DENVER — Former state Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff played to win in Tuesday night’s 6th District Denver Post debate. Congressman Mike Coffman played to not lose.
It was a notable shift from previous face-offs in the neck-and-neck race. Coffman came out agressive in the two debates held last month. Opinions about what the shift signaled split along predictable lines.
Coffman camp: Our man is confident in his lead. Their man is desperate.
Romanoff camp: Our man knows their man is weak. Their man came off as mean spirited and off balance in previous outings and clearly has been instructed not to engage.
In round after round, Romanoff threw the punches. He battered away at Coffman’s record and his status as a member of the majority party in the obstructionist House of Representatives — the lower angry chamber of the least productive, most loathed Congress in U.S. history.
Making the Problem Worse
On growing student loan debt, Romanoff said Coffman with fellow Republicans in the House voted “to cut financial aid, to cut work-study programs and to add to the burden of student loans by forcing them to pay back their loans while they’re still in college.
“That makes the problem worse… We ought to be recognizing that access to education is the key to reaching the middle class.”
Coffman said he voted against the programs because he believes more loans should be available for trade schools, not just universities and colleges.
“It should be equal across the board. We need more skills-based training.”
On how to balance the budget, Romanoff said making programs more efficient and cutting waste should take priority. Lawmakers also must be judicious in deciding which programs to cut. He said we should give the government the power to negotiate the prices of prescription drugs, so programs like Medicare aren’t forced to pay unfair rates.
“This is another step the Congressman opposes,” Romanoff said. “There’s a lot of room to cut down on fraud in the Medicare system, but what we shouldn’t do is what the Congressman did and vote to dismantle Medicare as we know it. That’s not my assessment. That’s what the Wall Street Journal said [Coffman’s] vote would do.”
Coffman never addressed Medicare. He is an ex-Marine and served in Iraq and has focused his career in Congress on military matters. He said he has been a strong advocate for cuts to the Pentagon budget and touted a plan to shift greater percentage of soldiers into the reserves.
A Ponzi Scheme
On what “entitlement programs” might be reformed or cut, Coffman said he voted to reform food stamps to require work training and education and called for better oversight that targets social security disability fraud. He said wealthier Americans should pay greater proportions of their Medicare coverage.
Romanoff defended social security.
“I don’t consider it, as Congressman Coffman has called it, a Ponzi scheme. I certainly would not vote, as he has done, to privatize it. We must recognize that social security has done more than perhaps any program to save seniors from poverty…
“I’ve met seniors throughout this district who would be in much worse shape had the program cuts Congressman Coffman supported passed. I’m glad they didn’t pass. We need a Congressman in this district who understands what Medicare and Social Security have done for America and one who is committed to strengthening those programs not dismantling them.
“You reduce costs,” said Romanoff. “You don’t privatize social security and stick seniors with more out-of-pocket costs.”
Shipping Jobs Overseas
On tax reform, Romanoff said the place to start is eliminating tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.
“In one of our debates last month, the Congressman said he was unaware that he had voted for those tax breaks,” Romanoff said. “So at the next debate, we provided a list for him and we’re happy to provide one for anyone here of those votes.”
“Do you want to respond to that?” asked Denver Post Editor Chuck Plunkett.
“Uh, no,” said Coffman.
The crowd laughed.
The moderators then asked about Buckley Air Force Base, the largest employer in the district, which was redrawn in 2011 and includes white suburbs south of Denver and working class, ethnically diverse Aurora east of Denver. Buckley is located in Aurora, now the heart of the district, and the base faces the possibility it might be shuttered as part of Defense Department downsizing.
Both men said they would do everything in their power to keep Buckley open.
“It generates a billion dollars worth of economic activity,” Romanoff said. “Although, I’ll tell ya, that number has declined in the wake of decisions by Congress to sequester and furlough and even to shut down the government itself.
“I’m disappointed by the vote Congressman Coffman took nearly a year ago to shut down the federal government and take a $24 million bite out of our economy. That hurt folks in Aurora and throughout the 6th Congressional District.”
Coffman said some military bases would close and that they should, but that he would work to make sure Buckley continued to provide vital services and so not land on any closure lists.
“I do have a response,” said Romanoff, when the moderators asked. “But you’ll notice the Congressman didn’t have one when it comes to defending his vote to shut down the government, because that vote was indefensible.”
It went on like that. Romanoff didn’t let up, eventually hitting Coffman hard for shifting tone on immigration for appearances but never really taking the leap and voting in support of legislation that could pass into law. He mentioned the Senate bill hammered out in June 2013 by the bipartisan so-called “gang of eight” that would overhaul U.S. immigration laws, clearing the way for millions of undocumented residents to earn citizenship and dedicating unprecedented resources to border security. The bill passed the Senate with overwhelming support.
Romanoff pointed out that Coffman also joined a party-line vote to lift the President’s executive order to end deportations of so-called Dreamers — young undocumented people who have been raised in the United States.
Coffman didn’t take the bait.
Your Privileged Life
The debate took place at The Post building in downtown Denver and it was generally a Romanoff crowd. The site in liberal Denver and the news cycle brimming this week with reports of climate change protests combined to give some of Coffman’s views added shock value.
In the rapid-fire “yes or no” portion of the debate, Coffman’s answers came fast and hung in the air, eliciting groans.
“Should Colorado recognize same-sex marriage?”
“Do you support Colorado’s ban on same-sex marriage?”
“Do you believe humans are contributing significantly to climate change?”
“Do you think we can reverse climate change?”
“Don’t know… Um, no.”
Romanoff answered the opposite way on all those question and declined to take time to elaborate. Coffman used his time.
“I believe marriage is between a man and a woman but it’s ultimately going to be up to the voters of Colorado to change their decision. I will respect as a member of Congress whatever decision that they make and represent that view in the Congress.
“And on the climate change issue, I just think that the science is not quite settled. Do humans have impact? Yes. Do I know how much of an impact it has? I don’t know. But we have to do everything possible to bring down carbon. But sometimes I worry that if we go too far, what happens is we push manufacturing jobs overseas to a country like China that has no environmental rules… so I think there has to be a balance.”
Romanoff wore a disappointed expression.
“We’re never going to take the action we need to address climate change if we refuse to recognize there’s a problem,” he said. “Congressman Coffman made it clear tonight, he does not recognize this problem despite the overwhelming scientific consensus about the origins of climate change.”
Near the end of the debate, Coffman finally went on the offensive. It came time for the candidates to direct questions to each other and Coffman fell back on a campaign theme that skirts on the edges of resentment, especially in these debates, where Romanoff seems more at ease speaking his mind, drawing on a storehouse of policy facts and figures and elaborating on the issues of the day.
“In debates you’ve often pointed out that you’ve had a privileged life, god bless you, went to private prep schools and on from there,” Coffman said, looking directly at Romanoff.
Coffman mentioned Romanoff’s “privilege” and his own “working class background in Aurora, Colorado,” a few times in the debate. It was always meant as a dig.
The “privilege” attacks may have undermined Coffman’s effort to play it cool in this debate. They play into Romanoff’s narrative of the campaign — one in which he stresses that voters are turned off by the politics of personal attacks that dominates Capitol Hill and cable news. It’s the kind of politics that Romanoff says has lead to gridlock and the vindictive partisanship that ends in redundant symbolic exercises, like the 54 times House Republicans, including Coffman, voted hopelessly to repeal Obamacare, while never bringing an immigration bill to the floor, even for debate.
“You suggested I talk about my privileged background,” Romanoff told Coffman. “It’s actually you, Congressman, who has spent the bulk of this campaign talking about very little else — my school, my education, my family.”
[ Photos by the Colorado Independent. ]