After weeks of publicly considering whether to run in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District next year, Democrat Levi Tillemann told Colorado Politics on Tuesday that he plans to announce on July 9 that he’s campaigning for the seat held by Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman.
The former Obama administration official and expert in clean energy will join three other Democrats who have announced they’re running in the suburban battleground district.
Tillemann, 35, said in early May he was forming an exploratory committee and planned to conduct a listening tour in the district to determine whether to challenge Coffman, one of 23 Republicans nationwide who represent House districts won last year by Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“My name is Levi Tillemann, like the jeans, and I’m going to be running against Mike Coffman in the 6th Congressional District,” Tillemann said Tuesday night in a union hall at a meeting about the future of the Democratic Party organized by state party chair Morgan Carroll, who lost a bid to unseat Coffman last year by just over 7 points. (Clinton defeated Republican Donald Trump by 9 points in the district.)
Politics could be in Tillemann’s blood.
On his father’s side, he’s the grandson of Nancy Dick, the first woman lieutenant governor of Colorado. And on his mother’s side, he’s the grandson of the late Tom Lantos, who fought the Nazis in Hungary and later became the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress, representing a Bay Area district for 27 years.
Tilleman told Colorado Politics he became convinced to launch his candidacy after spending the past month and a half talking to voters in the district.
“What I heard was they needed a candidate who was willing to fight for progressive values, they needed a candidate who was going to bring the jobs of the future to Congressional District 6, they needed a candidate who cared about the issues they cared about — whether that be health care for their families and their parents and their children, or the environment,” he said.
“I think we need a strong voice who communicates clearly, who doesn’t talk like a partisan but talks like a person, and who hasn’t work-shopped their message to death, who is willing to sit down and talk to people.”
Coffman has been elected five times to represent the 6th Congressional District, which includes much of Adams and Arapahoe counties, all of Aurora and Highlands Ranch in Douglas County. Pegged as one of the most competitive seats in the country for the past two cycles — and already targeted by Democrats for the 2018 election — it has roughly equal numbers of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.
The other Democrats hoping to challenge Coffman are Jason Crow, a Denver attorney and Army combat veteran; David Aarestad, an Aurora attorney and former Cherry Creek School District board candidate; and Gabriel McArthur, a Bernie Sanders delegate to last year’s Democratic National Convention.
Tillemann said voters told him that there was room for another Democrat in the race.
“When we spoke to people in the community, what we heard was, ‘We want you to run; we feel like you have the right kind of message, you understand diversity, you understand the future of the economy, and you’re the kind of representative we want for CD 6,’” he said.
Voters are most concerned, Tillemann said, with the skyrocketing cost of housing, concerns about keeping health care coverage and worries over the shifting economy and whether their jobs will even exist in the future, much less provide a decent living.
Tillemann’s exploratory committee hasn’t operated without controversy. He came under fire from a conservative organization shortly after announcing he’d formed the committee, fielding charges that he was only pretending to weigh a run while caching campaign donations.
About a month ago, Compass Colorado Executive Director Kelly Maher called on Tillemann to declare his candidacy, pointing to online fundraising — at the time it totaled nearly $40,000, including pledges — she argued far surpassed what election authorities consider sufficient to test the waters. Saying he’d been given assurances by federal officials, Tillemann countered that he was “well within the boundaries” of election law.
On Tuesday, Tillemann declined to tell Colorado Politics how much he’s raised in donations and pledges — his online fundraising pages no longer display a running total — but said he’ll report his contributions on the next quarter’s FEC report, which would be due Oct. 15 if he officially enters the race in the first week of July. (Federal election rules require candidates to file paperwork within 15 days of referring to themselves as candidates; Tillemann said he intends to make his campaign official by the middle or end of next week.)
Tillemann acknowledged that Coffman is a seasoned politician with an unbroken string of wins — the Aurora Republican was first elected to the Colorado House nearly three decades ago and has since served in the state Senate and as state treasurer and secretary of state before winning a seat in Congress — but said he plans to take the fight to the incumbent.
“Mike Coffman will do whatever he has to do to get reelected,” Tillemann said. “The only consistent thing about him is the inconsistency of his principles.”
Describing Coffman’s votes earlier this year first in favor of and then against Republican legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obmaacare, Tillemann could barely contain his dismay.
“He voted for the worse version of the American Health Care Act, and then he voted against the still disastrous but slightly better second version of the American Health Care Act. He got credit for that second vote. That doesn’t make any sense.”
Coffman, he said, “masquerades as a moderate by voting for Paul Ryan when Paul Ryan needs him and voting against Paul Ryan when they already have the votes. And that’s a big problem in his district.”
Tyler Sandberg, a Coffman campaign advisor, mockingly cheered Tillemann’s imminent entry into the race by taking a swing at divisions in the Democratic Party while at the same time getting in a jab at Crow, who has been gaining national attention and winning prominent endorsements in the primary.
“Levi is a Bernie Sanders socialist progressive,” Sandberg told Colorado Politics. “And all of Hillary Clinton’s old friends in these DC political committees are going to do everything they can to prevent him from winning the Democratic primary. We would welcome a race against a Bernie Sanders type. But Levi has to defeat Jason Crow and, by proxy, Nancy Pelosi first.”
As far as last year’s presidential race, Tillemann told Colorado Politics he “found Bernie’s voice very inspiring and contributed to his campaign early on” but then contributed to Clinton’s campaign and knocked doors for her in swing states after it became clear she had won the nomination last year.
“I think Bernie is a man of phenomenal integrity and, in many ways, I agree with his vision,” he said. “I liked the way he ran his campaign. But I was the opposite of Bernie-or-bust. To me, the most important thing was to beat Donald Trump.”
Tilleman is the author of “The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future.” He served for five years as a Department of Energy policy advisor under President Barack Obama and is a managing partner at Valence Strategies, a consulting firm made up of what he calls “Obama administration science policy wonks.”
Tillemann said he plans to take part in the July 4th parade in Highland Ranch — it’s his first scheduled campaign event — accompanied by the 1952 MG-TD roadster his grandparents Nancy and Howard Dick drove to Colorado more than 60 years ago.
His campaign kick-off is scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. on July 9 at Megenagna Ethiopian restaurant in central Aurora.
“I never back down from a fight that I think is important. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but this is incredibly important,” Tillemann said. “I’m really excited to have a conversation with Mike Coffman and explain to him why I don’t think he’s doing his job and representing the people of his district.”