Mateo Lozano wanted to talk to Senator Cory Gardner about his experience as an immigrant — about his family’s background, his brother’s deportation, his precarious status as a DREAMer under an administration that has been hostile to documented and undocumented immigrants alike.
Even as Gardner has launched his 2020 re-election campaign in earnest, however, it hasn’t been easy to find an opportunity to speak to him. On Monday, August 19, in a turn of events that has played out repeatedly over the past few weeks, Lozano and his fellow activists with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition got word that Gardner would be making an afternoon appearance at an aerospace company in Louisville — but when they showed up, they were turned away by his staff. It was a private event, they were told.
“He holds his town halls in secrecy,” says Lozano, a regional organizer with CIRC. “He only does it by word of mouth, with people that he’s interested in meeting with.”
Gardner’s lack of public appearances and constituent outreach has been a constant source of frustration for activists over the past few years. The Yuma Republican, who faces an uphill battle for re-election in a state that’s trending blue, hasn’t held a public town hall since August 2017. Not long after President Donald Trump’s election kickstarted a new wave of anti-Gardner organizing, a cardboard cutout of the senator used by activists to mock his inaccessibility soon became a fixture at rallies and protests.
As the real Gardner shifts into campaign mode, the cardboard version is following suit. Sponsored by a coalition of liberal groups including CIRC, Indivisible and ProgressNow Colorado, the Cardboard Cory Bus Tour will make nearly a dozen stops across the state this week, rallying the opposition ahead of a 2020 Senate election that’s likely to be one of the most closely watched in the country.
At a kickoff event outside Gardner’s Denver office on Monday, State Representative Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, told a small crowd that it wasn’t just everyday constituents who have had trouble speaking with their junior senator. He’s tried to schedule an appointment to speak to Gardner for years, he said, but despite visiting both his local and Washington, D.C., offices, has never gotten a meeting.
“Cory Gardner has refused to meet with me for seven-plus years, and I’ve made it very easy for him,” said Sullivan. “Our family endured the worst mass shooting in our state’s history, and he doesn’t have the courage to stand in front of me and my family and at least give us the ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ talk. So I can’t imagine the lack of compassion he shows for people like DREAMers.”
Gardner’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. The senator held another private, unannounced campaign “meet and greet” in Greenwood Village on Monday afternoon, followed by a fundraiser at the home of Denver real estate magnate Jim Mulvihill.
The Cardboard Cory Bus Tour will hold a series of events along the Front Range over the next two days before traveling across the state for several stops on the Western Slope. Dana Miller, an activist with Indivisible, says that the groups behind the tour want to engage Coloradans on issues like health care, immigration, climate change and more — all issues, she says, on which Gardner is out of step with a clear majority of his constituents.
“What we really want to talk about is the common values that all Coloradans share,” says Miller. “These are issues that are not partisan, and we want to make clear that Cory Gardner has not been upholding those Colorado values.”
"What we're seeing is that the rhetoric just doesn't match the action," says Kelly Nordini, director of Conservation Colorado, another sponsor of the bus tour. "He's in a position where if he wanted to, he could show leadership and move some things forward. But we're seeing him not show up — certainly not at all for climate, lip service to things like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and then more subsidies for Big Oil. Just more of the same."
At a stop in Broomfield on Monday afternoon, Lozano, having been denied the chance to speak to Gardner himself, addressed the cardboard version instead.
"I will organize every day, till my dying breath, bringing people in to show Cory Gardner that he is accountable, that people are watching him," Lozano said. "I'm watching you right now, Senator."