform dead — or more dead than ever. Now, even sympathetic Republican members of Congress presumably would run from any stance that even hinted at the kind of compromise Cantor was reputed to have made on the issue and for which he was pilloried in the primary contest that ended his political career.

In Colorado, that’s a problem for Congressman Mike Coffman.

The Sixth District Republican has been working over the last two years to convince voters he supports reform and that he can help spur movement on the issue in Washington. He has written op-eds for local papers, visited an Ethiopian church in Aurora and leavened his Facebook page with photos of meetings he has held with local Latino, Asian and African community leaders.

But Coffman has a lot of ground to make up.

The longtime state politician won his seat in Washington after anti-immigration-reform firebrand Tom Tancredo retired in 2008. Coffman held the same hardline positions Tancredo had championed in the conservative district over the course of his five terms in Congress. But in 2011, the district was redrawn, and Coffman suddenly found himself an incumbent representative of the most politically and ethnically diverse population in the state. His constituency is nearly evenly divided among Independents, Republicans and Democrats, including large blocs of new-immigrant voters.

Over the last five years, as immigration reform has stalled on the Hill, immigration-reform pressure has built in the Sixth District. Coffman is now running in a tight race against Democrat Andrew Romanoff, a popular former state lawmaker who in 2005 became the youngest speaker of the House in state history.

Immigration reform is the issue at the heart of the contest.

The two men already have traded Internet advertising campaigns blasting each other as hypocritical, untrustworthy agents of reform. It’s a charge that may be particularly damning for congressional candidates this year, according to recent Republican Party polling being cited by pro-reform groups like America’s Voice. The main GOP survey being cited was completed by at the beginning of June. The pollsters reported high support among all the main voting blocs for reform that included a pathway to citizenship when the lawmaker’s position is well articulated and held to, no matter the setting.

Indeed, as several analysts have pointed out, the poll results showing voters most prized integrity on the issue were bolstered by the defeat of Cantor and the victory the same night of Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, who openly embraced reform and never strayed from his position.

Cantor didn’t lose because he supported immigration reform, wrote America’s Voice, but because he “proved to be a hypocrite on the issue,” saying one thing in Washington and another to his conservative constituents in Virginia. The group quotes a post-election autopsy that appeared in Cantor’s hometown Times Dispatch: “The perception [among voters] was that Cantor seemed more interested in positioning for the next phase of the nonstop news cycle than embracing a distinct agenda.”

The shepherd of the special session

The charges against Romanoff stem from a set of anti-immigration laws he shepherded through as speaker of the House during a special session of the legislature called by Republican Gov. Bill Owens in 2006. The laws mirrored federal statutes barring undocumented immigrants from receiving state services. Romanoff worked with a main Latino group opposed to rival hardline anti-immigrant measures on the table at the time, yet he endured withering criticism in the aftermath of the session leveled by immigrant-rights groups — criticism the Coffman campaign has been happily mining for its ads.

Romanoff explains that he was acting then to head off the more draconian measures supported by the governor and being prepared to run at the ballot box. Romanoff has been working to mend fences and shore up credibility on the issue as part of this year’s congressional campaign.

He is a strong advocate of the Dream Act, a popular bill stalled in Congress that would grant a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students who were brought to the country as children, speeding the best and brightest of them to college or the military. Earlier this month, Romanoff, who speaks Spanish, hosted a round-table discussion with potential “Dreamers” in the district and with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who has been a major figure on the Hill pushing for reform. Romanoff told the Independent that the meeting made him doubly frustrated with the gridlocked Congress.

“It was extremely moving. We went around the table and asked what it would mean to each of them to pass the bill,” he said.

“One young man said his little sister comes home each day with a new grand life plan. She wants to be an architect or archeologist. But he told us his parents look away when she talks about her plans. He said he wants reform for his sister. You could hear a pin drop in the room.”

Romanoff said Hoyer vowed to get the bill passed so the girl could go to school.

“But she’s five years old,” Romanoff added. “It shouldn’t take thirteen years to get reforms passed that the vast majority of voters want passed now. If there were a bill on the floor today, it would pass.”

The baggage handler

The charges of hypocrisy against Coffman may be more difficult for him to overcome. They’re tied to a long history of hardline stances and to votes he cast in the present session of Congress.

If Cantor was charged with saying one thing about immigration reform in Washington and another in Virginia, it’s the same but in reverse for Coffman: He seems to be more in favor of immigration reform when talking to voters in Colorado than he does when voting on Capitol Hill.

Like Fourth District Congressman Cory Gardner, another Colorado Republican suddenly wooing a much more diverse constituency as he runs statewide for the U.S. Senate, Coffman has told constituents he supports comprehensive reform, that he is working toward compromise on the issue. He underlines his recent sponsorship with Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez of the Enlist Act, which would give Dreamers who enroll in the military a path to citizenship.

But Coffman’s Republican colleagues opposed that bill, as expected, and when the most hardline members of his caucus have introduced their own anti-reform legislation, Coffman has voted to support it, casting a vote last summer against the Dream Act and one this summer in support of an effort to halt President Obama’s Deferred Action program, which has prevented the deportation of thousands of would-be Dreamers.

The kids with dreams

After Cantor’s defeat, the vast majority of voters around the country who support immigration reform are being told what they have long come to suspect — that Republicans will only pay lip service to the issue until the heat around it draws down among the party’s activist base or until a significant number of prominent figures in the party adopt more open and consistent stands in favor of policy change.

Coffman may already have lost his chance to play that role; Romanoff may make an attractive alternative.

Democrats in Congress are nearly united in support of reform. But as long as the House remains in Republican control, which by almost all guesses looks to be the case for years to come, the trick will be to bring over enough Republicans to the side of reform. On that score, Romanoff is eager to tout his background in the statehouse, the same background his critics on the left have complained about for years — his Clinton-style “third way” compromise approach to lawmaking.

Romanoff points out that many of the accomplishments he made in the legislature came about because he could work with Republicans.

“We passed Referendum C,” he said, referring to the 2005 ballot measure that suspended tax refunds for five years to boost spending on health care, public education, transportation projects and fire- and police-force pensions. “Many people initially opposed it, but Republican governor Bill Owens got on board, a parade of business leaders, college presidents, student leaders, healthcare workers. A thousand organizations across Colorado — there’s no short cut for that. It takes persistence.”

Romanoff said he would lean on the public to help create movement in gummed up congressional debate.

“You get the people who this affects in front of lawmakers. There are 800,000 young people in the country right now subject to deportation. If you’re in Congress and some of them were allowed to come and testify, the debate would be over. If constituents let you know — if they meet you and talk to you and say ‘I live in your district and I vote’ — well, if you take your job seriously at all, that gets your attention.”

The Immigration Policy Center estimates there are more than a 1,200 eligible Dreamers living in the Sixth District.

“Each one of those young people have a name and a story and a dream,” said Romanoff. “If you look them in the face, you can’t go back to Washington and do nothing.”

*Note: The section of this story on the 2006 special legislative session in Colorado has been updated to provide more context.


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