Five-term congressman Mike Coffman represents the growing and diversifying 6th Congressional District, where he's battling strong anti-Trump sentiment. The Republican serves in a Democratic-leaning area but continues to win elections because of the deep ties he has built with immigrant communities.
Ahead of the election, we spoke with Coffman about Trump, gun laws, the migrant caravan and more.
Westword: We've heard about your nonstop work ethic. Walk us through a day in the life of Mike Coffman.
Mike Coffman: It is very different. In D.C., my work is probably pretty consistent with other members [of Congress]. I'm attending committee hearings and speaking engagements and voting and being with constituents. But what is interesting in Washington, D.C., is I've never missed a vote. The veterans' committee keeps track of hearings, and I've never missed a hearing or a vote on the VA committee. Obviously I take my work very seriously, but back here, it's a very, very active schedule.
Saturdays, for instance, are a regular work day, where I have meetings in the office with constituents. On October 20, I had a meeting with my Asian-Indian advisory working group, and I had a meeting with my Ethiopian working group. Then I went to a few events. I start in the morning and I go into the evening. On Sundays I usually go to church with my mother.
I went with her to church on Sunday, then I went to a Korean church, which is over on Leetsdale. Of course they fed me. Then I went to a service and a town hall meeting in the basement of the church, and of course they fed me. Then I went to a Hindu temple in Centennial, not far from the Centennial airport. I stayed through part of the service. I did a town meeting on their issues, and then of course they fed me. Then I went to St. Michael's Catholic Church on East Hampden in Aurora; it's a Hispanic church. They have a mass entirely in Spanish, and so I did a town hall meeting with them afterwards, which was all in Spanish, and of course they fed me. As it was getting dark, I went to a mosque. It was during Ramadan, so it was Iftar, which is the breaking of the fast. I eat a lot.
I love the diversity of my district, and it does drive a fair amount of my work. I spend a lot of time at the Anschutz campus looking at their programs and health care and how I can support them in Washington, D.C. I'm visiting small businesses, I'm visiting nonprofits to see what they're doing and how I can help them. But on the weekends, a lot of time is driven by the diversity of this district. On October 21, I was at a Chinese school; the Chinese and Taiwanese do weekend schools.
Really, the leadership of the community are the leadership of these different schools within that community, so I'm always going to those schools. It's great. I just love it.
A lot of the focus on the GOP is on immigration — you hear Trump talking about the migrant caravan, etc. — and you also focus on immigration, but in a completely different mold. You did a TV debate in Spanish, and you're a household name in the local Ethiopian community. How have you been able to forge somewhat of your own path on immigration?
Let me tell you what I see in these immigrant communities. A lot of them are very conservative people. They tend to register as Democrats. First of all, I think in their citizenship classes, they hear "democracy" all the time and, well, democracy is Democrat, so I guess that's who I am. But also, I think a lot of them feel that Republicans aren't simply anti-illegal immigration, they're anti-immigrant. So I've had to work really hard in these communities to break that narrative. Their positions are pretty complex. Every immigrant community has a different immigration issue. It's not necessarily corresponded to what we think it is, in terms of what we see in the media where they're all aligned a certain way. They're really not.
The incredible beauty of this district — and I've represented it since 2013 — is that I've always envied members of Congress that have more rural districts because when they show up in one of these little communities, everybody knows it, and it's a big deal. In a suburban community, you don't have that feel. It doesn't have its own media, its own identity. I mean, we have a weekly newspaper in Aurora. But take Colorado Springs: They've got TV, they've got radio, and they've got newspapers that solely cover Colorado Springs. We don't have that in this congressional district. We are part of a larger media market. So, really, our identity is the Denver metro area, which is not much of an identity for us. All my towns are suburban.
But what these immigrant communities do is they give me that [identity]. When I show up in their communities, it's a big deal and everybody knows it within those communities. I do a weekly talk radio show on Fridays at about 8 or 8:30 a.m. on 1150 AM called Hablemos Hoy. I'm doing a lengthy interview on Telemundo. It's important to learn Spanish just to communicate directly to [constituents] and hear from them.
Breaking the narrative in these communities is very important, but that problem existed before Trump. When I started as a congressman for this district, I noticed it as a problem. I don't tell them I'm your Republican member of Congress; I say I'm your member of Congress. I'm your congressman, and they identify with me that way. So we've got to get out the vote efforts in all these immigrant communities. But they're doing it within their community, too.
To this migration from Honduras [the caravan], I think that there is an answer, and we ought to say it in a humanitarian way.
What is the fix to the migrant caravan issue?
Every employer I talk to in this district from different trade associations talks to me about a shortage of labor for these temporary jobs. It is so acute that we have a major farm, Sakada Farms, in the northern part of this district that has dropped out of sweet-corn production because he couldn't get the labor that he needed. I hear it from landscapers, the hospitality industry, agriculture. It is acute all over this country. We need more temporary workers. And they need to move through this bureaucracy faster if we are going to sustain this growth in this economy.
There's a consistent message to me that there's a shortage of seasonal workers, for agriculture and landscaping and hospitality associated with the tourism industry. They come up a certain time of the year — I think in the landscaping industry here in Colorado, they come up in the spring and leave early in the fall — and go back home. They take their U.S. dollars, and they go farther and help their families and everything. It's amazing.
What we've got to do is we've got to target those in the more impoverished areas of Central America and help these people. It's a win for the U.S. economy in terms of being able to sustain our growth, and it's a win down there.
I had a meeting recently with four mayors from El Salvador who came to my office to talk to me. I conducted it in Spanish; I'm proud of that. They were talking to me about how important these remittances are — when people who work here send their money back home. I mean, it is a big part of their economy. To me, as well as humanitarian aid, that is a way to help them. There's a lot of issues down there — gang violence, corruption. These people are just desperate. They're just desperate.
You famously voted against the Obamacare repeal last year, and public polling appears to show more Americans in favor of Obamacare than ever before. Has your attitude shifted to be more in favor of the law since it passed?
I think there's sort of an incremental approach to it. For instance, there was bipartisan support to do away with the Independent Payment Advisory Board, and that was deeply opposed in the initial bill. It would have been a fifteen-member advisory board that, if the growth of the Medicare program exceeded a certain projection, they'd go and cut Medicare benefits. A supermajority vote in both houses of Congress overrode that. That's out of the bill. The individual mandate is out of the bill. I did support taking that out. And now there are these sorts of short-term catastrophic plans that you can purchase on the individual market that you could not purchase before.
So I think there are a lot of changes, and I think that these changes will continue. In fact, if you look at the increases this year, and there are a lot of states that actually had decreases in the un-subsidized individual market...the increases this year are averaging 4 percent nationally. Colorado is a little higher than that at 5.6 percent in terms of premiums for 2019. But Colorado has got a problem that needs to be addressed, and that is our dramatically high hospital costs that are well above the national average.
You celebrated Amazon increasing its minimum wage to $15, and you tweeted that it would benefit about a thousand families in your district. What are your thoughts on minimum wages and what the government's role should be in dictating them?
I think it is best left to the states. The reason why is because we have so many regional differences in terms of wage inflation, and if you misalign a rate, a wage increase, where the economy won't support it, you're causing greater unemployment. It's dislocating jobs. In 2020 [Colorado] will be at $12 an hour. The problem I have with the Colorado one, which I did not support initially, is that there are rural areas that just aren't going to support that wage. We are taking the economic standards of urban Colorado and dictating them to rural Colorado, and that part just doesn't work. We ought to be more sensitive to economic differences within our state. But at the end of the day, I think the decision ought to be made in Colorado, not in Washington, D.C.
A big deal that I've been trying to push is an increase in the earned income tax credit. There is a bias in the earned income tax credit to two-parent households, among [other biases]. Low-wage individuals barely get anything. I think we have to reward work, and I do think that we need to bump up the earned income tax credit to help low-wage workers.
You recently introduced the Fair Environmental Trade Agreements Act, which would require imported goods, specifically from China, to be held to similar environmental and labor laws that are in place here. How important is climate change to you?
This issue is really important to me. What I've seen in the country over time is that we've increased our environmental standards — as we should when it comes to manufacturing. I mean, the environmental movement started in the early 1970s and you read back on the horror stories — I'm trying to think of the name of the river in New York that caught fire — about the level of pollution in the United States that was so egregious, primarily due to manufacturing, that it sparked the environmental movement and regulation on manufacturing. We need to do that as a country from a standpoint of public health.
Now we understand things like climate change and how having a big carbon footprint affects the global health of the environment. I think carbon emissions are now 14 percent lower in the United States than they were in 2005, primarily due to a declining use of coal and increasing use of things like natural gas or renewables. China or other countries that really don't have environmental standards might [offer products at a lower cost], but they're affecting the climate. There are air-quality issues in the western part of the United States that are due to industrial production in China. It's a global issue.
I think there are two things that ought to be a part of a labor agreement that Congress ought to mandate on the executive branch. One is environmental standards. We ought to meet environmental standards, or come within a reasonable level of them. And the other is [other countries] ought to roughly meet our labor standards. Some of these countries are using forced labor or child labor in manufacturing. I think we ought to be concerned about this. They have cheaper labor costs and are able to sell goods to us at a lower cost because of the fact that they don't have labor standards. In my view, they violate human rights.
Jason Crow and Democrats have repeatedly gone after your voting record with Trump, claiming you vote with the president 96 percent of the time. What do you think of that line of attack?
Number one, it's from a blog [FiveThirtyEight] that's cherry-picked issues. Anybody would've voted for many of those issues. It is not in any way weighted. The only time the president of the United States called me up was over the health-care vote. That is the only time the president reached out to me and said, "I need your vote." And I said no. [The blog] didn't take into account all the things that we do take on with the administration.
I'm not here to be an obstacle to this administration. When I think they're right, I'll stand with them, and when I think they're wrong, I'll stand against them. On separating children at the border, I really publicly went to the mat on that, and enough other members of Congress did on both sides of the aisle that the administration stopped what they were doing. I went down to the border myself to see what was going on. I was very critical of the administration.
I'm going to take the administration on for space force. The president wants to create a whole new department of space, and if that requires authorizing language in the Armed Services Committee, I expect to lead the effort to kill that in committee. That won't be counted in the [FiveThirtyEight] calculation.
I think [space force] is a really bad move. I've worked really hard in the Armed Services Committee to trim the Pentagon, which I feel is very top-heavy. This will just explode the Pentagon. You're going to have a Department of Navy, Department of the Army and now a Department of Space. A whole new secretary, chief of staff...all the stuff associated with that. The estimated cost by the United States Air Force for the next five years to create a Department of Space will be $13 billion. I see it as an increase in bureaucracy without a commensurate rise in capability.
I understand why the president is frustrated. We are behind in space. Our satellite architecture that our military depends on for targeting, for navigation, for communications, is not defensible right now because of advances in technology, primarily with China, that threaten that architecture. We were caught way behind. Our acquisition process is a mess, and we're slow in getting the job done, so these things need to be fixed. There's no question about that.
But before the president made his announcement, the secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, made a public statement of creating a special space corps. The difference between a space corps and space force is fairly significant. Space corps would've been like a United States Marine Corps to the Navy, but in the Department of the Navy. You would not be creating an entire new department. There would not be a Department of Space, but a Department of the Air Force and then space corps would be in the Air Force. I wasn't really enthusiastic about that at all, but the Senate wiped it out in conference.
I think the president is very frustrated with Defense Secretary Mattis and [Secretary of the Air Force Heather] Wilson because they publicly opposed it before the president made his announcement, which I think he blindsided them with.
You tweeted your support of Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
We have a letter circulating to members of Congress to sign a letter to the president saying he needs to keep Mattis. I know there's friction between [Mattis and Trump], but I think that Mattis is the most talented secretary of defense since we created the Defense Department.
For the president to say he might be leaving soon and he's sort of a Democrat, well, he rose in the ranks under President Obama. The people [Mattis] knew, that he worked with, a lot of them were appointed during the Obama era. But for [Mattis], he just wants to appoint the most competent people; he doesn't care about their political affiliation. But apparently the White House does. I really want to support Secretary Mattis. If he were to leave, I certainly would lose confidence in this administration when it comes to national security.
Another point the Democrats have hit hard at you on is gun control. You've accepted contributions from the NRA and got an A rating from them. What is your response to critics of your relationship with the gun lobby?
I think it's very hypocritical of Jason Crow to get the support of Michael Bloomberg, who's poured at least a couple of millions of dollars into his race through different super PACs to adopt the New York City gun-control agenda. I certainly support the Second Amendment; however, I believe in responsible gun ownership. When they talk about [NRA contributions], that's over ten years since I started in Congress. I think the last time I checked I had gotten $2,000 from [the NRA] out of $2.4 million raised.
That's fine if they want to make it a big issue. But Jason Crow worked for a firm — and he denied this in the [Univision] debate — that lobbied for the gun industry against gun control in Colorado. He never complained about that the whole time he was there. He's a partner and he financially bid for those contracts. In fact, they just lost it because John Anderson, who also did my legal work, left the firm to form his own firm and took the contract with him.
Now he's suddenly a born-again gun-control advocate, which is pretty interesting. What I do support is this, and I think is so important: After the Parkland shooting, what I did was, I went to every school district in the congressional district and met with a school safety director in the district. I [asked], what can we do to reduce gun violence? I also was part of a bipartisan working group in Congress with [Democrat] Ted Deutch, who was the congressman who represents Parkland. Between those two groups and sets of discussions, I really came to the conclusion that there are two best practices that we can do: One, we have an extraordinary program in Colorado that I think needs to be replicated throughout the country, and that is the Safe 2 Tell program that happened after the tragedy of Columbine in 1999. It's a system where young people can anonymously contact law enforcement 24/7 to report threats to themselves or threats to others. That has been an amazing system in terms of averting gun violence, and in other things, like bullying and suicide in schools.
The other thing that I think was important, although it's controversial among some gun-rights advocates, but I really believe it's good, is the Jake Laird law in Indiana. Jake Laird was an officer who was responding to a shooting where an individual who was very aggravated shot his mother. There were questions about his mental stability. What had happened was that person was placed on a 72-hour hold, so when someone is having a mental health crisis they can be detained for observation. When they went in to get him, they also took his firearms away. When they released him, they found that there was no relevant law, even though they were still very concerned about his mental stability, that would have allowed them to keep his firearms away from him. They had to give him back his firearms, and then he shot his mother and the four policemen who responded. One died: Jake Laird. So the Indiana law, which was passed by a Republican legislature and signed into law by a Republican governor, says that if law enforcement has probable cause, and they have to get a warrant, they can remove the firearm from that person. There is an expedited review process that allows that person to go to court and make a case that they are a responsible gun owner and stable enough to have their guns returned to them.
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If we look at Parkland and Columbine, in both instances, law enforcement had probable cause to believe these people were threats. In the Aurora theater shooting, the psychiatrist that was treating him reported that he was a threat because he was fantasizing about mass murder and mass shootings. The problem was, it was reported to the campus police, who didn't share it with other law enforcement, and when he quit being a student there, they closed the file. But if they had this legal authority and could go in and remove all the firearms from him, that would have been an important tool.
Do you pay attention to the polls?
Not so much anymore. They're just all over the place. I think the problem is that this district is so highly targeted, people have been polled to death, and the immigrant communities would never answer a survey anyway because they're so distrustful of government because of where they've come from. I think that it's just not an effective tool right now. I know there's one that had me a point ahead. I know the New York Times polls had me down. These are polls that are taken at the same time.
This conversation was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.