Vietnam-era Navy veteran Patrick Flesher from Buena Vista lit up with excitement when he recognized U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in the lobby of the new Rocky Mountain Regional Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Aurora.
“I thought you’d be taller,” said Flesher, squeezing and shaking his fellow veteran’s hand. “You look bigger on TV.”
It helps to have a veteran working on veterans issues in Washington, Flesher said, “because they know what it’s like.”
He doesn’t live in Coffman’s 6th Congressional District in the Denver suburbs, but Flesher said he would vote for Coffman for governor and maybe even for president.
Dressed in a military green sweater with a Marine Corps insignia over his heart, Coffman found warmth to spare on a cold day after he took the first defeat of his 30-year political career, interspersed with decades of military duty.
After a decade in Washington, Coffman tells Colorado Politics he won’t be going back. He has no interest in a rematch with Jason Crow, the Democratic newcomer who unseated him as a blue wave rippled across the country and crashed on the political shores of Colorado.
“I think 10 years is enough,” Coffman said. “It was a great experience, but I’m ready to do something else.”
Coffman might instead run for mayor of Aurora next year, and there are whispers in Republican circles that he could run for governor or take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in 2022.
He’s not ready to commit, but the mayor’s office has some merit for him, Coffman said.
“That’s nonpartisan,” he said of the city office. “But I’m not even going to think about it until we get into next year. I didn’t tell people no, but I said I’ll think about it next year.”
Loyalty and loss
Coffman chalks up his defeat to President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in his district.
“It wasn’t about re-electing Mike Coffman,” he said. “It was about saying, ‘We need a check on the president. We want to flip the House.’”
And he cites other factors .
There’s the historic norm that the party that holds the White House loses seats in the president’s first midterm election. And outside groups — seeing Coffman as vulnerable — invested heavily in the race in support of Crow, while Republican funding organizations pulled out millions of dollars in TV advertising in the race, leaving the incumbent swamped.
Whatever the reason, the loss was the will of the voters, Coffman said. He can accept that, even though he’s never been on the losing end of that bargain before, he said.
At a news conference the day after the election, Trump called out Coffman as one of the defeated members of Congress who had not fully embraced Trumpism.
“You had some (Republican candidates) who decided to, ‘Let’s stay away, let’s stay away.’ They did very poorly. I’m not sure whether I should be happy or sad but I feel just fine about it,” Trump said, adding: “Mike Coffman. Too bad, Mike.”
Coffman ran a campaign ad two years ago promising to stand up to Trump. “Country First” was the title of the ad.
“Honestly, I don’t care for him much,” Coffman said of Trump then.
Now, over hot tea on a snowy day across the street from the VA hospital in Aurora, Coffman laughed at the president for taking the shot at him.
“If only Mike Coffman … ” the defeated congressman feigned, raising and shaking his palms as to mock the president’s deflection of blame.
When Coffman and Trump were on the ballot two years ago, Coffman beat state Sen. Morgan Carroll, who now chairs the state Democratic Party, by 8.3 percentage points, while Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the district by 10.
Last year, Coffman wouldn’t embrace the Republican replacement plan for Obamacare because he didn’t think it would cover pre-existing conditions. Trump called Coffman to seek his support, but the congressman from Aurora said no, not without assurances the president wouldn’t even acknowledge, Coffman recalled.
Then, 30 minutes before the vote, Coffman got a call from Vice President Mike Pence, a friend who formerly served with the Coloradan in the House. But Trump took the phone and reiterated that Coffman needed to be part of the team or skip the vote, with no bend toward the congressman’s concern about pre-existing conditions.
Coffman voted against the Republican proposal to repeal Obamacare. The measure ultimately died in the Senate when the late Sen. John McCain voted against it.
“It’s never that Mike Coffman doesn’t support his issues; it’s that ‘Mike Coffman doesn’t support me,’” Coffman said of Trump, chuckling. “It’s like a cult of personality.”
Asked what it would be like if he ever met Trump for a beer, Coffman said without hesitation: “It wouldn’t be good. It would not be good.”
Coffman split most sharply with the president on immigration. Coffman, like Trump, supports secure borders and curbs to illegal immigration, but Trump’s message gets interpreted as “anti-immigrant,” the congressman said.
Coffman’s mother, who was born in Iraq and raised in China, treasured this country. Most of the immigrants he knows feel the same, Coffman said.
Coffman tried to preserve protections for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, shielding undocumented immigrants from deportation, with conditions.
His congressional coffin, however, was nailed shut by the polarizing tone of the president on a raft of issues that didn’t sit well with moderate independents, women and suburban voters who make up Coffman’s district.
The president’s incendiary rhetoric in the closing days of the race about the migrant caravan moving from Central America across Mexico toward the U.S. border didn’t play well for Coffman, either.
“I didn’t see it as a national security threat, as the president did,” Coffman said of the caravan. “I saw it as a humanitarian crisis.”
He said Trump is creating a political narrative that Coffman suspects he knows isn’t true.
“For him, it’s about loyalty,” Coffman said. “ … I stand with the president when I agree with him. I agree with him on regulatory reform and I agree with him on cutting taxes. I didn’t agree with him on separating families at the border or his characterization of the caravan.”
And yet, as the president tries to clamp down on immigration, Coffman said agriculture and small businesses are starved for employees. The U.S., he said, could work with Mexico and impoverished Central American countries to have a regulated, mutually beneficial program, Coffman said.
“I think it’s a political equation for him,” Coffman said of Trump. “He’s thinking about 2020 and he wants to leave these issues open, rather than solve them.”
The economy might not stay strong — it’s already showing signs of softening, Coffman said — and Trump sees immigration as the ace up his sleeve that it was in 2016.
“I think immigration is going to be his issue, and he wants a clear black-and-white distinction. … It’s either open borders or it’s secure borders (to him),” Coffman said. “It’s sanctuary cities and rampant crime, or it’s enforcing the law and the rule of law.”
In a state such as Colorado, where more than one in five residents is of Hispanic descent, that won’t bode well for Republicans, who in 2013 saw Latino voters as critical to the party’s future in a post-election “autopsy.”
Trump saw it differently and won.
“It’s not helpful in this state,” Coffman said of the president’s stance.
Value of immigrants
Coffman said working with immigrant communities was an unexpected bonus. They were added to his district primarily by Democrats in Denver after the 2010 census. He lost conservative portions of southeast metro Denver and the eastern plains, and picked up highly diverse areas around Aurora.
He learned Spanish and moderated his views on immigration. (In 2013, Politico wrote that “no GOP pol has bent more than Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, who embodied his party’s hard line on immigration — until he was thrust into a district with thousands more Latinos.”)
More recently, Coffman has been a fixture at events put on by the immigrant organizations and neighborhoods in his district.
“They drew these lines to get rid of me,” he said of redistricting in 2011. “ … But I would not trade the experience that I’ve had for the safe district that I had, not for anything. It’s been an extraordinary experience for me to learn about these communities and becoming part of their communities, to understand their issues and advocate on their behalf.”
Each immigrant community in his district has a different need from Washington, he said, going down through a list off the top of his head with his assistant.
Coffman worked with Ethiopian immigrants in his district to persuade the U.S. to exert political influence over humanitarian abuses in their home country. Leaders in metro Denver’s Ethiopian community are planning a dinner soon to thank Coffman for his service on myriad fronts.
“Over the past five or six years, Mike Coffman has built a reputation as a congressman that people know and trust for a reason,” said Nebiyu Asfaw, an organizer in metro Denver’s Ethiopian community. “Beyond politics and ideology, working with Mike has afforded us the opportunity to witness what a genuinely compassionate human being he is; one that takes his role as a representative sincerely, humbly and with great honor.
“We have never seen such dedication and commitment to public service from any elected officials in our experience,” Asfaw added. “Mike Coffman’s accessibility and responsiveness to constituents transcended ideological litmus tests or politics; it was a human affair.”
Commitment to veterans
It’s no surprise, really, that Coffman feels at home at the VA hospital — a facility that has been a key focus of his attention in Congress for years.
He grew up nearby, the son of an Army master sergeant, and remembers visiting the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora with his father as a boy.
Coffman enlisted in the Army in 1972 and transferred to the Marine Corps in 1979. The most recent of his several periodic military tours of duty, in Iraq, ended in 2006.
The veterans issues he seems the proudest of are those that affect soldiers dealing with mental illness — legislation that got unanimous House approval a year ago — and addressing sexual assaults in the military.
Coffman found that many veterans were dishonorably discharged for transgressions that might have been the result of untreated mental illness. And a veteran denied health care is far less likely to get help for mental illness, potentially increasing the numbers of imprisoned veterans and veteran suicides.
He passed legislation to re-examine why soldiers and sailors were dishonorably discharged and to review those denied VA benefits because of it.
As for the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center, through years of delays and enormous cost overruns, Coffman worked to keep the project on track, and was on hand for its grand opening in July. Those overruns eventually grew to more than $1 billion; Coffman helped get federal money to cover the unplanned costs.
Coffman introduced legislation in 2013 that passed the House in 2014 to transfer construction management authority from the VA to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Actually, it was my goal to completely strip (VA) of their construction management authority for all projects over $10 million,” Coffman said of his work to untangle the agency’s construction boondoggle. “The Senate countered with $250 million and we settled, in conference committee, at $100 million, which effectively excludes them from being involved in hospital construction management.”
He also has pushed hard for better oversight of the VA than Trump’s initial efforts.
The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Republican Phil Roe of Tennessee, has said Coffman single-handedly keep the Aurora hospital on track after so many problems there.
“He led the effort to have VA construction management replaced by the Army Corps of Engineers,” Roe said in a statement. “It was this change that gave Congress the confidence to continue funding the hospital construction project to completion.”
“When I think of all we could have done for veterans with over a billion dollars in cost overruns, it breaks my heart,” Coffman said. “It was unbelievable and I wanted to hold the VA accountable for that; at some point you have to look forward and keep it from happening again.”
Coffman will leave a legacy in how such future projects are built. But he downplays his own congressional legacy repeatedly, shifting the focus to the results.
Coffman doesn’t like being called a politician, and the attention that comes with it should also be focused on his military service, he maintains. They’re one and the same, he said: service to others.
His father, the late Harold Coffman, was a career enlisted Army soldier who served in World War II and Korea and was wounded in action. The congressman thinks his father would be proud of him for his service.
“All these things overlap,” Coffman said. “I’ve been in politics for 30 years, but I’ve run a small business, I’ve worked in state government, I’ve been a soldier in the Army and Marines, active duty and reserves. I’ve always tried to help people if I could.”