AURORA, Colo. — To understand how much Rep. Mike Coffman and his congressional district have changed in the last two years, just spend a few minutes with him on one of his weekend visits to Mi Pueblo Latin Market.
Coffman, R-Aurora, won the 6th district seat long held by anti-immigration firebrand Tom Tancredo back in 2008 only to see Democrats re-draw the boundaries in 2011 turning what had been a GOP stronghold into a competitive district where a Democrat could win.
Now that his district has changed, so is Coffman in an effort to survive what’s arguably the most competitive congressional race in the country.
He’s here on a Saturday in late August to work the lunchtime crowd, asking them what issues matter to them — in Spanish.
“Soy congresista,” he says — “I’m a congressman” — to a table of El Salvadoran immigrants eating bowls of steamy soup and handing the diners his business cards.
His Spanish coach hovers over his shoulder, ready to help translate should he fail to come up with the right words.
“It’s a little rough, but it will get better,” Coffman says of his Spanish. “I think it’s very important to be able to speak directly to the Hispanic community in their own language.”
When he first came to Mi Pueblo, the people gathered in the dining area near the front of the store scattered.
“There was an element of distrust because I was from the federal government,” Coffman says. “Why was I here? They were surprised that I was a congressman who wanted to talk to them.”
That fear — and the Hispanic community’s broad frustration with Congress’s failure to take action on comprehensive immigration reform — manifests itself when Coffman asks the people seated at the market’s wooden picnic tables if they have questions or issues that matter to them.
Most of them say the same thing: immigration reform.
Coffman’s responses — that both sides “tiene la culpa”, or, “are to blame”; and that he understands the importance of keeping families together: “mantenar familias juntas” — are indicative of a congressman who would like to find a path through the middle on immigration reform.
But Andrew Romanoff, the Democrat running against Coffman, notes that Coffman voted against the bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill that addressed border security and offered immigrants a 13-year path to citizenship.
“If you block comprehensive immigration reform but still say you’re in favor of it, at some point’ you’ve got to ask: what do these words mean to you? In any language!” Romanoff said last week during a tour of Aurora’s Cinema Latino with Congressman Javier Becerra, D-Calif.
“No matter how you say it — in English or Spanish — no matter what you say in Colorado, what matters is what you’re doing in Washington, DC, and what he’s doing is part of the problem.”
Coffman’s record has plenty for Romanoff to pick at, including a vote last year for an amendment sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to defund the president’s Deferred Action program and re-start the deportation of DREAMers (Coffman has also highlighted Romanoff’s own record on immigration, including his support for special session immigration legislation in 2006).
As Coffman was preparing to leave the market, a young man (possibly a Democratic activist) asked him about that vote.
“That would deport me and a lot of other DREAMers,” the young man told Coffman, who explained that this summer, when the same amendment was voted on again, he voted no.
“I voted against it because I thought we had an opportunity to make [Deferred Action] permanent,” he said.
Coffman’s evolution on the immigration issue is the most obvious of several examples of how a more diverse, competitive district has forced him to reassess his own views and, ultimately, move toward the almost nonexistent political middle.
“If you look at the 2012 campaign, I didn’t know any of these issues,” he says. “This is really my first reelection in what is arguably a new district where I have an opportunity to talk to these immigrant communities and learn their issues.
“I think it’s made me a better congressman in making me understand issues I didn’t have in the old district.”
Few members of the House ever work so hard for reelection, outside of party primaries; of the 435 races on the board this fall, only the Coffman-Romanoff race and six others are listed as pure toss-ups.
That’s by design — and also a primary reason why the brand of consensus politics Coffman is selling at the supermercado, the future action on immigration reform, isn’t likely to materialize following the election.
“You’ve got too many districts that are deep red and too many districts that are deep blue and they’re just playing to their ideological base and there’s no movement in the middle,” Coffman says. “There needs to be more districts like this.
“This is the kind of district that challenges somebody to say, ‘Yeah I’m a conservative and what can I do to move conservative principles forward, but it can’t just be this all or nothing mentality.”
Related: Watch Coffman’s appearance Sunday on FOX31 Denver’s #COpolitics: From The Source