Meet the Most Anti-Trump Candidate in the 6th Congressional District Race

Levi Tillemann, right, hopes to unseat Mike Coffman.
Levi Tillemann, right, hopes to unseat Mike Coffman. Courtesy of Levi Tillemann
He's an entrepreneur who's worked on designing efficient car engines, he served in the Department of Energy under Barack Obama, and he's even written a book on the growth of the car industry. Oh, and he holds a Ph.D. in international studies from Johns Hopkins while speaking four foreign languages.

But his qualifications aren't what compelled Levi Tillemann to try and unseat Republican Mike Coffman in Colorado's 6th Congressional district.

Make no mistake about it: It's Donald Trump.

"The normalization of Trump is one of the scariest developments our democracy has ever made," Tillemann says. "We've never had a moment, except maybe the Civil War, where our institutions were so under threat. That is why I decided to run."

Tillemann, 35, is the newest and perhaps most intriguing Democratic candidate in an already crowded primary that includes early favorite Jason Crow and lawyer David Aarestad. Tillemann's been widely branded as an anti-establishment progressive (more on this later) while coming from a somewhat "outsider" perspective as primarily a private-sector businessman and scholar with little Washington-insider experience.

That said, Tillemann's harsh

"The normalization of Trump is one of the scariest developments our democracy has ever made."

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anti-Trump rhetoric could gain traction in a district that voted for Coffman by a convincing 8.3 percent margin but turned around and voted for Hillary Clinton last November by an even wider margin of 8.9 percent. With Trump's approval numbers slipping since his slim November victory, Democrats nationwide believe they have momentum heading into next year's mid-term elections, and they've got their eyes, once again, on Coffman's potentially vulnerable seat in a bid to retake control of the House of Representatives.

Enter Tillemann, the grandson of two different sets of political royalty. His maternal grandfather, Tom Lantos, was the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, acting as the Chairman of the House Committee on International Relations before he passed away in 2008. His grandmother, Nancy Dick, served as Colorado's first female lieutenant governor.

That decorated heritage, particularly on his grandfather's side, is part of Tillemann's admittedly unique distaste for Trump — and his desire to fix politics.

"As someone whose grandparents lived through the Holocaust and whose home country was overrun by the Soviet Union and held to a completely irrational ideology for the better part of half a century, I am very attuned to the stakes here," Tillemann says. "I spent a lot of my college career studying how Hitler came to power and how seemingly good people could get behind an evil government and support [it] for the better part of a decade and a half.

"We were taught that we owed this country an enormous debt, and if we wanted to even pay the interest, we needed to serve," he continues. "My grandfather was treated as subhuman [by the Nazis], and his work ethic and ingenuity won him a scholarship and got him to this country, to raise a happy family and to make it to Congress. That, to me, is what a remarkable and beautiful thing American democracy is — when it works well."

click to enlarge Tillemann comes from a long line of storied politicians in Colorado. - COURTESY OF LEVI TILLEMANN
Tillemann comes from a long line of storied politicians in Colorado.
Courtesy of Levi Tillemann
The 6th Congressional District is traditionally the swingiest in the state, but Coffman has repeatedly held off strong challengers and redistricting that turned his already tricky seat to favor Democrats five years ago. More so, the 6th is one of just 23 congressional districts held by Republicans that also voted for Clinton. In the 6th district's case, the difference was particularly stark last November.

"Mike Coffman is going to be hard to beat," Tillemann admits.

So how does Tillemann appeal to the more than 17 percent of 6th district voters who voted for Clinton and then turned around and voted for Coffman? His pitch is designed around a promise of independence rather than partisan loyalty.

"I think what Coloradans long for is someone who is independent and will stand up for them," Tillemann says, adding that he hopes to focus on jobs and how new technology is going to impact job growth for constituents. "I have policy issues with Mike Coffman, but my bigger issue with [him] is he doesn't do it on principle; he does it on political expediency. He's done the same thing again and again. He's done whatever is politically convenient."

To some, Tillemann's progressive independent streak aligns more with that of Senator Bernie Sanders, enhancing fears that a divisive Democratic primary could hurt the party's chances of taking down Coffman. But Tillemann, citing his track record as an official in Obama's Department of Energy and his political family lineage, shies away from labeling himself as "anti-establishment."

"I don't really like labels in general," Tillemann says. "I look at situations and judge them on their merit. Party orthodoxy is that someone is supposed to get behind one candidate because they have a certain party.

"I think what Coloradans long for is someone who is independent and will stand up for them."

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"Someone who is running for Congress shouldn't be a follower, they should be a leader," he continues. "Leaders think outside the box. Leaders don't necessarily do what they're supposed to do, even if the herd is traveling in a different direction."

Take that as a veiled attack not only against Coffman, but against Tillemann's likely main primary opponent, Crow, perceived (and attacked by Republicans) as more of a party centrist. Crow has secured the backing of several local Democratic bigwigs, including former senator Mark Udall and former governor Bill Ritter.

"I think there are some really serious differences between us," Tillemann says of Crow. "My values have guided my entire professional life. And there really isn't daylight between what I say on the stump and how I've lived privately or politically. And that's really important."

Colorado Politics recently revealed that Crow and his law firm defended a payday lending company and an accused embezzler, among other less-than-desirable clients.

Tillemann hopes to unseat Coffman and send a message to Trump. The brainy entrepreneur thinks his outsider status may be the recipe to win over the 6th district.

"I think this is a really important race," Tillemann says. "I think the Democrats owe it to themselves to really think differently when it comes to a candidate who is going to beat Mike Coffman. I think we have tried the best moves from a standard playbook to beat Mike Coffman. I think in this particular situation it makes sense to throw that playbook away and start innovating."

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Chris Bianchi is a Westword contributor interested in politics.
Contact: Chris Bianchi