This bruising Dem primary to face Mike Coffman pits a Dem party pick against a rebel progressive

Levi Tillemann in his brother's backyard on June 6, left, and Jason Crow in his campaign office on June 7, 2018. Photos by John Herrick

As Democratic voters in the eastern suburbs of Denver cast their ballots ahead of next week’s primary, party leaders in Washington, D.C. have already selected who they want to win in the race to unseat Congressman Mike Coffman.

On paper, Democrat Jason Crow, a Denver attorney who is married with two kids and who served as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan, checks all the boxes as the man to take down battle-tested Coffman. Coffman, a five-term congressman, has successfully fended off Democratic challengers even as the district has turned from red to blue. The district, anchored by Aurora, voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

Crow, 39, is confident he can unseat Coffman. At Crow’s campaign office in southern Aurora, a handful of staffers are busy calling voters inside what they’ve dubbed the “Crow’s nest,” a separate phone banking office.

“It’s a busy time,” said Crow, wearing jeans and a tucked-in dress shirt on a Thursday afternoon. “To beat Mike Coffman, we’ve got to get out in front of the voters.”

Crow would be the fourth Democrat to try to unseat Coffman since redistricting gave Democrats an advantage in the east Denver metro district. This year, the seat is considered key to the Democratic Party’s efforts to take back control of the House of Representatives. The district has about 8,000 more registered Democratic voters than Republican, a 1.7 percent margin. Last November, the traditionally GOP Aurora City Council elected three Democrats. With talk of a blue wave, Democrats say this may be the year to claim this House seat.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which includes high-ranking House Democrats, wanted a headstart in the race to beat Coffman and, to much controversy, gave Crow their support as a “red to blue” candidate, one of about 50 candidates that the DCCC arms with organizational and fundraising support. This support came with a $1,000 campaign donation in December.

Crow has shown himself to be a strong fundraiser, raising more than $1.5 million so far, a bonus for Democrats looking to build a well-funded ground campaign in November. Forty-six different PACs backing Crow have donated about $289,000 to his campaign. Top donors include VoteVets, a veterans PAC, and Serve America Victory Fund, a veterans advocacy fundraising committee.

The party’s blessing and money have all but overshadowed Crow’s primary opponent, Levi Tillemann, a candidate willing to have his brother spray him in the face with mace to prove a point in a campaign video. The video earned him the attention of several national news outlets and was shared widely on social media.

Tillemann, 36, single with no kids, is from Aurora. His grandmother is Nancy Dick, who served as Colorado’s first female lieutenant governor, and his grandfather is Tom Lantos, a Hungarian-American Holocaust survivor who went on to serve in Congress. He’s an author, tech entrepreneur and served as special advisor to the Office of Policy and International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy under the Obama administration.

Tilleman gained national attention after The Intercept in April published an audio recording of Congressman Steny Hoyer telling him to drop out of the race. Tillemann and many of his supporters — as well as some of Crow’s supporters —  don’t think it’s fair for party bigwigs to put their thumbs on the scale.

“For the Democratic Party to seek a preordained outcome in a primary election, on the basis of money, that is oligarchy. Pure and simple,” Tillemann says.

The party’s decision to openly back Crow is a hard-nosed political calculation. Winning Coffman’s seat moves the party one step closer to flipping the 24 seats needed to take back the House.

“For people who live here it does suck to know that these decisions are being made before we vote,” said Kristin Mallory Westerberg, a party volunteer with the Arapahoe Young Dems. But, she added, “At the end of the day, we have to have a candidate that can go up against Mike Coffman.”

Jason Crow in the “Crow’s nest,” a phone banking room at his campaign headquarters in south Aurora, on June 7, 2018. Photo by John Herrick.


‘It was good proof of concept’

Coffman’s district stretches from Thornton, through Aurora, and down to Highlands Ranch like a backward C. Here about one in five residents are Latino. Over 160 different languages are spoken at Aurora Public Schools. You’ll find Ethiopian, Korean, Mexican restaurants throughout the area.

But within view of many of the squat brick apartments home to many immigrants and refugees are new high rises towering above the city. These new buildings, residents say, are evidence of a booming economy that is making it more costly to live here.

“It’s getting ridiculous to be able to rent a place in Aurora. And the living conditions we have are deplorable,” said Martha Lugo who’s working on a doctorate degree in psychology and running for Aurora City Council. “My own son had to move back in with me in 2015.”

Crow lives in the mostly white community of Stapleton, a neighborhood that straddles Denver and Aurora. He said he wants to extend the Homestead Tax Credit, a tax benefit of low-to-moderate income renters and homeowners. He also wants to see more affordable housing built by expanding the Low-income Housing Tax Credit program.

Tilleman, who speaks Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese, lives in Aurora but grew up in north Denver not far from Lakeside Amusement Park. He said he will push for a $15-per-hour minimum wage, free Medicare for all, and free college tuition for low-to-middle-income Americans. These policies, he said, will help people afford a place to live.

On other policy questions, Tillemann and Crow take similar positions. Tilleman wants a moratorium on any new fossil fuel projects, including fracking operations, and to ban fracking on federal lands. Crow, too, wants to ban fracking on federal lands and give more regulatory say to local communities over setbacks and other regulations. Tillemann wants to impeach President Trump, while Crow wants to wait for the Mueller investigation to be finalized before making that decision. On gun reform, both candidates support banning assault rifles, closing the gun show loophole for background checks, and preventing people on the no-fly list from purchasing firearms.

Crow supports a high-capacity magazine ban implemented nationally. He also supports a ban on bump stocks, which are devices that allow guns to be modified to fire faster.

Tillemann also wants to restrict the sale of high-capacity magazines. He is proposing to put pepper spray in glass containers in school classrooms as a way to defend against armed perpetrators. He tested the idea out for a campaign commercial where his brother, Corban, sprayed him in the face with mace. “It was good proof of concept,” Tillemann said afterward, shivering on his brother’s couch and temporarily blind after washing capsaicin out of his eyes for about 40 minutes with soapy water and milk. He said he was immobilized.


‘…things are different under Donald Trump’

Whoever wins will have to appeal to a politically diverse electorate that historically has been supportive of Coffman. In 2010, redistricting turned this Republican stronghold into a swing seat. In 2012, Joe Miklosi, a former state representative from Denver, was the first candidate to challenge Coffman since redistricting took effect. He lost by less than two percentage points. In 2014, Andrew Romanoff, former Speaker of the Colorado House, lost by 8.7 percent. In 2016, former Senate President and current Colorado Democratic Party chair Morgan Carroll of Aurora challenged Coffman. She, too, lost, trailing by 8 percentage points.

Immigration is likely to be a key issue come November. Organizing for Action, a political organization with ties to former President Barack Obama, told CNN it plans to use Coffman’s immigration record as part of its effort to flip battleground districts blue this year.

Crow has already called Coffman out for his temporary support of a conservative immigration bill authored by Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte. The bill did not include a path to citizenship, something that Coffman, who speaks Spanish and has a Spanish Twitter account, has said must be included in any immigration reform package. On Thursday, Coffman backtracked on his support, becoming the only Republican in Colorado’s delegation to break party ranks and vote against the bill. Coffman also tweeted that Trump should fire his senior advisor Stephen Miller and called the administration’s policy of separating illegal border crossers from their parents a “human rights mess.” He said on Twitter he plans to visit the border in Texas this weekend.   

Coffman gets credit, even from Tillemann, for spending time meeting face-to-face with constituents.

Millete Birhanemaskel, an Ethiopinan who opened the Whittier Café in North Denver, says Coffman “has done a really good job showing up. We take it seriously.”

But Birhanemaskel says she thinks Coffman’s involvement in a resolution condemning the Ethiopian government for human rights abuses upset many in the community. She said the group of Ethiopians who asked for the resolution is not representative of the community as a whole.

“That’s really what’s getting people to vote,” said Birhanemaskel, who’s backing Crow.

What sets this year apart from prior election years is that Trump is now in office. And Democrats expect their voters to vote in large numbers against Republicans over discontent with the Trump administration. This is an issue for Coffman, Democrats say, who according to FiveThirtyEight, has voted in line with Trump 95 percent of the time. 

“I think things are different under Donald Trump,” said Rebecca McClellan, a Democrat who won this district in 2016 in her bid for the State Board of Education. “I think voters are ready for a bit more balance coming out of Washington, D.C.”

Levi Tillemann in the backyard of his brother’s house in Aurora where he was shooting a campaign commercial on June 6, 2018. Photo by John Herrick


‘… up against a machine’

In April, Crow and Tillemann sat side-by-side at a town hall-style panel at the ThunderRidge High School in Highlands Ranch. They took questions from the students mostly on gun reform and school safety. But after one question, Tillemann took the microphone to talk about campaign finance. He asked two kids from the audience to help him out.

“Let me show you how these PACs work,” he said. He gave a bill to one student, who passed it to another and then back to Tillemann. He said this is how money from Goldman Sachs, a Wall Street bank synonymous with corporate power, is funneled through a non-corporate PAC and then to a candidate for office. “That’s exactly what’s happening in this election,” he said. “Jason Crow, you’re taking a lot of corporate money.”

Tillemann, who is not taking any money from PACs, points out that PACs donating directly to Crow’s campaign — including the Jobs, Opportunities and Education PAC, or Joe PAC, and AmeriPAC — have taken money from Goldman Sachs and other corporations before donating to Crow. That, Tillemann says, belies Crow’s pledge to refuse corporate PAC money directly.

Tillemann used the scene from the town hall in one of his attack ads against Crow.  

“He’s angered by dishonesty. And I appreciate that,” said Lugo, a Tillemann supporter.

Crow, who has made a clean campaign pledge, called the stunt at the town hall event a misleading political attack. And, indeed, it cost Tillemann at least one supporter who said he doesn’t wanted to see negative campaigning dividing the party in a year when control of the House is at stake.

“That was the breaking point for me,” said Tay Anderson, the 19-year-old president of Never Again — Colorado, a gun reform group. He added, “I can’t wait for Tuesday. I’m tired of this divisiveness dividing us apart. This was the same thing that got us Trump.”

Crow says he’s proud of the PACs that support him. He says he agrees with many of them, citing the Giffords PAC, a gun control advocacy PAC founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who was shot but survived, and End Citizens United, a campaign finance reform PAC.

“Those organizations believe in the things that I do,” Crow said, adding that he has no problem with the DCCC giving him its support.

In part by taking donations from PACs, Crow has been able to outraise his primary opponent five-to-one. Tillemann, whose money is coming from individual donors, has raised $320,565 compared to Crow’s $1,629,357, according to the Federal Election Commission.

The money advantage matters because Coffman has raised nearly $2 million so far this election cycle and has no primary challenger.

“We’re up against a machine,” said Mallory Westerberg, who is now supporting Crow. “Jason is raising the money and I think that’s ultimately good for us in November.”

Democrats don’t want to see a negative campaign that gives Coffman a playbook ahead of the November election. Arapahoe Democratic Party chair Mary Ellen Wolf, who has not picked sides in the race, said she’s disappointed with the tone the primary has taken.

But, she added, it’s just part of the process.

“The primary system is part of our democracy and a lot of it is good for us,” she said. “We know a lot more about them as we lead up to the general. They’ve been tested.”

Correction: a previous version of this story said Andrew Romanoff was the first candidate to challenge Mike Coffman since redistricting. In 2012, Joe Miklosi was the first.




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