How Not-So-Cardboard Cory Gardner Fared in a Confrontation With Constituents

Cory Gardner listens to a question about what he will do to prevent gun violence.
Cory Gardner listens to a question about what he will do to prevent gun violence. Sara Fleming
When Senator Cory Gardner walked into a meet-and-greet event at Lutheran Medical Center on Thursday, August 8, it's likely he expected to be greeted by a relatively friendly crowd. The event, billed as an opportunity to discuss issues “important to veterans, families, business and military friends” with the senator was not widely publicized. It hardly appeared on Gardner’s website, social media accounts; according to Anthony Hartsook, a volunteer who organized the event and a similar one in Elbert County last month, they advertised it via “veterans’ channels” like the American Legion, as usual.

But when affiliates of groups like Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, Progress Now Colorado and Every Town USA caught wind that Gardner — the real version, not the cardboard cutout that activists have taken to town halls and stakeholder meetings to draw attention to his lack of public appearances — would be showing up at a hospital in Wheat Ridge on a weekday afternoon, they rallied to bring as many voices to the table as possible. Gardner was met with plenty of questions from veterans and veterans' service providers. But even more comments came from advocates for gun control and immigration reform, who pressed him to clarify his position on issues such as background checks, red flag bills and the pending Dream and Promise Act. Amid back-and-forth on these hot-button issues, one common demand surfaced: Gardner needed to meet with constituents. Sentences like “Call the office,” “Reach out to the office,” or “Have you contacted the office?” became Gardner’s go-to refrain.

These groups jumped at the chance to confront Gardner directly, precisely because, they say, they’ve been met with nothing but crickets when they’ve reached out. “We've been reaching out for months now for a meeting, and now that we have the space during the August recess, he just pops up into our neighborhood and doesn't even give us a call to meet with us,” Victor Galvan, director of federal campaigns and engagements with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, explained after the event. According to Galvan, they have reached out to the majority of his offices in the state, pushing Gardner to publicly support the Dream and Promise Act for the past couple of months. They learned of Gardner's appearance at the medical center through a friend, and posted the event to invite their members and followers.

Gardner kicked off the to-be-contentious meeting by running through his VA Readiness Initiative, six bills he announced in February to do things like expand access to services, employ “big-data” technology to calculate risk for suicide, and ensure the repayment of GI Bill debts. Hartsook then asked the crowd to — please — ask questions focusing on veterans’ affairs.

Immediately, however, members of the crowd a few dozen strong took a different tack. Salvador Hernandez, the state director of Mi Familia Vota, asked the first question. Senator Gardner supported the Dream Act in 2017. Would he now support the Dream and Promise Act, which expands upon the Dream Act by creating a pathway to citizenship for both DACA-eligible immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and Temporary Protected Status recipients? And, Hernandez asked, “Would you be willing to meet with DREAMers like myself and many others in this room who are desperately trying to talk to you about this important issue?”

Gardner affirmed that he sponsored the Dream Act (without mentioning the Dream and Promise Act), and said, “I fight each and every day to find those six votes [that would pass it]. ... Thank you for your passion, thank you for your advocacy, and I will continue to meet with Dreamers across the state."

A member of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition then said his organization “has been denied by [Gardner’s] office multiple times to have a meeting about comprehensive immigration reform,” and asked him to clarify his position on the Promise portion.

“Yeah, call the office, please. I would love to sit down. Look, we sit down with people regularly,” Gardner responded. “I'm glad you're here to have a meeting with me right now, so thanks for being here.”

A few questions after that, a woman named Connie Grieshaber stood up. “I had an appointment with you in April in Washington, D.C., at your office and you didn't show up,” she began. Her father, a veteran, died by suicide, she said, and so did her sister. She now works with Every Town USA to share her story. “I’ve tried to meet with you hundreds of times,” she said.

“Have you been to the office? Thank you,” Garner nodded toward her.

“Yeah, but they haven't followed up with me,” Grieshaber replied, exasperated. She went on to ask Gardner to condemn Republicans who have called for recall elections for state legislators who sponsored red flag bills, which allow law enforcement to seize weapons of people deemed mentally ill. She also asked Gardner to stop taking money from the NRA — as of 2017, he had received $3,879,064 over his career, making him the fifth-most NRA-funded senator. That drew applause from about half of the crowd.

Gardner responded that he had met with veterans at roundtables regarding suicide. “We've all been touched by suicide, and I'm not gonna let Congress do nothing,” he said.

After a back-and-forth, Gardner launched into a plea not to politicize the issue of gun violence: “You did not partisanize it. Please understand you did not do that, but there are people around the country on both sides of the aisle that have made this partisan. ... There is no Republican shooting, there is no Democrat shooting. These are extremists who do horrible things...and we as a country have to stop this ideal where we're trying to gain politics,” he said. “We have to work to stop this. Will you work with me to stop this?”

“I'm trying,” Grieshaber responded.

After closing formal comments, Gardner was confronted individually by more constituents. One, Christopher Savin, asked him why he upheld Trump's declaration of a national emergency at the border instead of diverting the money to veterans' benefits. Rafael Espinoza, a son of Mexican immigrants who served in the Marines for eleven years, challenged Gardner, "People like me are getting deported. My community's under attack. What are we gonna do, Cory?"

A local pastor asked Gardner whether he supported the extension of Temporary Protected Status, a program which gives refugees fleeing violence from certain countries temporary relief from deportation that Trump has ended or threatened to end for several countries.

"We need to make sure that this program's working right, and that it's being used as it was intended to be used. And if there is abuse, then we should end it, and if it's working right, we shouldn't," Gardner said. He did not answer when pressed to state whether he thinks the program is "abused."

When Galvan of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition approached Gardner near the end of the hour, he specified that his organization had sent Gardner copies of the Dream and Promise Act. "Your constituents are really wanting to meet with you on this issue. As you can see, TPS recipients, Dreamers and DACA recipients, children, people who were brought here as children and are currently undocumented would all be protected under HR 6," he told him. Gardner did not seem to be aware of the bill or its status in moving through the legislative process.

Hector Porras, an organizer with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, said he thought the event was successful, with a much higher turnout than expected. "He wanted to pick and choose his publicity so he looks good, and I'm super-glad we just made sure to let him know, you have to publicly talk about these things," Porras said. "We're still going to keep tracking him, because we don't think this was enough."

Gardner's office has not responded to a request for comment for this story.
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Sara Fleming is a freelance writer and formal editorial fellow at Westword. She covers a wide variety of stories about local politics and communities. A born-and-raised Coloradan, when she's not exploring Denver, she's on a mission to visit every mountain town in the state.
Contact: Sara Fleming