Colorado Statesman: How Morgan Carroll is defying the Hillary-Bernie divide

by  on May 26, 2016
Morgan CarrollMorgan Carroll

Morgan Carroll knows it’s no small thing that, as she campaigns to unseat U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in Colorado’s swing 6th Congressional District, she so far has managed to successfully navigate the roiling, divisive party politics this year that has marked the presidential primaries.

Residents of the district, which curls around Denver’s eastern border, have divided almost evenly between the two presidential candidates. The Democratic Party CD 6 assembly in April sent three delegates each for Clinton and Sanders to the national convention. Passions ran high among the CD 6 assembly attendees, as they have among Democratic voters around the state for months. A week later, the CD 6 delegates were members of the crowd at the party convention in Loveland that jeered and cheered for Clinton or Sanders, sometimes with genuine rancor, even as party leaders and elected officials called for unity from the stage. Yet the CD 6 assembly Democrats — more than 450 people — unanimously supported Carroll’s campaign.

Carroll, a state senator from Aurora, says that kind of support is nothing to take for granted, especially this year.

“You can’t help but notice that it’s unusual to draw that kind of good, unified support in this political climate,” she told The Colorado Statesman on Saturday at a campaign event. “Candidates on the left and right have been drawing more challenges. I know that I was nominated unanimously by people who otherwise have serious differences in their political preferences.”

Carroll has been pressured to endorse one of the Democratic presidential primary candidates, including by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which sent out a robocall to Coloradans last week to that effect. Carroll hasn’t picked a side. Her campaign spokesperson, Jennifer Koch Donovan, said the issue doesn’t seem to be a burning one in the district, at least anymore, adding that the NRCC campaign generated only three calls to Carroll’s office.

“I think we can agree that we have two strong candidates,” Carroll said.

“I think the frustration the Sanders camp has been feeling is about ’Do they have a seat at the table?’ I get that. When I wrote my book (“Take Back Your Government” (2012)), I did it because I didn’t think members of the public had a seat at the table. When you sit down in a legislative committee to discuss a bill, the paid lobbyists are all there. They know where to go. But there’s no civics class that tells the public where to go. We do a terrible job of telling people how they can work to make and change laws, but you’re not supposed to be a passive observer. When people don’t participate, when they don’t know how to participate, it’s the paid professional lobbyists who know how to work that game. Sanders supporters this year are feeling that and saying that.

“But I also think a lot of people also recognize the incredible career of Hillary Clinton,” Carroll said. “I think (Clinton) is incredibly bright, that she is a pioneer, that she’s been about breaking down barriers, about problem solving and creating opportunities. I think Coloradans see that she’s been a solid leader and mentor to a lot of people and candidates along the way.”

Carroll knows how hot feelings about the two candidates burned at the Colorado Democratic state convention — even though she didn’t attend.

State Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, talks with delegates at the Adams County Democratic Assembly on March 12 at Ranum Middle School in Denver. Carroll is challenging U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in a congressional race expected to be among the closest in the country. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)State Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, talks with delegates at the Adams County Democratic Assembly on March 12 at Ranum Middle School in Denver. Carroll is challenging U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in a congressional race expected to be among the closest in the country. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)

Carroll, who is a former state Senate president — one of the state’s highest-profile Democratic officials, and running for the congressional seat in Colorado most likely to turn from red to blue — decided against spending that Sunday rallying party activists in Loveland in order to stay in the district instead. She was in Brighton, at an immigrant workshop helping families assess their citizenship eligibility and fill out naturalization applications.

“I just decided that life would be different for a few families if I sat down and helped them go through the paperwork. So that’s where I wanted to be,” Carroll said. “The application is difficult. I don’t think most American citizens could complete it themselves — very bureaucratic, very invasive, very personal and intimate, and there’s a lot riding on the line.”

A week earlier, at the Republican state convention in Colorado Springs, Coffman sprinted onto the main stage at the Broadmoor World Arena and gave a fiery speech to the party faithful before working the crowd from his district. He walked up and down the steep arena aisles, introducing himself to delegates, shaking hands, posing for selfies. In his quarter-century-long political career, Coffman has never lost an election. Supporters of GOP presidential primary candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump took turns talking and laughing with “Mike,” wishing him well, even though they were unabashedly unhappy with each other.

Coffman campaign Political Director JD Key told The Statesman he believes Carroll has put one over on her supporters from the Sanders camp.

“Morgan Carroll is the kind of slick politicking trial lawyer that fuels the anger of Bernie Sanders,” Key wrote in an email. “Morgan Carroll loves big banks — she hammered Mike Coffman for trying to end the export import bank. Morgan Carroll is the queen of dark money — she raised millions and millions for secret groups as the top partisan in the Democratic State Senate. Morgan Carroll was the decisive vote killing a bill that would give in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.

“Feel the Bern?” Key asked. “Voters hungry for an outsider — someone to challenge partisanship and gridlock in Washington, DC — will take a close look at Senator Carroll’s record of partisanship and gridlock and get heartburn.”

That’s undoubtedly not how the Carroll campaign would characterize her positions — on banks, dark money or the in-state tuition bill.

More importantly, Mike Hamrick would probably agree with Carroll’s characterizations. Hamrick is one of the CD 6 Sanders delegates who supports Carroll. He said her decision not to attend the Democratic Party convention was just more evidence about the vision of public service she is committed to and that he said makes her different.

“All of us from the district had spent the Sunday before with her at the assembly,” he said. “I would say she had her priorities straight. She puts her feet on the ground. She was where she was supposed to be.”

Hamrick said her “on the ground” priorities are a large part of what makes Carroll attractive to Sanders and Clinton supporters.

“At the assembly, we were totally unified behind Morgan. There was no whisper campaign, no intrigue, none of that,” he said.

Hamrick praised Carroll for battling to bring about campaign finance reform and for “always being accessible the whole time she has been in office.” He mentioned her book.

“It’s a citizen’s guide to state politics,” he said. “Morgan gets constituents involved. I respect her and I respect what she’s doing.”

Carroll thinks she appeals to Sanders supporters because, as she put it, “I’ve had a strong populist vein running through the work I’ve done for 12 years at the Capitol.”

Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, prepares to present her bills Wednesday. (Roxann Elliott/The Colorado Statesman)Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, prepares to present bills this past legislative session. (Photo by Roxann Elliott/The Colorado Statesman)

“Anybody who knows my work,” she said, “knows I’ve actually taken on lobbying reform, campaign finance reform, consumer protection, that I’ve taken on wealthy powerful interests and that it’s not something new to me. Big business isn’t always right, neither are the political parties. Sometimes it has meant taking on the Democratic Party, sometimes the Republican Party, sometimes the government, sometimes corporations, but what it all has in common is a focus on people.”

Lori Eddlemon, Democratic chairperson for CD 6, also noted that the tension between the Sanders and Clinton camps hasn’t seemed to touch the Carroll candidacy, even in the heat of the assembly voting and speechifying.

“It was a really smooth process,” she said. “People spoke about her voting record and what she stands for, and the whole room agreed it all made her a great candidate.”

Gena Ozols, a special projects coordinator for NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado and a Clinton delegate, spoke at the assembly in support of Carroll’s candidacy.

“All sides were cheering,” she said. “Bernie and Hillary supporters I think were just united in thinking that Morgan will work to defeat the Republican candidate — I mean to just get rid of Mike Coffman!”

Ozols is also former president of the Arapahoe County Young Democrats, and she said she thinks Carroll appeals to voters on a personal level that might make national politics less meaningful in the race.

“The energy is different this year for the district. Morgan has been an elected official serving constituents here for years. She’s been part of the community for decades.”

Martiza Carrera, a candidate nominator at the district assembly, said she agreed that the “heated debate” between the Sanders and Clinton camps fell away around the topic of Morgan Carroll.

“She appeals to us all,” Carrera said. “Morgan is well qualified and she’s also stand up, you know? She has Aurora values.”