DENVER | Same story, different chapter.
Make that a different language. In what all sides are touting as a historic event, the two candidates for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District in Aurora faced off in a live, Spanish-language debate at the Entravision studios in Denver Thursday night.
In one of the most expensive and contentious U.S. House races in the country, Republican incumbent Mike Coffman, a recent student of Spanish, did his best to keep up with the language skills of his Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff. Due to his time teaching English in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Romanoff is fluent in Spanish and used his familiarity with the language to go on the offensive at Coffman’s expense, attacking his record of historically voting against policies intended to reform immigration laws. Coffman didn’t offer much defense to Romanoff’s barbs and appeared to stick to a prepared set of talking points, frequently glancing at the podium in front of him. He touted his backing of a military version of the DREAM act, called the ENLIST act, which would allow for children brought to the U.S. illegally to become members of the military and obtain citizenship.
By and large, both candidates stuck to their stump positions in a clash that organizers say was the first time two congressional candidates who are not of Hispanic descent debated in Spanish.
“I think it went incredibly well,” said Tyler Sandberg, spokesman for the Coffman campaign. “While imperfect in his pronunciation, he was heartfelt in his effort. Republicans across the country should take notice — you need to seek every vote and reach out to every community.”
Romanoff was far less charitable, saying that Coffman’s memorized memes didn’t mask a voting record and policy that have and will continue to hurt that community.
“Does Congressman Coffman really think memorizing a new script is enough to mask the harm he’s done to the Hispanic community throughout his career?” Romanoff said in a statement after the debate. “Mr. Coffman’s record doesn’t sound any better in Spanish.”
At the end of the debate, Romanoff said his comments and philosophies were heartfelt and Coffman was providing nothing more than a “script.” The comment drew audible response from the audience.
Sandberg said that Coffman has been working with a tutor to improve his Spanish every weekend since Jan. 2013 and regularly watches Spanish language news. Coffman has also stated in the past that he has utilized Rosetta Stone language software to bolster his skills.That’s intrigued Rosetta Stone officials.
“We’re really interested in seeing how the debate goes and see how Coffman comports himself,” said Jonathan Mudd, a spokesman for Rosetta Stone.
About halfway through the 30-minute debate Coffman mentioned the importance of learning the langauge of his constituents, and joked that “he is trying.”
The district, which encompasses Aurora and other parts of Arapahoe and Adams counties, is very diverse. Coffman has slowly tacked toward the center on immigration issues.
Both sides point to polls showing the race is extremely close, but that their candidate has an edge. Democrats said at rallies this week that they are using unprecedented resources to reel in votes for Romanoff. Republicans said they, too, are using ground-game strategies unusual for that party.
Romanoff said it is important that such a diverse district have a representative who supports an immigration overhaul, “not just in days before an election, but in their whole career.”
Coffman previously opposed a bill to allow people brought into the country illegally as children to become citizens, Romanoff said. Coffman also introduced legislation to overturn requirements that diverse areas provide bilingual ballots to voters and had spoken positively of notorious immigration hardliner Rep. Tom Tancredo.
Coffman said he does support immigrants, noting that Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez had praised his leadership on a proposal to let people brought to the country illegally as children to earn their citizenship by serving in the military.
Coffman said he only opposed Obama trying to implement immigration changes unilaterally.
“I want congressional action because that guarantees a fundamental right,” he said.
Romanoff was asked about his own support for a 2006 state law that would have required police to alert federal authorities to immigrants they suspected were living in the U.S. illegally. Many Democrats voted for the legislation, then touted as the toughest immigration measure in the nation.
“The law was an error,” Romanoff said. He said he was wrong to support it and added that he’s proud Democrats have since rejected it. He said he’s always supported citizenship for people who come here illegally.
The two candidates also sparred over the environment, the cost of college and the health care overhaul during the 30-minute debate. Afterward, Coffman said: “I think it was important to show respect for the community.”
Gina Millan, a community organizer who watched the debate at the Entravision studios in Denver, was elated. She said it was an important chance for Spanish-speakers to hear the candidates address the issue and that even bilingual members of the community got a jolt from watching the exchanges.
“This is so, so big for our community, a debate in our own language,” she said.
— Debate reported and translated by Aurora Sentinel reporter Quincy Snowdon, photos by staff photographer Marla Keown. The Associated Press contributed to this report
LIVE FROM THE DEBATE
6:01. That’s it. Each pretty much gave stump positions on what focused primarily on immigration-related questions. Coffman’s pre-prepared answers came off fluidly and were pointed on his positions about the Obama administration going outside the law, and how that’s creating problems. Romanoff was able to target his points at the questions, and at Coffman’s prepared statements. He was almost strident about Coffman’s past record on immigration reform and critical of what he said were impractical changes for those with immigration problems. Debate watchers reacted out lout when Romanoff took his “script” shot at Coffman.
6 PM: Romanoff takes a shot at COffman saying, that his remarks and answers are heartfelt and not like Coffman’s script. “Quiero hablar de la corazón no de un guión”
6 PM: Coffman is talking about the importance of learning the language of his constituents, and joked that “he’s trying.”
5 PM — First question is on immigration to Romanoff. Romanoff gave his usual stump speech setting himself from Coffman, that he backs recent Senate efforts at comprehensive reform, which include a way to keep from separating families.
Coffman sounds fluent, but is reading prepared responses to topical questions. He can’t defend himself against points being made by Romanoff.