Morgan Carroll on Challenging Mike Coffman in CO's Closest, Nastiest Race

According to political analyst Eric Sondermann, who recently shared his predictions about the 2016 election in Colorado here, the U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet and Republican standard-bearer Darryl Glenn isn't truly competitive, and neither are the vast majority of contests in the state's seven congressional districts. The 3rd District bout between Republican representative Scott Tipton and Democrat Gail Schwartz is closer than anticipated — but in Sondermann's view, the only true nail-biter is in the 6th District, where rep Mike Coffman, a GOP stalwart, is trying to stave off a challenge from Democratic state senator Morgan Carroll.

"You won't find me making a prediction, because it would be a flip of the coin," Sondermann said of the Coffman-Carroll battle.

Carroll, too, believes the margin between her and Coffman is "razor-thin," as she notes in the following Q&A, illustrated with photos from her Facebook page and supplemented with links and occasional insertions for reasons of fact-checking and clarification. During the wide-ranging conversation, Carroll — an attorney who has served in either the state House or Senate since 2004, including a 2013-2014 stint as Senate president — talks about the issues most important to her and refutes claims made against her in commercials from the Coffman campaign and outside organizations such as Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers-funded operation. Carroll's campaign estimates that she's been the target of $8 million in attack ads in what is easily the election's nastiest match-up.

Note that Westword has made multiple requests for an interview with Coffman. Thus far, we have not received a response.

Westword: For those voters who are unfamiliar with your background, how would you introduce yourself to them?

Morgan Carroll: I have long ties to Colorado; I've lived and grown up in Colorado my whole life. And I have been doing advocacy work for years — long before I got into elected office. For me, I've been focusing on dealing with disability advocacy issues, but also individual rights, consumer rights.

I did not go to college right away; I basically moved out when I was eighteen. My dad had very serious health issues, and I worked two to three jobs, many of which were minimum-wage, both before and during school in order to go to college. And like a lot of folks, I graduated with a lot of debt: I graduated with $70,000 in student debt. I say that to show that I've been passionate about doing advocacy work for other people my whole life. But I know what it is to like to work for minimum wage, I know what it is like to work without health benefits, I know what it is like to have to work during school and still be graduating with serious student debt — and I'm still paying on those student loans.

How long ago was it that you graduated?

Sixteen years ago, and it's still not all paid off — and there are a lot of young people now who are under even more debt and difficult circumstances. So economic opportunity is a top priority for me. It's not only a question of household incomes and individuals. It's essential for rebuilding the middle class. I've lived it, and I've promised myself to never forget what I've needed to do in order to get by. And I'm not about to forget folks who are still working multiple jobs, who are trying to get by on minimum wage or low wages, and who are not in a position where they have good, affordable access to health care or any options on paid sick leave.

I also would say, as far as economic opportunity, that my mom just retired. She's 74 and she wasn't able to retire until she was 72. The number-one thing I would hear her say over and over again was, "I can't afford to retire." This is someone who'd worked hard and saved her whole life, and she couldn't afford to retire. My dad worked hard and saved his whole life, and he lost his entire retirement savings due to out-of-pocket medical expenses. So those are lived experiences — like with my brother, who's trying to do daycare with four kids he was raising. The cost of housing, the cost of insurance up against flat or stagnant wages: It's a reality that not only my family has seen. Many, many, many people in the 6th Congressional District are living that reality, too.

What are some of your other priorities — the main planks of your platform?

In addition to the ones I mentioned, I would say — and it's even more important in this environment right now — that we have to push back against bigotry and intolerance and discrimination in every form. Civil rights and equality and inclusion are a top priority for me. I would add criminal-justice reform, mental health, the Equality Act, which adds LGBT protection to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on discrimination, restoring what got gutted in the Voting Rights Act and comprehensive immigration reform, to the list that includes wages and student-debt reform. This is a district that absolutely needs immigration reform. And I have to say I've seen a lot of people's lives and families torn apart by mass incarceration, particularly on nonviolent offenses. I think we need federal reforms in addition to the state ones we've already done.

A lot of voters see Congress as a very dysfunctional body. What can a single representative do to change that for the better, or at least get it pointed back in the right direction?

It's a good question. This Congress has been the least productive and most dysfunctional in memory. So it matters what leadership is in charge. But each member can decide if they are going to be part of the problem or part of the solution. In this case in particular, Mike Coffman's actually opposed the bipartisan Senate version of comprehensive immigration reform. He's been part of not bringing up comprehensive criminal background checks on gun purchases. He was part of refusing to extend the interest-rate reduction on student loans. It got reduced from 7 percent to 3.4 percent, and when it came [time] to expire, Republicans voted lockstep against continuing it, which raised student interest rates back on students again.

So every vote matters. But it also matter what issues you choose to bring to people's attention — what you talk about, what you push other colleagues to bring forward, how well you organize and mobilize the public to get engaged and know what bills are out there and where they can have an impact. One member can decide not only how to vote and what's talked about — but if you believe in empowering people, you do things like hold more town hall meetings and let people know how they can impact the process.

After that, it's coalition-building. One of the things I did at the state level when I was Senate president and we only had a one-vote margin is I literally met with every person and tried to find one thing that we had in common. There may be some people where you never will find agreement. But if you try hard enough, there will always be something you can find common ground on with someone else. That takes more work, but it's a lot better than the boastful obstructionism that we have seen with Mike Coffman in office and the Republicans in office right now. They didn't hide it. They basically made it a platform priority to obstruct President Obama, and they did that at every turn. Obstruction can't be your goal. Any member can obstruct. It takes more work to pull people together and find common ground than it does to say no and simply obstruct.

So I think one person can come in and fight for the values of the district, improve the chances that important bills get introduced, improve the chances that they actually get a vote, improve the chances that people will have the power to influence the process politically, to put pressure on votes coming up for consideration. And then, of course, there's the math. Right now, under the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, we aren't seeing Supreme Court nominees getting confirmed, we're not seeing bills being brought up for debate, we're not seeing bipartisan budget deals getting worked out. The chemistry changes with every new seat. It's a different chance to form a different coalition and try and get things done.

There are seven U.S. representatives running for reelection in Colorado. Your congressional district is the most competitive, and observers might argue that there's only one district beyond yours that's even semi-competitive — the 3rd Congressional District race between Scott Tipton and Gail Schwartz. Is that unfortunate from your point of view? Should something be done to make it more difficult for a single party to hold on to a seat for election after election?

I believe competitive districts are good for democracy in the sense that if you get too skewed one way or the other, it becomes too easy not to represent the whole district. I think it's good for the people to have someone in office who knows that they need to listen to and represent everybody — every voice in the district — to the best of their ability.

The other side of that, though, is without campaign-finance reform, what is unsustainable is to have races that cost so much money and where voters are going to be seeing far more negative ads. In this case, the Koch brothers have singled out the 6th Congressional District. So we've seen a lot of funding from out-of-state billionaires and corporate PACs. It drives up the expense of a competitive race. So we have had to compensate with things like grassroots support with tens of thousands of individual donors that are often giving, like, $11 per contribution. And I think that's a great way to build support — but most people would agree that the amount of money being spent on political campaigns is staggering. And it is probably not the best use of money.

I think we need more competitive districts: I think they make for better representation. But they also put a spotlight on what is so broken in our campaign-finance system. Because that's not a sustainable approach, either.

Mike Coffman is obviously a very formidable candidate, having been elected four times, including in a race against Andrew Romanoff, who was perceived to be one of the rising stars in the Democratic Party in Colorado. What led to your decision to challenge him when you knew the odds of defeating him could be great?

I always knew this was a seat we could win. I think it is hard to be a challenger in a non-presidential year as a Democrat [Romanoff challenged Coffman in 2014]. Generally, we have lower turnout in a non-presidential year, and the data backs that up. It's hard to take on any incumbent; they're better financed, they can use their franking privileges to essentially campaign at taxpayer expense, they come with a war chest, and the interests of the status quo generally back incumbents over challengers. So all of those things are very real. But this is a Democratic-leaning district now. It used to be tied, but now it's leaning Democratic.

So for me, it was a two-part decision. The first thing I needed to think about was, can you actually do something if you're elected? There's no point in running for Congress if you win and you can't get anything done. My bigger struggle was a series of conversations I needed to have about, "What are you doing to make a difference? What are you doing to make a difference? What are you doing to make a difference?" I had no interest in this job as a title, because I have become accustomed over twelve years at the state level to getting things done. You don't always get your way on every single issue, but if you work hard and you're passionate and you keep pursuing what you think is the right course of action — well, we have a really good track record of getting phenomenal things done at the state level. And that is hard to follow with a do-nothing Congress.

That was the bigger challenge, not the numbers themselves. I've been elected four times in this district, my seats have always been swing seats, my mom graduated from high school in the district, I've done over 200 town halls in this community and knocked on 5,000 to 15,000 doors in this community for twelve years. So I know the community well; I have heard the actual issues that most people want us to address....

Let me put it this way: I wouldn't be running if I felt my community was getting the representation it deserves in Congress. And whether it's the fringe Tea Party dynamic or the boastful obstructionism that's happening, it is a shame that the institution of the Congress of the United States of America has been ground to a standstill and in paralysis when the needs of our community are so strong — and so solvable. There's nothing we are facing that we can't do if we actually had people committed to problem-solving. But right now, the culture of Congress is broken.

More immediately to your point, this is a great year to be running as a Democrat. It's always harder to be running as a challenger, but we're neck and neck — we knew we would be. And I think at the end of the day, we need to keep the focus on if people are happy with what Congress is doing. Because the answer is no.

How key is turnout for you when it comes to your goal of reaching office?

Very. This race will be determined on voter turnout at this point: who shows up, who doesn't show up. It is a razor-thin margin. So it is very critical for us.

Some of your campaign commercials have attempted to tie Mike Coffman to Donald Trump, even though Coffman was one of the first national candidates to distance himself from Trump and has since called for him to step aside as a Republican presidential candidate. Why do you think the Trump comparisons are still viable given all that?

Donald Trump didn't come from nowhere. And I think our country needs to realize that the kind of rhetoric we are seeing from Donald Trump, it isn't new. It feels new, but it's not. You might think it was Donald Trump keynoting at an anti-Islamic hate group or wanting a religious test to serve in the military, but it wasn't Donald Trump. That was Mike Coffman. And, "Oh, you may be a citizen with the right to vote, but, okay, go get a dictionary" — that may sound like Trump, but that was Mike Coffman.

Mike Coffman's decision to distance himself from Trump was a political one. He knows that Trump is profoundly unpopular in the district. And it's not just that he needs to distance himself because they share a party. The real problem Mike Coffman's going to face is that Mike Coffman needs to distance himself from Mike Coffman. Because Mike Coffman's the one who was trying to redefine rape in a way where date-rape drugs wouldn't qualify under a definition of rape. Or basically purging voters out of the voter file, and a court had to order a stop to it, because it was disproportionately hitting Hispanic voters. It was Mike Coffman who called the DREAM Act a nightmare. That wasn't Donald Trump. That was Mike Coffman. So while he would like to distance himself from Donald Trump, these are political self-preservation maneuvers — Mike Coffman looking out for Mike Coffman. But what he can't change is what he's done and what he's said and how he's voted — and he's not the only one. Donald Trump did not come from nowhere. We will never understand how we got to this point unless we realize that there's been a drumbeat against immigrants, against women. We've been seeing this build for multiple years now, and Mike Coffman's been part of it.

Do you think politicians like Mike Coffman enabled Donald Trump, allowing him to rise to the top of his party, and are only now, in retrospect, showing regret about that?

Yeah, I [do]. I think they created and enabled — some of it more actively, some of it more passively. But if you don't speak up against racism or Islamophobia or homophobia or misogyny — if you either fan those flames or stay silent — you're part of the problem.

A lot of Coffman's challengers over the years have tried to paint him as too extreme for Colorado, but his personality seems to make that more difficult. A number of his campaign commercials hardly mention the issues and instead talk about what a nice guy he is. Has it been difficult from your perspective to break through that image to say, "This is who this guy really is"?

I think what is challenging about Mike Coffman is, he's a shape shifter, and he'll effectively do and say anything to get elected. So when he needs to pander to his right-wing base, he'll pander to his right-wing base. When he has a new district and he realizes we're in one of the most diverse districts, suddenly he's going to be pandering to people in Spanish. Literally, in the same election cycle, in a Spanish-language debate, he told people we need to stop deportations to keep families together, and a mere few weeks later, to an English-speaking audience, he said we needed to crack down on deportations, and that meant enforcement — and it was indistinguishable from Donald Trump's mass-deportation plans.

So it's not his personality. It's the fact that people are busy and keeping up with his changing views, where he will literally do or say anything to a different audience depending on what will serve his political needs at the moment, [that] is difficult. Because he will evolve at the moment to do or say whatever is needed there.

I think what is backfiring on him a little bit is that people seem to be craving authenticity right now. I think people would rather deal with someone they don't agree with all the time but they know where they stand over someone who will do or say anything to keep a job in Congress. Because I've heard from Republicans in this district, and they say he's so all over the map that they don't know who he is or what he stands for, either.

I think it has served him politically this long. But the moves distancing himself from Trump, there are enough people who are asking why he did it when he did. Why not after Trump insulted Khizr Khan's family? What was it about the [Access Hollywood] tapes after he'd had such a long litany of unbelievably disqualifying views that are antagonistic to our constituents in this district? His pattern has been saying nothing, doing nothing, and he only stepped up after it was too late to get Donald Trump off the ballot and after it looked like an act of political suicide to be tethered to Donald Trump. There were plenty of opportunities where, if it was really a matter of principle, he could have spoken up against Donald Trump long before he ever did.

You mentioned earlier the huge resources being deployed against you in this campaign. The Coffman campaign and organizations supporting him have attacked you on many fronts — as a personal injury lawyer who supposedly voted in favor of legislation that benefited you, as a big tax-and-spender, and as the only person who voted against sexual predators being required to register their online profiles. Why, from your point of view ,are these claims either untrue or inaccurate?

Well, they're all untrue. I've never made a dime off a bill I've carried, and I've never had a legal complaint in my entire legal or legislative career, which Mike Coffman can't say. He's actually had a trail of ethics complaints that have followed him through multiple parts of his career. [Click to access a Westword post about Coffman being cleared in a 2009 ethics complaint.] So that's just the facts. What I've been doing is advocating for people's rights who are disabled or for civil rights. Why? Because I'm an advocate at heart, and I want to spend my life helping people. That's my definition of justice, whether I'm paid or unpaid. So that's the case of an allegation with absolutely nothing behind it and nothing to support it. And obviously, they've failed fact-checks on that, because when they've been asked, "What support do you have on this?," there wasn't any.

When they moved into the spending, obviously, for anybody who knows Colorado and realizes we have Tabor, they're smart enough to know that no individual or group of legislators can raise taxes at all. Only voters can raise taxes. So that's just fiction, and it's manipulative fiction. It's stuff they've probably poll-tested, but just because it sounds good doesn't make it true.

And what they've done with the sex-offender stuff is really the basest form of trying to fearmonger and manipulate facts, but it's also distorting a record. The bill they said I voted against I voted for. What they're trying to hang their hat on is that if we were adding e-mails to the sex-offender registry, I needed to make sure there was some verification so your e-mail — as in e-mail from a non-sex offender — doesn't end up on a sex-offender list. So simply insisting on having a verification process so it's an accurate sex-offender registry and doesn't have innocent people on the sex-offender registry does not amount to a single vote that's doing anything for anything.

In fact, the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault — I've been recognized for my work on behalf of survivors of sex assault of all ages. You don't get that award if you're doing the kinds of things they're saying in this commercial. But they are utterly untethered to the truth. What they're doing is fearmongering and thinking that if they say it, there are enough people who'll believe it. There are no consequences in the current environment to putting out blatantly false, misleading and unsupported stuff, and it is further proof that they will literally do anything to get elected. That is desperation.

If it's desperation, is that a sign that your campaign has got the Coffman camp worried?

Yep. There's a saying about how a drowning man kicks the hardest. And this is what a desperate person does with no record of his own to run on. Why is he making stuff up that's the opposite of how I actually voted? Because he can't win on the issues. His record isn't aligned with the district on the issues. And if you're part of the most dysfunctional, do-nothing Congress in history, you can't really talk about your record. So the only way he can win this is through $8 million of character assassination with the help of the Koch brothers, out-of-state billionaires and corporate PACs that prefer to keep him in office over me. And part of that isn't just because I'm a challenger. It's because I've had a track record of taking on big, wealthy, powerful special interests, including lobbyists, and they know it.

You mentioned that this is a really close contest and turnout is going to be key. Do you feel momentum is moving in your direction? And how will you be campaigning from now until election day?

Right now, this is an extremely close race, and we feel momentum is moving our way. So we are going to be focusing a lot on voter turnout. We're going to be trying to get people who've been exposed to a lot of garbage on the airwaves the actual platform information. But we're also trying to make sure people exercise their right to vote and realize that, as frustrating as it is for a lot of voters to see this really toxic and horrible campaign apparatus, at the end of the day, it's only because their vote is so powerful that all this attention is going to it. We need to remind people about the power of their vote and how it really makes a difference.

It's not about me, it's not about Mike Coffman, it's not about any of the candidates. Voters need to know it's about them, and they need to have a platform that's actually going to address the real-world issues they're facing in their life. And when voters realize this election is about them and not about any of us, I think it gets them to turn out and vote. We want to really empower people to take back their election and take back their government. And we hope to see big change coming through, so we can change directions in this country away from finger-pointing and paralysis and actually take up the people's business again.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts