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Colorado, Guns And Politics

Mar 28, 2018
Originally published on March 28, 2018 5:58 am
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Republican Congressman Mike Coffman is one of the GOP's most resilient incumbents. Coffman has won re-election five times in a suburban district in Denver. It's a district that President Obama carried twice and that Hillary Clinton took in the 2016 White House race. This year, President Trump is very unpopular, and Democrats are energized. But Coffman has built up a surprising firewall of support that could protect him yet again from a blue wave. NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis has the story.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No more silence. End gun violence. No more...

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: The gun debate that sent millions of Americans marching into the streets over the weekend is revving up suburban Democratic voters, like retiree David Frieder, like never before.

DAVID FRIEDER: I've never - until this year, I haven't contributed a dime, in my entire life, to anybody's campaign. This year, I've given more money than I ever thought I would do.

DAVIS: One of Frieder's top targets is his congressman, Mike Coffman.

FRIEDER: And he continues to support the NRA and take money from the NRA, doesn't return it. And I'm tired of it.

DAVIS: The gun debate is particularly resonant here. A few miles away is where the Columbine school shooting occurred in 1999. Coffman's district includes the Aurora movie theater where 12 were killed in a 2012 mass shooting. Democratic candidates like Jason Crow are embracing support for tougher gun laws in suburban districts like this one. He chose guns as the first issue ad of his campaign.

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JASON CROW: You know, I look at the gun violence crisis and how it's torn apart so many families. Enough is enough.

DAVIS: I met up with Crow after he attended Denver's gun march. He thinks he can beat Coffman because of two factors unique to this year's political climate, Trump and guns.

CROW: People see what Donald Trump and his presidency are doing to this country and to our community. Mike Coffman is a rubber stamp for him. They've had enough. They've had enough of his support by the NRA and his inaction on gun violence in this community that's been scarred by it, and they want change.

DAVIS: Crow has some built-in advantages. Democrats outnumber Republicans here. He's a political newcomer and a military veteran with natural appeal to the district's white, college-educated suburbanites. But making inroads with Coffman's strength among the district's diverse minority groups that make up more than 1/3 of the district won't be as easy. One of the most prominent is the Ethiopian community.

Outside Sunday church services at St. Mary's in Aurora, Democrat Nebiyu Asfaw explains his left-leaning community's view of their Republican congressman.

NEBIYU ASFAW: Quite honestly there has not been anyone, any elected official, that has worked as hard for the Ethiopian community as Congressman Mike Coffman. I mean, that's just the truth.

DAVIS: In minority communities like this one, the gun debate is just not a driving issue. That presents one of Democrats' toughest hurdles to beating incumbents like Coffman. Even as the national climate turns against Republicans, he still has a deep reservoir of support on the issues important to local communities. It's why voters like Ethiopian-American Fikru Ayele say they support him.

FIKRU AYELE: After he got elected, he came back. Most politicians, they don't come back and ask you what you need. But he did. He did, he came back and asked us.

DAVIS: Coffman co-authored a resolution condemning human rights abuses in Ethiopia, and the House is scheduled to vote on it next month. It's that attention to immigrant communities that Coffman says help him defy the electoral odds in an increasingly Democratic district.

MIKE COFFMAN: I've turned what was designed to be an adverse situation for me, in terms of this diversity of this district and the performance of this district, I think, into a positive.

DAVIS: Even Democratic rivals, like Jason Crow, don't dispute Coffman's outreach.

CROW: He's gone out and he's showed up repeatedly to these communities, and you know, that's fine. But we're now in an environment where leading means more than just showing up.

DAVIS: But Coffman believes showing up still matters. On a recent Sunday, his schedule included stops at a mosque, a Korean church, a Hindu festival and a Taiwanese lantern festival.

COFFMAN: And then I had a tutorial in Spanish that evening. Every Sunday, I have a tutor that comes in for two hours.

DAVIS: He also started learning Spanish about four years ago and now has a regular Friday appearance on Spanish talk radio to reach the district's Hispanic community. On Monday, he visited with Colorado Chinese News President Wendy Chao, whose newspaper reaches about 45,000 Coloradans.

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WENDY CHAO: Congressman. (Speaking Chinese). My best friend. Sit down, please.

DAVIS: Chao said Coffman has been an ally to the Chinese community long before he served in Congress, and not just in election years.

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CHAO: This is from my heart. I will say Congressman Michael Coffman is the only one who really care - our Asian community, minority community, you know?

DAVIS: In a district where at least 120 languages are spoken, the deciding question for voters may not be just about Trump or guns, but rather, who speaks for me? Susan Davis, NPR News, Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.