DENVER — The two men vying to represent Colorado’s diverse Sixth Congressional District in Aurora, where Latino voters make up 20 percent of the electorate, have been called the nation’s “hardest-working House candidates.” U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff debated Thursday night on Univision in Spanish, a first in the state and the nation.
“This is historic,” said Rocio Saenz of Mi Familia Vota, a national organization that focuses on registering and mobilizing Latino voters. “It shows the importance of the Latino community, the Latino vote and the Latino voice, which we will know will be decisive here in Colorado.”
Romanoff speaks Spanish fluently, and his campaign points out that the candidate gives weekly radio interviews in the language in addition to appearing regularly on Spanish-language television. Coffman did not speak Spanish when the district was redrawn in 2010, but the National Journal reports that he has since made learning the language a top priority, taking daily lessons.
At the lecterns, the candidates’ first-language stylings carried over into Spanish. Romanoff spoke as if off the cuff, quick and confident with the occasional barb. Coffman, who typically debates at a slower pace, was all the more deliberate for speaking closely from notes in a new language.
Both candidates had demons to exorcise on this Halloween-eve debate before the district’s Latino community.
Romanoff hit Coffman for voting multiple times against comprehensive immigration reform and deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA), emphasizing that Coffman once referred to the DREAM Act as a “nightmare” and called anti-immigration crusader Tom Tancredo his hero.
“If we don’t change the representation in this district, we won’t see any change at all (on immigration reform),” said Romanoff.
Coffman defended himself, saying he didn’t support President Barack Obama’s executive actions with regard to DACA because they lacked the permanence of a full law. A veteran, Coffman also touted his sponsorship of the Enlist Act, which would offer a path to citizenship for undocumented youth who serve in the military.
Coffman wasn’t the only one with a few immigration skeletons in his closet. As speaker of the state House in 2006, Romanoff backed a series of measures passed during a special legislative session called by Republican Gov. Bill Owens. The law that passed required adults to provide proof of citizenship before receiving any state services, with some exceptions for public health and safety. Romanoff later received a lot of heat for the bills from Latino leaders who said he’d thrown them under the bus.
“That was a mistake,” Romanoff said when asked about the 2006 legislation. He then moved to make that mistake into Coffman’s, arguing that the legislation came about to avoid harsher measures that would have prevented undocumented children from receiving social services, which Coffman backed.
One tough question asked Coffman if he has rethought his opposition to all-bilingual Spanish-English ballots since trying to learn a new language, pointing out that he once suggested voters “get a dictionary” if they had trouble understanding their ballot.
Coffman hedged, saying he thought bilingual ballots should be sent only to those who need them, as a way to save money. He then asserted that he believed all voters deserve understandable access to information about candidates.
“That’s why I’m here speaking to you in Spanish, or trying to speak in Spanish,” Coffman said to scattered chuckles.
The debate also touched on issues familiar from previous debates between Romanoff and Coffman — among them the Affordable Care Act, fracking and education.
“Education is a theme that impacts me in a very personal way,” said Gina Millan, who has a 14-year-old daughter and is a community organizer at the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights. “I want my daughter to graduate from college and have a successful career. To me, it’s as important, or more important than immigration.”
When asked about financial aid for undocumented students, Coffman pivoted, saying the cost of a college education overall needs to be lower.
“His words now sound very good, but his actions in Washington speak louder,” Romanoff shot back. “Coffman voted to cut financial aid and double interest for student loans.”
One issue was notably absent from the debate, however.
“They said absolutely nothing about women’s health and reproductive rights,” said Millan. “What about comprehensive sexual education? Our kids need need a comprehensive sex ed to have a successful life.”
Both candidates made their closing arguments on that very topic — the opportunity for a successful life, that is.
“I am the son and grandson of immigrants,” said Romanoff. “I would not be here now if this country had not opened doors to my family.”
Romanoff then leveraged his fluency with the language, transitioning into the collective “we,” as in we (immigrants) make important contributions and we need a congressman who won’t vote against our priorities.
Not to be outdone in shared experience, Coffman spoke of growing up working-class in Aurora, earning his high school diploma while enlisted in the military and working long hours at his small business in an effort to achieve that sueño americano. He promised to work hard to ensure that everyone who grows up in the district has access to the same opportunities he did.
“I really believe both candidates have the necessary experience and understanding to work in a way that would be good for the Latino community,” said Millan. “It’s really about whether they have the desire to.”
With just five days before the end of an election largely conducted by mail, political analyst Eric Sondermann said it’s unlikely that any single debate, even one in Spanish, could swing the election.
“The importance of this debate is more symbolic than actual,” he said. “It’s the first political debate in Colorado conducted entirely in Spanish and it will not be the last.”
[Photo by Tessa Cheek]