Mike Coffman challenger Jason Crow talks about the battle in front of him
Author: Ernest Luning - May 17, 2017 - Updated: August 6, 2017
Denver attorney and decorated combat veteran Jason Crow says he decided to run for Congress soon after the November election, when it was clear to him that the world had changed overnight.
“After the election, my wife and I, like many people, were trying to figure out what our world looked like and how we were going to make a difference,” he says. “We eventually decided on this.”
That would be to challenge five-term incumbent Republican Mike Coffman, who has been representing the 6th Congressional District since 2009 and has been winning elections for nearly three decades, as a state lawmaker, state treasurer, secretary of state and member of Congress.
Coffman, an Army and Marine Corps veteran, was reelected in November by a wide margin to represent the Aurora-based seat, one of 23 congressional districts nationwide carried by Democrat Hillary Clinton but represented by Republicans. Clinton won the district by about 9 points over Republican Donald Trump, while Coffman defeated former Senate President Morgan Carroll by 7.3 points, making for one of the widest spreads between presidential and congressional votes in the country.
Partly for that reason, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — which works to elect Democrats to the House of Representatives — included Coffman on a list of targeted incumbents earlier this year, a development dismissed by members of his campaign team who pointed to his unbroken string of wins against high-profile Democrats. (Coffman beat former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff in 2014 and former state Rep. Joe Miklosi in 2012.)
The suburban district is nearly evenly split between Republican, Democratic and unaffiliated voters. It includes all of Aurora, as well as portions of Adams County to the north and Arapahoe and Douglas counties to the south.
While he uses his military and combat metaphors sparingly, Crow says he plans to take the fight to Coffman and keep up the pressure every time the Republican sides with President Trump. He discussed his decision to challenge Coffman and what kind of campaign he plans to run during a recent interview with The Colorado Statesman.
Crow, who announced his run in early April, is one of three Democrats vying for the nomination, but he’s the only one who’s drawn consistent fire from Coffman’s team and national Republicans. The other two are Gabriel McArthur, a Bernie Sanders delegate to last year’s Democratic National Convention, who entered the race in November, and Aurora attorney David Aarestad, who announced he was running about a week after Crow launched his bid.
Although Crow isn’t a newcomer to politics — he spoke on the last day of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2012, praising President Barack Obama’s record advocating for veterans’ health care and the administration’s role in the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy — he has never run for elective office before, and he says he believes that will help him do what nearly a dozen Democrats have failed to do over the years, and that’s to defeat Coffman.
“My campaign is a campaign of firsts in many ways,” he says. “I’m bringing to this a different background and a different life experience than has been brought to this race. I’ve never been elected before. I don’t have politicians in my family. I come from a middle-class, working family background. I’ve served this country in uniform.”
He’s a different kind of candidate than the ones Democrats have nominated to run against Coffman the last three times, since the 6th District was redrawn from a safely Republican one to a swing seat. For one, the Army Ranger veteran served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star, making him Coffman’s first opponent with a military background since the district became a battleground.
“I can talk to people about what it’s like to serve outside of politics, how service and personal sacrifice — nonpolitical — is what’s helped build this country and made it great,” Crow says. “And I think that’s what people want, right? They want people who are committed to service, to the country and the community, not to politics and to themselves. I’m going to talk about what it’s like being the father of young children with my wife and the challenges of raising a young family in this day and age. And education and health care and connecting with people on that level, and that is going to be a first.”
He and his wife, Deserai Anderson Crow — she’s a fourth-generation Coloradan and an associate professor who teaches environmental policy at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs — have two children, ages 4 and 7, and live in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood.
After Crow left the Army in 2006, he moved to Denver to attend law school at the University of Denver and says that’s when his interest in politics kicked in.
“I was having a hard time getting my benefits, like many of the folks were,” he says. “As I was working with the VA to get the benefits and start law school, I started to realize that a big part of the issue was a political problem, that there just wasn’t the political will at that time in Washington to get the Iraq and Afghan vets the benefits they’d earned. That’s what drove me to get involved in politics in Colorado.”
Crow says he started supporting candidate who shared his values and supported veterans’ issues, which soon led to an appointment on the Colorado Board of Veterans Affairs, and that eventually led to chairing the veterans’ committee that helped secure the funding for the VA hospital in Aurora. (He received the United Veterans Committee’s Outstanding Service Award in 2011 for his work advocating for the VA hospital.)
“One thing led to another,” Crow says with a smile. Before he knew it, he was advising Obama’s two presidential campaigns on military, veterans and national security issues, and that’s how he landed the speaking gig at the DNC. “It was just kind of organically grown over time.”
Crow joined the National Guard and then ROTC in college, going active-duty in the Army after the 9/11 attacks, and then serving three combat tours as part of conventional and special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“That was a turning point for me was going to war for my country and serving with people of all different backgrounds — every race, every ethnicity, urban, rural, every background,” he says. “And still right now I can’t tell you what the political affiliations of most of those folks were. But coming together as a team, seeing how we built a diverse team and still came together for each other under the flag and wore the same uniform and great things under very difficult circumstances has always stuck with me.”
While he’s a partner at law firm Holland and Hart — he practices business law, primarily advising small- and medium-sized firms about compliance with regulations — Crow says he knows what it’s like to struggle.
“I’m coming at this race with a very different perspective — certainly a different perspective than Mike Coffman, but also from some other folks that ran at this race in the past,” he says. “I come from a working-class background. My family on my father’s side was a family of bricklayers, so walking around town I’d be seeing walls that they built, tangible things. My father was one of the first in his family to go to college.”
Crow says his family moved around a lot in the Midwest when he was growing up after being hit hard by the recession in the 1980s. After his father was laid off, his parents had some setbacks after starting their small business, an independent insurance agency.
“I’ve seen first-hand that you can work hard and never still get ahead, right? This idea that if you just work hard, you’ll achieve the American Dream is still elusive to some people. There are structural barriers that are in many people’s way. Figuring out how to level the playing field is something that, from a young age, was always on my mind,” he says.
But he says that national developments in recent years, including the election of Donald Trump, are what’s awakened his political drive, even as he criticizes large-scale politics as it’s practiced these days.
“I’ve seen what’s happened with our dialogue and what’s happened since I left the service, and I’ve seen what’s going on in our politics and our communities and in Washington. Now as a father of young children, I’m not OK with any of it. I’m not OK with how we view each other through political lenses. I’m not OK with how there’s kind of a political class in this country that talks about boundary lines and financing and corporate money and how to get reelected — just this machine that is so focused on getting people reelected and gaming that,” he says. “And then there’s everybody else — the people I grew up with and the families like mine that I grew up with and the people I served with in the military. And many of them are struggling, and it’s not getting any better.”
Asked what finally encouraged him to step into the political arena he views with some disdain, Crow smiles to acknowledge the contradiction — with a grin, he quips, “She’s OK,” nodding at political veteran Alex Ball, his campaign manager, who sits across from him at a table during the interview — but then turns serious.
“Our leadership is not listening,” he says, “and we’re not fixing the dysfunction in Washington, and I’m not OK sitting on the sidelines while that’s happening knowing that the values that I fought for and people I knew fought and sacrificed for — knowing that we’re going in the wrong direction and that I might turn over to my children a world that’s less fair, that’s less safe and that’s less equitable. That’s really why I’m running.”
He says Trump’s string of executive orders since he was inaugurated are damaging the country and faults Coffman for his complicity.
“I’ll say that I have not agreed with anything that Donald Trump has done,” Crow says. “I think he is rolling back important protections for consumers. I think he is rolling back important protections that were designed to prevent the same kind of financial crisis that we experienced a decade ago. I’m very concerned by it. I’m very concerned that he’s doing that at a time when our economy is still recovering and still trying to grow in the way that I think that we need it to. And that Congress, particularly Mike Coffman, is not standing up to him and fighting for consumer protections.”
Then he gives a preview of the kind of message district voters are likely to start hearing over the next year.
“Mike Coffman has positioned himself as a moderate for many years,” Crow says. “Now we’re seeing, very acutely for the first time, because we have not just a Republican president — but a Republican president that’s far out of step of the values of Colorado in the 6th — where his allegiance lies. He said less than a year ago in one of his top TV commercials that if Donald Trump were elected president, that he would stand up to Donald Trump. And since that time, he’s now voted 96 percent in favor of Donald Trump’s agenda.”
Crow runs through a list of issues he says he plans to highlight in his campaign, starting with Coffman’s support for the initial Republican bill to undo the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
Coffman was the only member of Colorado’s congressional delegation to get behind the first version of the bill in early April before Republican leaders canceled a planned vote because it lacked GOP support. A month later, he was one of only 20 House Republicans to vote against the revamped American Health Care Act, which passed by just a handful of votes — the other three Republican members of Colorado’s House delegation supported it, while all three Democrats opposed it — saying it didn’t provide sufficient protection for people with preexisting conditions.
“I think we need to focus on some of the battles that are ahead of us in the near future,” Crow said. “We have Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress that’s bent on changing the health care system in a way that will really hurt many people in the 6th Congressional District. Tens of thousands of people, by some estimates, will lose health care by 2026. That is a real impact on real people that’s unacceptable. We need to find a way to invest in business infrastructure so that we can grow businesses and get good jobs. And we need to focus on comprehensive immigration reform. We also need to focus on equal pay for equal work and women’s reproductive rights. These are all things that are in line with the values of the district that are not being represented by Mike Coffman.”
Although Coffman’s previous opponents have described him in similar terms — and Carroll’s campaign last year spent as much time talking about Trump as it did Coffman during the final stretch — Crow says that circumstances have changed.
“I feel like we’re in a very different world than we were just a year ago — than six months ago — and I’m going to run this campaign based on me and my values and the world that we’re in right now,” he says. “I think it would be a mistake to look back over other races and other times and try to do post mortems on those races. It is such a different time and such a different context that we have to fight the battle in front of us.”
From the sound of things, that involves Coffman’s longevity in office as much as it does his support for Trump.
“Mike Coffman has been in elected office almost 28 years now,” he says. “So I think the question we’re going to propose to voters is, over the last 28 years — and it’s been almost 10 in this congressional district — has he changed Washington more than Washington has changed him? Are we in a better place now than we were 10 years ago, and is our country heading in a better direction than it was 10 years ago? And if the answer to that question is ‘no’ — and I’m hearing from a lot of people that the answer to that question is ‘no’ — then we’re not going to fix it with the same people and the same way of thinking that got us there.”
And then there’s Trump.
“Mike Coffman now is going to be forced to defend his positions and his values in a way that he hasn’t been previously,” Crow says. “We now have Donald Trump as president of the United States. And there are things happening now that people are going to have to take sides on, and he’s been taking sides on them, to the tune of 96 percent with Donald Trump. I think the people of the 6th District are realizing that, despite the amount of time he’s been in the district and despite his outreach and being a homegrown Aurora boy, that he does not represent their values, he’s not voting in a way that they want him and expect him to vote, and he’s not keeping his promise to stand up to Donald Trump.”
Coffman campaign spokesman Tyler Sandberg welcomed Crow to the race in April by invoking time-honored Republican bogeyman Nancy Pelosi and pointing out that Crow doesn’t live in the district.
Like two of Coffman’s previous challengers — Miklosi and Romanoff — Crow is launching his bid as a Denver resident, although he stresses that he lives only a half-dozen blocks east of the district in Stapleton. (Miklosi and Romanoff both moved into Aurora shortly after announcing they were running for the seat, but Crow says he doesn’t plan to move until he wins.)
Sandberg reiterated many of the same attacks last week in a statement on Crow’s candidacy.
“It’s no surprise Jason Crow is Nancy Pelosi’s handpicked candidate, as he was a leading cheerleader for the dangerous and naive Iran deal and made his first national splash praising President Obama’s broken and corrupt Department of Veterans Affairs,” Sandberg said.
“However, Denver lawyer Jason Crow doesn’t live in the district, launched his campaign backing out of a 9News interview and ducking reporters, and has yet to say what exactly he would do if elected — other than not being Mike Coffman,” Sandberg continued. “And on that point, we agree. Mike Coffman is an independent voice who voters have reelected by wide margins because he has demonstrated the type of leadership we need more of in Washington, DC. Less lawyers, more leaders.”
Crow brushes off Sandberg’s jab at his residency. (National Democrats say they aren’t concerned, maintaining that the attack might get some attention but hasn’t actually swayed voters in congressional elections across the country.)
“I’m just a few blocks outside the boundary now,” Crow says. “One of the quintessential public service experiences of my life since leaving the Army was working on the committee to help secure funding for the VA hospital. So I have advocacy and public service that’s deep in this district that goes back even before the VA hospital was part of the district, before Coffman started working on it. I’ve been talking to a lot of people, and what people want to know is not what side of a boundary line I’m on but what my values are and what I’m going to fight for, and whether I can beat Mike Coffman and give them a voice again. That’s what people are focused on.”