Friction yields sparks between Coffman, Romanoff at Aurora election forum

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AURORA | Gun control and immigration reform proved the biggest policy differences between Republican Rep. Mike Coffman and his Democratic challenger, Andrew Romanoff as they participated in their second debate in the race to win the ultra-competitive 6th Congressional District House seat.

Before members of Aurora’s Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 15, they spoke in front of a crowd that included the families of Aurora Theater Shooting victims. Aurora Chamber President Kevin Hougen, who served as its moderator, said all of the questions came from chamber members. 

He asked the candidates whether they would vote for the federal Manchin-Toomey gun control amendment. The bill, which failed in the Senate last year, would have required background checks on all commercial gun sales. 

“I believe ultimately, that is a decision for states to make in whether or not to have a universal background check, and what component things are going to be in it to determine who can have access to a firearm, and who cannot have access,” Coffman said. “So I would not support that bill.” 

Romanoff received cheers from the crowd for disagreeing with the Congressman.

“Surely we can make it a little harder if not impossible for people with violent criminal backgrounds or serious mental illnesses from acquiring firearms,” he said. “Which is worth pointing out, cross state lines. That’s why federal legislation in this case makes sense.” 

Gun control advocate Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was killed in the 2012 theater attack, said this was the first time he heard a definitive answer from Coffman on the issue. 

“For big, comprehensive bills like this, we need that to come from the federal government,” he said following the debate. 

Romanoff also received applause from the crowd when he proclaimed his support for comprehensive immigration reform in response to a question about it. Coffman has voted against such a measure. 

Romanoff said he was glad to be on the same page as the Aurora Chamber, which has publicly endorsed the bill. One out of five of Aurora’s nearly 350,000 residents were born in another country.  Many business owners say they want easy, legal ways to employ immigrants or determine who is or isn’t allowed to work in the United States.

Coffman responded by continuing to trump his step-by-step approach to the issue. He said the first step would be securing the country’s borders. “Secondly, I think we’ve got to have economic policies that grow our economy. And lastly, we have to be compassionate in keeping families together,” he said.  

He said both Democrats and Republicans were to blame for stalling immigration measures. He pointed to a failed bill, known as the STEM Jobs Act, that would’ve eliminated diversity visa lotteries and reallocated over 50,000 green cards a year to top foreign graduates who receive doctorates in science, technology, engineering and math from U.S. universities. 

 “Harry Reid (U.S. Senate Majority Leader) said ‘no, I’m not going to bring it up in the Senate unless we get a bill that has everything in it,’” Coffman said. “I think we’ve seen this one sweeping proposal in healthcare, and all the unintended consequences.” 

The debate also focused on Aurora-centric issues, including the 10.5-mile RTD light rail line that is set to open in 2016. 

One chamber member’s question asked  how the candidates would solve the federal Highway Trust Fund crisis and what their vision was for transportation in a district with a booming population. 

“You ought to be able to borrow money if you’re going to repair your infrastructure. In Colorado we put forward a proposal to repair our roads and bridges,” Romanoff said, pointing to a failed referendum he backed as Speaker of the House in 2005 that would have allowed the state to issue bonds for transportation projects. 

Coffman said he was behind a five-year funding plan, and that the federal government could take royalty payments from federal public lands and put them into the Highway Trust Fund. 

Coffman, who reminded listeners throughout the debate that he has called Aurora home for 50 years, had a local edge over Romanoff when he described what he would do protect Buckley Air Force Base from  future U.S. Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure evaluations expected to start in 2015. 

“I believe fundamentally that you spend money on defense because you need that to defend the country. And it’s not a jobs program. It’s not for economic development,” said Coffman, the only member of Congress to have served in both the Gulf and Iraq wars. 

He said he was working with Colorado Senator Mark Udall in the House Armed Services Committee on replacing the base’s F16 jets with F35 jets. “If we fail to do that … then we will no longer have an active runway at Buckley Air Force Base,” he said.

Romanoff used the question mostly as another opportunity to blame a dysfunctional Congress, backhanding at Coffman for toeing his GOP Party line.

“It seems to me if you’re serious about supporting Buckley, you don’t shut down the government when you disagree, and jeopardize some of those jobs, and take a $24 billion bite out of the economy as this Congress did,” he said.  

The integrity of each candidate was a constant theme of the debate.

When Romanoff asked Coffman whether he would join him in being the first two candidates in history to turn down all contributions from political action committees, things got heated. Coffman is taking political action committee money for this campaign. Romanoff is not.

“You have lobbyists on your campaign. If you think it’s wrong, get those lobbyists off your campaign,” Coffman said as he pounded the table.  “This is the difference between us. People decided to support me based on what I do and what I believe in. I went to the United States Army and the Marine Corps. You went to Harvard and Yale. I don’t know what they taught you about honor and integrity there.” 

Coffman challenged Romanoff to conduct his campaign on the terms of the military standard that says not to lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do. 

“Your attacks against Michael Bennet in 2010, they were called dishonest and sleazy. You did not rise to the very standard you agreed to today in this debate. That military standard of integrity. That was not honored in your last campaign,” Coffman retorted. 

Romanoff reminded the Congressman that Bennet was not on the ballot in this race. 

“Congressman, you and I are,” he said. “That means we have an obligation to treat each other with respect … This is the minimum. Whatever side you take in this race, you ought to demand that the people who seek public office treat each other and treat you with respect.”