[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE old joke — that the worst part of running for Congress is winning — doesn’t get the problem exactly right, not this year at least. As Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman likely would be happy to tell you, worse than winning and having to serve in Congress is running for reelection and having to explain what you have been doing as a member of the least-productive, most-hated Congress in history.
Most hated. In 1956, the 84th Congress passed more than 1,000 bills. This year, so far, the 113th Congress has passed something like a hundred. This Congress is less popular than lice, cockroaches, traffic jams, zombies, hipsters, Wall Street. Pollsters over the last four years have struggled to find anything Americans like less than they like Congress. We see Capitol Hill as a place where political positioning and partisan sniping have soared to new heights, where dedication to showboating and finger-pointing has left little time or energy for the work of governing.
Andrew Romanoff, former Speaker of the Colorado House and the man running to unseat Coffman this November, knows how we feel about Congress and leveraged those bad feelings in part to gain the edge in a pair of back-to-back debates last week sponsored by local chambers of commerce.
Coffman was first elected to represent Colorado’s Sixth District in 2008, when it was a Republican stronghold. But the Sixth was redrawn in 2011. Now it wraps around eastern Denver to include, in the south, mostly white conservative suburbs and, in the north, ethnically diverse working-class Aurora, the third-largest city in the state. It is one of the most competitive districts in the country, with nearly equal numbers of Democratic, Republican and unaffiliated voters.
The Romanoff strategy is to point to bipartisan accomplishments he made as a member and leader in the state legislature from 2000 to 2008 and to leave Coffman by contrast mostly to explain either how he has been thwarted by the ideological obstructionism of Obama-era tea party Washington or why he has joined in the ideological obstructionism of Obama-era tea party Washington.
On Friday in Aurora, the strategy seemed to work well.
Aurora is a city dotted with communities of recent immigrants and home to a Latino population that makes up 29 percent of residents, according to 2010 census figures. It is the heart of the district and also the site of the midnight theater shootings in 2012 that left 12 people dead and 58 wounded and spurred heated state legislative battles over gun policy.
Passion for action
Gun control and immigration policy reform are high-interest topics and sources of great frustration in Aurora. They’re the kind of topics that turn people out at 7 a.m. for a congressional candidate forum.
“Next comes a question that is very sensitive to our community, gun control,” said moderator Kevin Hougan, the president and CEO of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored Friday’s event. The question was submitted by members the local chapter of the national organization Everytown for Gun Safety, a group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Hougan asked the candidates if they would support the Manchin-Toomey national gun-purchase background check bill.
The bill, named after Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Pat Toomey ( R-Penn.), was drafted in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shootings in Newtown, Conn. It was popular with the public and, beyond avid gun-rights circles and outside the chambers of Congress, the bill is viewed as moderate. It aims to close background-check loopholes that mark gun-show and internet weapons sales and it includes exemptions for sales between family members and friends. It would also preclude the government from keeping a national database of all gun owners, a source of concern among libertarian gun-rights supporters, and it would have dedicated resources to researching the causes of gun violence. The bill died after an emotional vote on the Senate floor just four months after the Sandy Hook shootings. It fell six votes short, winning support from only four Republicans, including Toomey. Four Democrats from competitive rural districts joined with Republicans to vote against the bill.
“I know you suffered a lot from a the gun violence episode in that theater here in Aurora, Colorado,” said Coffman.
He agreed with the authors of the bill that the government should maintain a national database that flags criminals for state gun dealers to access. But he added that state legislatures should be able to establish their own standards for purchases and make their own determinations about who can and can not own firearms. “I would not support that bill,” he said.
He took about a minute to answer the question.
“I respectfully disagree with the Congressman on this issue,” said Romanoff. “I support the Manchin-Toomey background-check bill.”
He referred to arguments made by Coffman and others opposed to the proposal when it was introduced that “no law will prevent every tragedy.”
That may be true, said Romanoff, “but I can not imagine and I hope I never find out what it feels like to lose a loved one to gun violence… And it seems to me that ending the debate by saying no law will prevent every tragedy is not good enough.
“There are 30,000 gun deaths in America every year. Surely it’s possible to reduce that number. Surely we can make it a little harder for people with violent criminal backgrounds or mental illness to acquire firearms.”
Romanoff said that purchases and the guns themselves cross state lines so it “makes sense,” as he put it, that the federal government should establish national standards.
“We can’t spare every family the anguish people in Aurora suffered. But it would be even more irresponsible in my view to simply do nothing. And that’s what this Congress has chosen to do.”
Romanoff took double the time Coffman took to answer the question and delivered an answer meant to demonstrate a passion to take action. It was a response better tuned to sentiment in the room and it drew sustained applause.
“Hey, this is at least the first time Coffman answered the question,” said Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was killed in the Aurora theater shootings and who is now a member of the Everytown group.
“I’ve been to his office several times. I’ve talked to him at public events. He says he’s all for states rights on gun control, but look at Colorado: We passed a universal background-check law. But the surrounding states — Wyoming, Kansas, Arizona? They don’t have universal background-check laws. I’m looking for Washington to lead these states.”
Sullivan said background checks are supported by 80 percent of the U.S. population and he thinks the number is probably higher in the Sixth District.
“I have a buddy who loves old cars,” he said. “Cars from the sixties, they don’t even have seat belts. No one would buy a car without seat belts today. It took legislation, car companies fighting it every step of the way. You have to do something.
“We have a House version of the Senate bill now and we’re looking for sponsors,” he said. “This is an easy decision.”
Sullivan and others close to the negotiations for the candidate forum said the Coffman campaign lobbied hard to keep the gun-control question off the list of topics to discuss.
‘Reform is needed’
“This next question comes from our Chamber membership,” said Hougan, meaning from businesses, a natural constituency for a Republican incumbent. But the question started from a premise with which Coffman was going to struggle.
“Serious comprehensive immigration reform is needed. What does reform mean to you?” said Hougan.
Part of the context charging the question with heat is that last June a bipartisan “gang of eight” senators — John McCain (R-Ariz.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) — hammered out and delivered an historic bill that would overhaul U.S. immigration laws, clearing the way for millions of undocumented residents to earn citizenship, attract workers from countries around the world and dedicate unprecedented resources to border security. The bill passed the Senate with overwhelming support. The vote was 68 to 32.
But for more than a year, leaders in the Republican-controlled House have refused to take up the bill, fearing it might pass, which they believe would deal a blow to Republican candidates this year among hardline conservative voters opposed to any reform that smacks of “amnesty” for undocumented residents.
Frustrated supporters of the bill in the House in April planned to try and force a vote using a “discharge petition” signed by a majority of members demanding the bill be brought to the floor. The petition required 218 votes and right now needs only 27 more signatures to force a vote. Romanoff said he would sign the petition. Coffman said he would not.
Coffman on Friday said that, to him, reform meant “securing the border, developing economic policies that grow the economy and being compassionate about the need to keep families together.”
He sponsored the Military Enlistment Opportunity Act that would provide people brought to the country as children a path to citizenship through military enlistment. But the bill has been stalled by Republican leadership, Coffman explained.
He said he also supported President Obama’s proposal to expand visas for highly skilled people educated in U.S. universities. But the Senate blocked a bill on that, too.
“[Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid said ‘No, I’m not gonna bring it up in the Senate,'” Coffman said. “What we need is a step by step approach… I support immigration reform. We have got to get it done. Both sides share equal parts in the blame,” he said, shaking his head.
Romanoff took off running.
“This Chamber was correct to endorse the bipartisan plan passed by the Senate more than a year ago,” he began. “I join the chamber in the decision to support that bill.
“It’s frustrating for me to watch so many folks in Washington block reform. It has been more than a year… In that time, the House has refused to vote, refused to even debate the bill.
“It’s one thing to say you’re all in favor of reform, but when you oppose the Senate bill, when you opposed a House bill, when you call the DREAM Act a nightmare, when you don’t offer a comprehensive plan to solve this problem or even a series of steps, it’s tough to understand what ‘support’ means in that context.”
Romanoff said he was the son and grandson of immigrants, that the issue was personal to him, that his family had lived the American dream, making better lives with each generation by coming to the U.S. and working hard and going to school. He lamented the harsh tone taken toward immigrants in the debate over reform.
“I think we are stronger and richer, not just as a family, but as a nation, because we have welcomed so many people from so many different lands to contribute. We don’t say that often enough. I think when times are tough, we deny our heritage, and we lose a little bit of our humanity in the process. But in every sense — economically, culturally, intellectually, culturally — we are better off, and Aurora is better off… It’s one of the hallmarks of our pride as a city that there are people from 130 different countries who speak 120 different languages here. That ought to be a source of celebration. This district deserves a congressman committed to comprehensive immigration reform.”
The answer drew more sustained applause.
Coffman and Romanoff are scheduled to meet three more times to debate before the election.
*Note: This story originally reported that Tom Sullivan said he feared the question on gun control would go unasked at the debate in Aurora on Friday and that he was determined to shout out the question if that was the case, in order to force an answer. He said after publication that he never intended to disrupt the proceedings, that I misunderstood his comments. –JT
[ Image: U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman works the crowd in Aurora before the debate. ]