Andrew Romanoff talks PAC money, house sale and running against Mike Coffman

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To some Coloradans, the name Andrew Romanoff is synonymous with disappointment. After losing to incumbent Senator Micheal Bennet in a primary that attracted an almost unheard-of amount of attention, the ex-speaker of the Colorado House took a lower-profile job with the International Development Enterprises, a non-profit that promotes economic development in under-developed countries. The move garnered a Best Of Denver award for "Best Move By A Politician." But as he tells us below, he's got more moves to make -- and a lot of them target Mike Coffman.

Romanoff sat out the 2012 race and watched as Joe Miklosi lost to Coffman, Republican congressman in the 6th Congressional District.

But this past February, Romanoff officially announced his intention to run against Coffman -- a full 21 months before the big show in 2014.

Romanoff recently sat down with Westword to talk up his chances, the lessons he learned from Egyptian activists and, of course, what happened after the house sale heard 'round the world.

Westword: Why did you decide to throw your hat into the ring and run in CD 6 against Mike Coffman?

Andrew Romanoff: I looked at the debate in Congress -- I don't know if you would call it a debate, more of a debacle -- around the fiscal cliff, the sequester, the debt ceiling, the whole parade of incompetence and inability to get anything done. And I thought, 'We can do better.' This is a district that is evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans, and independent voters, so it strikes me as the kind of place where we need the ability to bring people together to solve problems. And that's what I did in the statehouse for eight years. And I think so many of the people I know are losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing their health care. And worse yet, losing their faith in the political process. I see folks in Washington who forgot the people who sent them there, and that's not acceptable to me. Or to my neighbors.

Everyone seems to always be talking about bipartisanship, but this political divide still makes people cynical. Is bipartisanship still part of your strategy?

AR: Well, to me, it's not just a talking point, it's what I've done. Mark Twain used to joke about the weather -- he said, "Everybody complains about it, and nobody does anything about it." (Laughs.) So when I got elected to the statehouse back in 2000, I became part of a minority. I think what Westword used to call "the permanent Democratic minority." And that was a fair knock, because we hadn't had the house since 1976. I spent four years in the minority, worked across the aisle, solved problems, became the minority leader, and changed the tone from one of criticism and complaint to one of solutions. I told our press shop that I don't want to send out another release that said, 'Democrats complain,' 'Democrats attack.' We kind of ran out of synonyms. (Laughs.) I literally crossed out every release, and said, 'Give me a solution.' So we would come up with ideas and give people a sense of what the state would look like if we had the chance to run it. And eventually we got that chance....

I'm really proud of that, and I look at those eight years as a period of progress -- and I look at Washington as a place of paralysis. And I know, this is tough; I'm not naive about this. There are stronger forces and entrenched interests, but I think it can be done.

No Democrat has ever won the CD 6 race.

AR: That's correct, yeah.

Does that intimidate you?

AR: No, I was down in Highlands Ranch for a couple events last week and a number of folks made the same point. But I say, 'Look, I'm not running just to be the first Democrat in CD6, I'm running to be the most effective representative.' The district obviously looks a lot different from when it was first created. Redistricting after the 2010 Census made it the most competitive district in the state, and one of the most competitive districts in the country. I tell folks all the time, if you like the Congress you've got, then you should probably sit this one out. If you think this gridlock is the way to go, I'm not your guy. So I'm excited about the chance to break the logjam and give folks a different kind of representation.

You announced that you're not taking PAC money. Why did you make that decision?

AR: The same reason I did in 2010, and the same reason that President Obama did, because my sense is that -- and I think most Americans sense it -- that special interests have enough politicians on their payroll already. If you look at our inability to make meaningful reforms on a whole set of issues, whether it's energy and the environment or health care. Pick an issue, follow the money, and you pretty quickly reach the conclusion that too many folks in both parties -- and I'm not claiming Democrats are any better -- too many folks in both parties have become too beholden with the interests groups that bought their seats.

I wish I could find a fancier way to say this, but it's a little better than bribery. And I want to be careful. I'm not suggesting that I can tell you how a particular legislator reaches a decision on a particular bill. Only the legislator can answer that question.... But I can tell you that there's no reason that some of the biggest special interest groups in the world lavish millions of dollars on congressional races, in some cases, covering both sides of the race, if they didn't get anything from anyone. They're not doing this out of the goodness of their own hearts. They're doing it because they want to buy access and influence. And there's something very fundamentally disturbing about that system, I think, to ordinary Americans.

You were working with International Development Enterprises before this. How did you get involved with them?

AR: I had an interest in international development, from my own experience -- I used to teach in Central America, I taught English in Nicaragua and Costa Rica before I finished college.... When I was a kid, my grandpa was a doctor who traveled around the world with a group called Project Hope, which brings medical supplies, physicians and nurses to developing countries, and came home with stories about kids he had treated who were growing up in circumstances that didn't look like my own. He taught my sister and me that we had some obligation to make a difference. And then back in 2010, some friends who were involved with IDE recommended the organization to me. I checked it out and liked what they were doing, and I signed on.

How many of those countries that IDE serves have you been to?

AR: With IDE, I've been to Ghana, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Zambia -- also some trips to Nigeria and South Africa and Egypt.

When were you in Egypt?

AR: Interestingly, I was in Egypt in 2009, before the Arab Spring. We met with folks from the Mubarak government, and then we met with democracy activists through a program funded by the Aspen Institute. And the Mubarak folks said, 'We're not perfect, but get rid of of us and you invite the Muslim Brotherhood to take over.' Which is, in fact, what happened. Democracy activists said, 'We'd rather have democracy, no matter the outcome,' and the activists were predicting the downfall of the Mubarak regime.

Continue for more of our Q&A with 6th Congressional District candidate Andrew Romanoff. So this grassroots activism was going on in a lot of the countries you visited. What did you take from that?

AR: That a lot of these autocratic regimes were clearly on the wrong side of history, and that their demise was a matter of time. And that the Internet was a good tool in the hands of the opposition.... The right to choose your own leaders is a universal right. It's not a Western conceit. I'm not a moral relativist when it comes to that.

In a pretty short time, you went from fundraising in the fields of Guatemala to fundraising for Washington. Was that a shock?

AR: (Laughs.) I think the work I've done overseas, and the experiences I've had, put our challenges in perspective. The people we serve at IDE make a dollar a day. And there's about a billion people on Earth in that category, and another billion and a half that make somewhere between a dollar and two dollars a day. But the truth is, if you're in the US and you just lost your home, or your job, or your health coverage, the fact that two billion people are living on two dollars a day or less is sad, but probably not a top priority.

In 2010, some saw you, running against Michael Bennet, as the Great Progressive Hope against a mainstream Democrat. Do you think this election might move you towards the center?

AR: (Laughs.) I've heard that too. A couple thoughts -- no, I don't think I'm gonna have to change what I believe. On some issues, there's no doubt that the opposition will paint me a certain way. I take the advice of the great former speaker of the U.S. house, Sam Rayburn: "You should always tell the truth, because it's easier to remember." And I think that's good advice. So most Coloradans describe themselves as fiscally responsible and socially tolerant. And to me, the folks who are running the House of Representatives today are neither. They can't even balance a budget. This obsession with extremist views on social issues doesn't represent me, it doesn't represent most people in Colorado, it certainly doesn't represent most people in the 6th Congressional District.

I respect folks who disagree on some of these issues, but I just can't see where we're ever going to get common ground if you're out to criminalize abortion or demonize gays and lesbians. Most people tell me they're interested in strengthening the economy, bringing more new jobs to the state, balancing the budget, not leaving our kids with a mountain of debt. I don't know if that makes you progressive or conservative. I don't know if the label matters so much as the results. And we're not getting any results.

But you are running under a label, and that label is the Democratic Party. And the Democratic brand means something very different than it did when you were first elected. Have you had to evolve since then?

AR: I feel like I got to be a better legislator over the years. I think I was a more effective legislator in my fourth term than I was in my first. Sort of the irony of it, in some ways, I became an elder statesman.... That's why I think I got better at this, bringing people together, and understanding how to find common ground, which is the skill set that I think is absent or scarce in Washington. I think the work I've done in the last couple of years, just working with folks in the private sector both in the US and overseas, has confirmed my appreciation of market-based solutions and their problems.

Among the buzzwords of this last campaign, The big one was "ground game." What is your campaign strategy that you have planned out so far?

AR: Well, I'm not going to tell you, even if we had one.

Oh, fair enough.

AR: (Laughs.) I'm just kidding. I don't know that this is rocket science. We've got to raise a lot of money. That's the nature of the game now. We have a lot of folks...who signed up to volunteer. I got elected to the state house four times just by knocking on doors every night, every weekend, just me and my neighbors. I always thought it's the best way to run, the best way to win, the best way to serve and to govern, actually to get in touch with people you represent, so that will be a part of the strategy. I think the the third piece is to give folks an idea of [how] my service would best advance their interests in a way that's different from what they're getting now.

But I think it's important in the process to give people something to shoot for, and not just something to shoot at. Those voters tell me they don't want to hear just what I'm against. And I think that's a reasonable demand.

So you'll be knocking on plenty of doors for this campaign?

AR: Hope so. I love doing that. I think the challenge is, with a US House seat there are about ten times as many doors as the state House. We figured there's a difference between 70,000 constituents and 750,000 constituents.

That's a lot of doors.

AR: That's a lot of doors.... It's literally about ten to one.

One of the big stories in the 2010 primary was you selling your house. So the people demand to know: what is the housing situation right now?

AR: (Laughs.) I'm fine and my dog is fine. We have a place to live, I live in Aurora.... I [saw] the other side was attacking me for this already too even before I filed. They tried to twist this into an argument against me.... I figured if I'm going to go ask other people to spend some of their money, I should put what I got on the line. And I'm not a multimillionaire, so what I had was a house. I don't think you should have to sell your house to serve in the House. Or the Senate. There's something wrong with a system that says, 'Only millionaires need apply.' There's something really wrong about that.

I think one of the reasons so many good people decide not to run for office, or even to vote, is because they figure the whole system is just pay to play. And they're right. That's a problem I'd like to fix.

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