Andrew Romanoff Q&A: Challenger to Cory Gardner is fighting politics as usual
Former Speaker of the Colorado House talks immigration reform, mental health, climate change and keeping special interests out of politics
EAGLEVAIL — If you like the way the system works, Andrew Romanoff is not your guy.
The former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives and the early Democratic front-runner to challenge Republican Cory Gardner for his Senate seat in 2020 is not running on a platform of incremental change.
“We’re running out the clock to combat the climate crisis, to take the most obvious example, but also to secure health care for everyone,” Romanoff said in a recent sitdown with the Vail Daily. “Tens of thousands of Americans are dying each year because they can’t afford to see a doctor. So what I’m bringing to this race is not just a set of legislative skills I built as one of the most effective leaders in America, but also a sense of urgency that I think is missing from these debates.”
Romanoff spent the last four years leading Mental Health Colorado after losing to Republican Mike Coffman in his 2014 bid for Colorado’s 6th Congressional District seat. Before that, he lost to Michael Bennet in the Democratic primary in the 2010 Senate race.
In each of those races, campaign finance was a key sticking point, with Romanoff refusing to take any donations from political action committees. He’s vowed to continue to do the same in his bid to take on Gardner, running what he calls a grassroots, retail, PAC-free, people-powered campaign in a race where Gardner is raking in special interest money from 10 different fundraising committees.
In a wide-ranging interview at the Vail Daily offices, with his loyal dog, Zorro, by his side, Romanoff talked about his campaign pillars — combatting the climate crisis, fighting for universal health care, building an economy that works for all and reforming a broken immigration system — while sharing anecdotes from his recent swing around the Western Slope.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Vail Daily: You lost your last two races. What inspired you to want to do this again?
Andrew Romanoff: I spent the last few years running a mental health organization and I didn’t want anybody else in Colorado to suffer or struggle or die on account of problems that we could fix, and in this case, mental illness, or drug addiction, suicide. And we’ve made a lot of progress. We helped pass a measure here on the ballot just two years ago that invests in mental health funding. And now four other counties have followed suit. We helped in Summit, in Denver, in Larimer, and in San Miguel counties do the same thing. So we’ve made a lot of progress. But almost everything we’re doing is at risk of being unraveled by the federal government. It’s not just Donald Trump at fault here, it’s his enablers at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. So when it comes to securing health care, including mental health and substance use treatment, for all, combating the climate crisis, building an economy that works for everyone, reforming the immigration system, reducing the risk of gun violence — pick an issue and you’ll find a roadblock in the U.S. Senate. And that’s not acceptable to me as an American.
VD: This is maybe the most-watched Senate race in the country. Obviously, Cory Gardner is vulnerable. There’s been some, at least in the media, thinking that whoever comes out of this bloody Democratic primary should be a slam dunk to win this thing. What are your thoughts on that?
AR: Yeah, that’s completely wrong. Colorado is a purple state, we’re not red or blue. And they’re going to spend unheard of amounts of money on the Republican side. And they have to. If you’ve got a record like Sen. Gardner, you know it’s not a winning argument to run on. Right? You’re not going to come back to Colorado if you bother to hold a town meeting at all, which he hasn’t done the last few years. I mean, he’s a shrewd guy. So he knows that the only way to win a race like this in a state like ours is to masquerade as a moderate and to hope that nobody notices the difference between what he says in Colorado and what he does in Washington. He’s not going to come back to Colorado and say, “Hey, vote for me and I will allow insurance companies to discriminate against you on the basis of pre-existing conditions. I’ll block progress to combat the climate crisis. I’ll allow this administration to cage children and tear families apart.” If you go down to each of the votes, they’re at odds with where most people in Colorado stand. So the reason that he’s going to spend all the money that you just mentioned is because he’s got to try to cover up the record.
VD: Can you win this primary taking no money from special interests, which you said you’ve vowed to do?
AR: Yes, I will. We’ve got a lot of individuals chipping in to make up for all the special interest money that’s headed to Cory’s camp. We’ve got I think more contributions from more people, particularly people in Colorado, than any other candidate. We’ve got endorsements from more county commissioners, mayors, school board members, city council members, legislators than all the other candidates combined — 20 types of endorsements I think, almost 300 elected officials have signed on. So we’re building a grassroots, retail, PAC-free, people-powered campaign. And we’ll find out, I mean, if that’s the kind of campaign that voters actually want to reward. I tell people all the time, I mentioned this in Grand Junction this morning — if you like the way the system works, you should pick somebody else. I think people in Congress, no offense to our own delegation, but they get too comfortable. They get health benefits that are more generous than most Americans. They get a pension plan, which most people can only dream about. They even get a paycheck if the government shuts down, so I think it’s easy to be insulated from the problems your constituents face.
VD: You had a family member commit suicide at a family reunion, which led you to Mental Health Colorado. Colorado has one of the highest suicide rates in the country and Eagle County has a suicide rate that’s way off the grid for a county of this size. What did you learn, working for Mental Health Colorado, about how we can combat this crisis?
AR: One thing I learned is that laws are useless unless you actually enforce them. So I supported, when I was in the state house, a law to enhance mental health parity — the law that says insurance companies have to provide equal coverage for mental health and physical care. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. But in practice, people are going out of network more often, traveling farther, paying more, waiting longer to get mental health and substance use services than comparable physical care. And we shouldn’t have to go back to the state legislature or Congress for that matter, which also has a parity law on the books, and pass another law that says we really meant it when we passed the first one. We ought to start by enforcing the laws we’ve got. So at Mental Health Colorado, I led the charge, not just to increase funding — we helped five counties now invest about $68 million in mental health and substance use treatment — but also to hold the insurance industry accountable. To say, look, it’s not acceptable — it’s not legal for you to deny claims to folks who are entitled to equal coverage for mental health care and to narrow the networks that you maintain so that you can exclude as many folks who need coverage as possible.
One thing we’ve learned again on this trip, we’re not where we need to be in terms of high-speed broadband internet access. So even at a place where we can’t physically get a mental health provider, we should be able to beam one in if we had the telecommunications infrastructure in place. So telehealth is a really promising area in mental health care, but it only works if you actually can hook up. And then I guess the most important place that we ought to make a difference, and one thing I learned in the work I did at Mental Health Colorado for the last four years, is to invest in school-based mental health services. We know that in most cases, the first signs of mental illness occur during adolescence. But we also know there’s a gap between the onset of symptoms and the arrival of treatment, a delay that lasts on average for eight to 10 years. And so getting more school counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses and schools, getting more school staff trained to spot the early warning signs, then most of all, just making sure there’s somebody on-site that whom kids at risk can be referred. You’ve got to engage the families and parents in this conversation.
VD: The state’s new red flag law is obviously a very contentious thing, and it ties in with these mental health efforts. The sheriff here in Eagle County has said he’s opposed to it, while our police chief in Vail was one of the supporters who were on the capitol steps when it was signed into law. Should there be a national red flag law?
AR: With this law, there is a burden of proof. And the removal of the weapon is temporary. You get your gun back unless the judge concludes by a standard of clear and convincing evidence that the danger persists. That’s the highest standard in civil law. So when the gun lobby says, “Hey, we’re holding out for a higher standard,” we asked them like, “What standards you have in mind because there isn’t one?” By the way, it’s not going to stop every tragedy or prevent every shooting, that’s the other piece I’ve heard from the opposition that this law won’t save everyone. And they’re right, no law can do that. It’s a ridiculous demand to put to any piece of legislation and the question instead ought to be, does this have the effect of reducing the rate of gun violence? Does it square with the Constitution? Has it been tried in other states? And the answer to all those questions is yes.
VD: A lot of people who want sensible reform on our gun laws want to know, why does it have to be this way? Why have we decided that this is where we’re at in the national gun conversation?
AR: We have laid out a fairly aggressive agenda on this issue on the website. So you’re right, by the way, this can’t be the new normal. It doesn’t have to be this way. And it wasn’t this way, and it’s not this way, actually, in other countries. We have the highest rate of gun deaths among children among any nation on Earth that keeps track of these statistics. So I had a similar conversation with a hunter in Ridgway on Monday night. He said, “Look, I hunt, I have guns. But I got no problem with a background check. I don’t need a military-style assault weapon, I’m not a bad shot.” So there are a set of common-sense proposals that command support from a majority of gun owners themselves, and from Republicans. I think background checks alone, by one poll, are supported by 97% of the American people. The problem, of course, is that the NRA whose views are in the minority, commands disproportionate power in Congress because of the money it spends to protect its extreme agenda and to bankroll members of Congress, like Cory Gardner, who follow its lead. I mean, Cory has benefitted from more NRA money than all but four other members of the U.S. House or Senate. And it was a really good investment the NRA made in him because he has blocked action on every single common-sense proposal that we might pass. The good news is, I think there are more of us in the majority on this position than there are in the extreme wing of the gun lobby. But that’s not going to change unless we also break the death grip that these kinds of interest groups hold over members of Congress. It means reforming the way we finance campaigns. I’m trying to lead by example, as communicated by turning down money from special interest groups. In fairness, the NRA’s not actually offered me a lot of money, and I’m not taking it. I think I earned an F during my time in the legislature.
VD: Immigration policy is a huge issue here in Eagle County. Not just illegal immigration, but also we’ve got an issue with worker visas that used to be a reliable source of workforce labor for anything from construction to skilled laborers doing landscaping work as well as people that run the ski lift chairs. How do we come up with an immigration policy that narrows the great divide on this issue from “build a wall” over here to people who say we need to create a path to citizenship. It’s an economics issue and a values issue.
AR: I think that, yeah, the divide actually is narrower among the American people than on Capitol Hill. If you ask most folks across the country, “Do you want to provide clear rules for employers and employees? Do you want to provide a path to citizenship for people who are willing to play by the rules?” Most people say yes. “Do you want to do something different to protect kids who were brought here at a young age and have, what is now, just temporary protection of the program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals?” Most people say yes. If you ask folks, “Hey, do you recognize that immigrants are contributing more to the economy than they’re consuming? And by the way, committing crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans? Do you recognize that we’re a nation of immigrants and that we’re stronger because of our differences?” I think most folks, if you actually get past the toxic politics in Washington, say yes. The trouble is, we’ve got not only a president of the United States who has demonized immigrants and refugees and caged children and torn families apart and dishonored our heritage and undermined our standing around the world and our values here at home, we’ve also got a group of folks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, particularly in the U.S. Senate, who are willing to turn a blind eye at best to the abuse that he’s committed on the Constitution and on our immigration system. And at worst, enabling those abuses to continue.
VD: Enabling his worst impulses.
AR: Yeah. So I was really disappointed because I’m a Coloradan before I’m a candidate. And I’d be happier if Cory Gardner actually did what he said he was going to do in 2014 when he pledged to stand up to his own party to speak out for Colorado, to be an independent voice for the state. So I would have been happier if he had signed on to comprehensive immigration reform, if he had stood up to the president when Donald Trump issued this fake declaration of a national emergency to authorize a law that Congress had refused to fund. I’d be happy if Cory Gardner, in other words, had joined the group of 12 Republican senators who defended the Constitution and the separation of powers and said no to Donald Trump. But Cory didn’t do any of those things.
VD: He has said he’s committed to bipartisan immigration reform. Is that all hat and no cattle?
AR: Yes, yes, I know that he talks a good game, I’ve served with him in the House for four years. But, at the end of the day, I have not found a single, major issue of public policy including immigration reform, where Senator Gardner has broken with Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. Maybe there’s an example that he’ll share at some point, but I haven’t seen it. And I’ll tell you, just this week, traveling around the Western Slope, it’s pretty clear that both the president’s words and deeds have carried consequences for real people. I met a woman in Montrose this week who was brought here as a child from Guatemala at about 3 months old. She’s now about 19, so she’s known no other country. This is her home. And she said kids at school told her to go back where she came from. And they said, “Don’t bother getting an education because you’re not going to be more than a maid.” And that bigotry didn’t begin with Donald Trump and it won’t end when he leaves office. But this president has emboldened extremists, has echoed the language of white nationalism, has issued racist threats to members of Congress themselves, as you heard on Sunday, in a way that’s profoundly scaring and dangerous and sickening to most Americans of goodwill. So it’s not just a dog whistle that he’s using, it’s a bullhorn. And it makes me angry as an American and as the son and grandson of immigrants. I wouldn’t be here — I just knew I wouldn’t be in America if this country had not opened its doors to my mom and all four of my grandparents. And I’m glad we’re here. I think we are better off, both as a family and as a country. We are richer economically, culturally, intellectually because we have welcomed people to contribute their talents to a nation that needs them.
I guess the last thing I’ll say is that just on this subject if you want, there is some good news here, if you put a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform on the floor of the United State Senate tomorrow, it would pass. But that’s the whole point, is that they don’t want to put it on the floor. It won’t be on the floor because Mr. McConnell doesn’t want it there and he’s announced that he alone gets to decide what gets a hearing once it gets a vote. I was the speaker of the House, I led the legislature for four years. So I’m the only candidate in the race, actually, who has led the state legislature. But I didn’t get the power to decide which bills get a vote or hearing. The Constitution says every bill does, and I think the U.S. Senate would do better to follow the rules of the Colorado General Assembly [laughter] than to allow one member of the U.S. Senate to block action on every bill. Mitch McConnell, by the way, wouldn’t have the ability to do that if enough members of his own caucus stood up and demanded something different. And Cory Gardner hasn’t done that, won’t do that. And that’s profoundly frustrating to me and to most of his constituents.
VD: You say you’re a Coloradan before you’re a candidate. Up here in Eagle County, the lifeblood of this place is our outdoor recreational industry, our open spaces, our public lands. We’ve seen the effects of global climate change, whether it’s an avalanche season like we just had that was a 150-year event, or the fires last summer. And we’re running out of time. How do you make the argument for a green new economy that can be green as well as grow the economy, and make that argument to people that think this is just liberals talking crazy?
AR: So it’s got to be green in both senses, right? It’s got to be better for the environment and better for the economy so people can continue to earn a living. And we had this conversation. You’re right. We’ve been having this conversation not just this week in the Western Slope, but across the states. So I want to make sure I say the same thing to you that I’m saying to somebody in Denver, Boulder, Greeley or Grand Junction. I’ll share with you one conversation. So I met with a group of pipefitters in Adams County going through to Denver a month or two ago, and they asked me a question about the climate crisis. They didn’t ask whether it was a hoax because they know it’s not. I mean, unlike the president, they actually understand the science. And they can see the market already shifting in this direction because sun, and wind, and geothermal, and other renewable sources are increasingly cost-competitive at worst with oil, and gas, and coal. So that wasn’t their question. There wasn’t a question about whether this transition’s coming, because it is. I think we need to accelerate it. Their question was instead, “Will you help us get jobs in this clean energy economy? Will you invest in us?” And the answer I gave them, the answer we have to give, I think, as a country is, “Yes. We’re willing to support your education, your training, help you get the skills you need.” There are more good jobs to be had in clean energy. That’s the good news.
But it’s hard. If you have been doing the same thing for much of your life, if you’re my age, if you’re middle-aged, just to have somebody say, “Hey. We’re going to have to shift this job to clean energy because of the catastrophic damage that we’re doing to the planet by the carbon emissions that we’re producing,” that’s a tough sell unless we’re willing to help you protect your paycheck. I think if you ask somebody to pick between protecting their paycheck and protecting the environment, they’ll pick their paycheck because they got a family to feed, and a mortgage to pay, or rent they owe, bills to pay. And it’s an understandable priority, so I want to make sure that nobody loses their income because of this transition. But I don’t want to sugarcoat this. I mean, we are, to your point, running out of time to reduce the carbon emissions that are choking all of us. This is not some distant threat, right? It’s here now. We’ve admitted more pollution by some counts in the last 40 years, than all of human history, and we’re seeing the devastation every day. We’re going to pay more in the long run because of the devastation that we are inflicting on our own economy, recreation, and agriculture, tourism. To me, the evidence is clear and overwhelming. And the only questions are one, how quickly we can make this transition and two, whether we’re willing to ensure that folks, whose jobs are being disrupted by the transition, are not treated like collateral damage.
VD: You spoke about the gun lobby having outside sway with Congress. It seems like that’s the case too with these old energy companies, as well as campaigns and misinformation on their part in terms of the scientific consensus on global climate change that is overwhelming.
AR: Yeah, I mean, ExxonMobil and these other fossil fuel companies have had this information for years, and they covered it up. It reminds me that —I mean, the tobacco industry knew that smoking was bad for you. And they all raised their hand at a famous hearing on Capitol Hill to say, “No, no evidence here, nothing to see here. Don’t disturb our profits.” Yeah, look, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but you can follow the money. The reason that we’re not getting the climate action we need is because the fossil fuel industry has figured out pretty quickly that it’s easier to bankroll Congress, including the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on which Cory Gardner sits, and then just block reform. You can follow the same argument to your point on gun violence prevention, on health care reform, the pharmaceutical industry. I mean, this is a profoundly corrupt system. And we’re not going to get the changes we need unless we fix it. I’m trying to lead by example, by turning down these contributions by special interest groups.
But the best idea I’ve heard came from somebody, who pointed out, if you’re not willing to reform our campaign finance system, if you’re not willing to reduce the role of money and increase the power of people and break the stranglehold that these interest groups have exerted on Congress, why don’t we at least require candidates to wear the decals of their corporate sponsors on their clothing, like NASCAR drivers? Have at least a little more truth in advertising, right?
VD: For a lot of people that are living up here, the cost of health insurance is too much. It’s a question of: “Can I pay my rent or my mortgage or I can I have health insurance?
AR: Yeah. That’s not acceptable when so many people need actually both. I talked to a woman in Ouray who said, “We got to just roll the dice. I can’t afford health insurance. My husband and I are relatively young and healthy. Even if I pay these payments, which I can’t afford, I’ll still have a high deductible. So I’m not sure what I’m paying for and I’m just going to hope I don’t get sick and go without insurance.” I mean it’s an understandable decision. It’s not the best decision.
VD: It’s not a reckless decision in her mind.
AR: No. But it’s not the best decision for the country.
Vail Daily Editor Nate Peterson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.