AURORA — The last time Mike Coffman faced angry constituents, he ducked out a back door early. This time, during a much-anticipated town hall event Wednesday evening, he stayed late, saying “Let’s do some more.”
But even in overtime the scene in an auditorium on the Anschutz Medical Campus was decidedly unfriendly to the slippery six-term Republican who is home on break after a session in Congress which saw him throw his support behind President Donald Trump’s Obamacare repeal bill— a proposal that went down in flames and was pulled even before a vote.
Coffman’s backing of both Trump and his doomed healthcare bill dominated the congressman’s two-hour showdown with more than 500 constituents. Many of them loudly aired their frustration at non-answers, booing or demanding he give a direct reply. He took in a barrage of questions that lasted an extra 45 minutes after the event’s scheduled end time of 7 p.m.
The sharpest barbs came about Coffman’s allegiance to the new president. What about his tax returns? What about anti-semitic people who surround him? Why does Coffman vote with Trump’s agenda so often when he represents a district that re-elected him handily but went for Hillary Clinton in November?
Dressed in black slacks and a blue button-up rolled at the elbows, Coffman did what he does best: sidestepped the tough ones or offered vague replies, staying away from hardline stances or strong ideological rhetoric.
First one and then another constituent rose to register shock that their congressman would support the ill-fated American Health Care Act as the room boomed with roars and applause.
Coffman’s bobbing and weaving about his relationship status with Trump’s legislative agenda, however, became too much during one particularly raucous round of angry boos and shouts for him to answer.
Giving in, Coffman said, “When I disagree with the president I will speak out,” adding, “Those of you who are on the extreme left will never be satisfied until Trump is [out of office].”
For nearly two hours, the trim former Marine paced the stage, sometimes looking as though he were enjoying a testy exchange and sometimes looking exasperated. At one point, when asked if he would vote with his constituents or with Republicans in Congress, he pointed to his string of successful elections even in a district that favors Democrats. Attendees rattled off a rapid-fire series of questions about his stance on issues that ranged from background checks, to climate change, health care, LGBTQ issues, Trump’s budget, and the president’s proximity to Russia.
Coffman’s answers: Background checks are a state issue, “all the work” at the EPA should be peer reviewed, he’s against a single-payer health care system but would protect people with pre-existing conditions, he’ll break with other Republicans on LGBTQ issues, Trump’s budget might cut too much, and he’s not ready to call for an independent counsel to investigate Trump’s Russian connections. He said he disagreed with Trump that Obamacare should “implode.”
“When something is currently done in state law, I don’t want to take it to the federal level,” he said at one point. “I think the federal government does too much.”
Asked if he was a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, he said no, he is a member of the moderate Tuesday Group and centrist No Labels. He said he doesn’t support “all the cuts” in Trump’s budget, but believes some are warranted.
The loudest applause came in response to questions about Trump’s taxes and whether Coffman would support an investigation into whether Trump is personally receiving money from a foreign power as president.
Coffman’s answers: He would support a law that presidents have to release their tax returns, and, “I think if he is not honest about his disclosure,” then the Emoluments Clause could be an issue.
Always a cautious politician— Coffman has been holding town hall events by telephone up until now— he didn’t make much news Wednesday. Perhaps the closest he came was saying he believes White House spokesman Sean Spicer, embroiled in recent controversy over his comments about the Holocaust, should resign.
Coffman does not usually hold in-person town hall events, instead choosing to do one-on-one constituent meetings in public places in his district when he’s home. In January, after he said he would help scrap Obamacare, a throng of angry constituents confronted him at one of his public events at the Aurora Central Library. With members of the public calling for him to address them as if it were a town hall, Coffman ducked out a back door a few minutes early.
On Wednesday, his first in-person town hall since Trump took office came with plenty of rules.
Attendees had to order tickets and their questions were chosen by a lottery. They could not carry signs larger than a piece of paper. They had to show IDs and were given wristbands. Members of the media had to apply for press credentials. Since Trump’s election, Republican lawmakers around the country have been wary of rowdy town halls that make for viral videos of frustrated constituents shouting them down.
During the event in Aurora, many attendees held small signs with a green or red backing and a drawing of a thumbs up or thumbs down. They booed often and loudly, but Coffman also got respectful applause from time to time.
Coffman represents a suburban Denver district that changed during the latest round of redistricting to become more Democratic. During November’s campaign he became the first Republican member of Congress to run ads against Trump, saying he would “stand up” to him if Trump was elected president. Though the district went for Hillary Clinton, Coffman beat his rival, now-state Democratic Party Chairwoman Morgan Carroll, by about 10 points, clearly earning crossover support.
David Lynch, a Democrat in Coffman’s district, was one of those voters who backed him and showed up at the town hall Wednesday. He told Coffman he voted for him because he thought he would be a leader in Congress.
But, “I’m not seeing much,” Lynch told him, and asked Coffman what he might do to impress him. Coffman pointed to his work with the moderate group No Labels, he promised “something on infrastructure,” and said he would likely break with most congressional Republicans on immigration and LGBTQ issues.
Coffman’s first in-person town hall will hopefully have a personal impact on Daniel and Jessica Fusch, who have been trying to meet with their congressman for months about Medicaid, they said.
Jessica Fusch, who got a question in during the the town hall, earned a public commitment from Coffman that he would meet with her family about their concerns with the federal health care program that affects their young daughter.
“We got a number for one of his staffers so we are at least moderately hopeful that when we call that number or email that email address that they will get back to us,” Daniel Fusch said.
Outside the event, retirees Phil and Kate Laxar from Centennial left thinking it was great their congressman finally met with those he represents in person, but were underwhelmed by his answers, particularly his dodges about his support for Trump’s agenda.
A Republican, Phil has voted for him in caucuses and primaries and against him in general elections.
“From a political perspective I think he’s done a good job of shifting toward the center right, he used to be far right when he was representing Douglas County, and conservative. He was far right and his constituency was far right at the time,” Phil Laxar said. “He has changed with the district and I think from a political perspective he’s done a masterful job at that … he’s a great politician. Not a great representative, but a great politician.”