Here on the High Plains, where the deer and the antelope once played, Denver’s suburbs roam toward the Rockies’ front range and the nature of today’s polyglot politics is written in the local congressman’s campaign schedule. One day last week, Republican Mike Coffman went from a Hispanic charter school in a strip mall, to another strip mall for lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant with leaders of the Ethiopian American community, then to a meeting with the editor of the largest of two Korean-language newspapers serving more than 3,000 Korean Americans in the metropolitan area.
Coffman was elected to Congress in 2008 with 61 percent of the vote, replacing Tom Tancredo, a firebrand who that year ineffectually ran for president as a scourge of illegal immigrants. Coffman’s thinking was somewhat congruent with Tancredo’s. Then, however, the political market — a.k.a. democracy — began to work, with an assist from Democrats, who inadvertently made Coffman a better politician and person.
After he was reelected with 66 percent of the vote in 2010, his district was gerrymandered to make it more Democratic — 20 percent Hispanic, with a generous salting of other minorities. He won in 2012 with just 48 percent of the vote. In 2014, national Democrats recruited a formidable opponent, a Yale University graduate who had taught, in Spanish, in Central American schools. So, Coffman learned Spanish well enough to do an entire debate in the language, and today banters in Spanish with the children at Roca Fuerte Academy.
The pastor who founded it in 2008 says this charter school is anathema to, and underfunded by, the local school district, which is obedient to the teachers union, which dislikes charters that are not obedient to it. The district’s schools have just a 61 percent graduation rate. Roca Fuerte Academy does better.
Some of the academy’s pupils in their school uniforms are antecedents of the pronoun in Donald Trump’s four-word immigration policy: “They have to go.” They were brought here by illegal immigrants. Trump wants to send them “home” to countries they do not remember. Coffman has co-authored legislation that would provide legal status and a path to lawful permanent resident status to those who came before age 16, have lived here five consecutive years, and who have been accepted to a college or vocational school or have demonstrated an intent to enlist in the military, or have a valid work authorization.
At the Nile restaurant, Coffman’s cowboy boots go beneath a table groaning under the weight of trays laden with Ethiopian food that is eaten without utensils, scooped up with bits torn from rolls of bread as thin and flexible as fabric. Coffman sits next to an Ethiopian Orthodox bishop who is wearing a cassock and a glittering pectoral cross. As guests arrive, several kiss a crucifix he holds. He speaks scant English but draws 1,500 to Sunday services. Many of those around the table have been in the United States for at least a decade and are citizens and small-business entrepreneurs. Ethiopians are Colorado’s second-largest immigrant community and are grateful for Coffman’s attempts to pressure Ethiopia’s authoritarian government to stop using violence against protesters. Coffman attends the annual “Taste of Ethiopia” festival here in America’s Mountain West and “Ethiopians for Coffman” might matter in November. As might the Korean American community, which continues to honor those Americans who, like Coffman’s father, fought in the Korean War.
Coffman, 61, enlisted in the Army before receiving his high school diploma, which he earned while serving. After leaving the Army and graduating from the University of Colorado, he went to Marine Corps officer training. When he left the Corps he became a state legislator until called back into uniform in 1991 for the Gulf War. In 2005, he resigned as state treasurer to serve a tour of duty with the Marines in Iraq. There he helped organize elections in a place where diversity is rather more problematic than in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District.
His opponent this year, who dislikes charter schools and school choice, does not speak fluent Spanish and, unlike almost all candidates challenging incumbents, does not seem to want many debates — she even declined the Denver Post’s. Coffman thinks she does not want anything to distract from her theme, which is: Trump is a Republican and so is Coffman.
In early August, however, Coffman acted preemptively with a television ad that began: “People ask me, ‘What do you think about Trump?’ Honestly, I don’t care for him much.” Spoken like a Marine who does 10 sets of 50 push-ups daily.