Month: June 2017

Mike Coffman and The Deplorables

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Since I began blogging recently, I have spent a good deal of time at coffee shops.

One of them is Solid Grounds on South Broadway at Arapahoe.  It’s a shambling, multi-level store that shares a large parking lot with the South Fellowship church.  Given its “.org” domain name, I suspect it’s associated with the church.

I owe Solid Grounds a lot.  Back when I was campaigning for office, my manager, Wes Skiles, often convened strategy meetings at the store.  And we never lost.  So, in much the same way that the crowing cock makes the sun rise, Solid Grounds must have made me a winning politician.

But it’s not just the location and domain name that makes me think that Solid Grounds has a Christian connection; it’s not uncommon to see pastors and other folks I recognize from current or past church affiliations.

One of these, Charlotte Smith, came into the shop the other day.  Charlotte still has the blond, wispy hair I remembered from the days we worked together on the Missions Committee at Grace Chapel.   Her complexion is fair to the point of being pasty.

“Charlotte,” I said, “great to see you.  Long time. How have you been?”

“Good, she replied. “Are you still in the legislature?”

“No.  But it’s a question I get a lot,” I replied.  “I was termed out a few years ago.  Do you still go to Grace Chapel?”

“Yes, we’re still there.  Where do you go?” she asked.

“We go to Greenwood Community.  How’s your family?”

“Good.  I still teach at a Christian School.”

Charlotte is faithfully committed to seeing the Gospel preached throughout the world, especially in the Philippines.  In 2001, when we were on the missions committee together, she was the one who first became aware that New Tribes missionaries, Martin and Gracie Burnham, had been taken hostage by the Islamic terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, in the Philippines.  Charlotte, as I remember, had a personal connection with the Burnhams.  After a standoff that lasted a year, Martin was killed during a rescue attempt; Gracie was shot in the leg.

“Our son is at West Point,” Charlotte continued.  “Mike Coffman helped him get in.”

“That,” I replied, “is a quite an achievement.  I just hope we’re out of all these crazy wars in the Middle East before he has to go.”

“Well,” she replied, never one to back down, “if we’d just finished the job the first time, we wouldn’t have to worry about it.”

I hoped she didn’t mean that we should have turned the desert to glass, but I left it at that.

“Our daughter,” she continued, “got married recently.  She owns her own house painting business.  And her husband owns a business repairing sprinkler systems.”

“That’s good,” I replied, but was thinking that was a somewhat unconventional career choice for a woman.  “I hope she’s careful.”

“She is,” Charlotte replied. “She’s very good at what she does.”

To describe Charlotte and her family as “salt of the earth folks” is an understatement.  They’re also the kind of people Democrats like Barack Obama are likely to dismiss as “clinging to their guns and Bibles.”  And, truth be told, many establishment Republicans probably feel the same way; they just don’t say it out loud.

Of course, I’m pleased that Charlotte’s son has been accepted at West Point; he has the opportunity to get a great education.  But if he’s killed or maimed for life helping the American empire pursue its imperial goals in distant wars that should be none of our business, I would consider it a tragic waste.

But despite that, I’ll concede that Mike Coffman may have done Charlotte’s son a favor.  I certainly hope it turns out that way.

But I can guarantee you he hasn’t done her daughter or son-in-law any favors.

I was a delegate at the 6th Congressional nominating assembly where Coffman was nominated  for his 5th term in Congress.  The venue was the large auditorium at the Heritage Christian Center in Aurora.  When Mike took the stage to accept the nomination, it looked like he was running for Secretary General of the United Nations-rather than the US Congress.  The platform was packed with every conceivable ethnic group, including women in hijabs.

At the assembly, Coffman had all the money, all the organization, all the years in D.C., all the support of the Arapahoe County Republican establishment.

But despite this, his acceptance speech got a tepid reception.

Coffman’s opponent at the assembly, Kyle Bradell, was a 20-something, completely unknown newcomer who took the stage with exactly one supporter-who also gave the nominating speech.

In his acceptance speech, Bradell basically talked about one issue:  ending illegal immigration. And how Coffman has flip flopped on the issue to keep his cushy job as the district has gone from being solidly Republican to hotly competitive with redistricting.

In sharp contrast to Coffman’s speech, Bradell’s fiery address got a rousing reception from the rank and file Republican activists in the seats.

And the proof that Bradell’s support was more than just applause deep?  Despite Coffman’s apparently overwhelming advantages, he managed to keep his long shot, wildly underfunded opponent off the August primary ballot by a mere 3% points.

I voted for Bradell with a clear conscience.  Why?  If you can’t trust what Coffman says on immigration, how do you know when you can believe him?  In my estimation, he’s most likely to be looking out for just one person in the Washington swamp: himself.

But maybe, you say, things changed as the 2016 moved into the fall and Donald Trump secured the Republican Presidential nomination.  And Coffman locked up the nomination for the 6th.

Well, yes, they did change.  But for the worse.  Mike Coffman was the first Republican member of the House to release a paid ad claiming he would “stand up” to Trump if he were elected.  Here’s what he said about Trump in his TV spot that ran in English and Spanish:  “Honestly, I don’t care for him much.

Funny talk from a guy who, before his district became competitive from redistricting, sponsored legislation in 2011 to make English the nation’s official language. And suggested that voters who couldn’t read their ballots “should pull out a dictionary.”  And now he’s stooped to running bilingual campaign ads.  And making a big deal of learning Spanish by watching Spanish language soap operas.  If this isn’t pandering, what is, for heaven’s sake?

But what does all this mean for Charlotte’s daughter and son-in-law?

Just this.  A house painter or a sprinkler repairman were never going to be wealthy in this country.  But they were honorable, blue collar occupations that gave their practitioners, with hard work, the opportunity to enjoy a middle class life style and raise a family.

No longer.   The unprecedented waves of immigrants, both legal and illegal, currently washing up on our shores haven’t hurt attorneys, CPAs, Wall Street money manipulators, and others like them at the top of the income distribution.  Their incomes are rising nicely, thank you.

But those relatively low skill, low income native born American workers, like Charlotte’s daughter and son-in-law, are falling ever further behind.

Does Mike Coffman care?  If asked, he would no doubt say that he is “fighting” for small businesses like those owned by Charlotte’s daughter and her husband.

But, as is true with everything, actions speak louder than words.  What actions would really help native born individuals like Charlotte’s daughter?  Limiting immigration-of both the illegal and legal variety.

But what is Coffman actually doing?  More pandering.  Putting up bilingual websites that tout his efforts to sponsor legislation granting citizenship to illegals who are doing jobs that would otherwise go to native Americans like Charlotte’s daughter and her husband.

I have no idea how  voted Charlotte in the 2016 election.  Heck, maybe she voted for Hillary-but from what I know of her, that would be far out of character for her.

But I do know this.  Charlotte’s family fits the profile of the The Deplorables that supported President Trump and which Hillary Clinton so contemptuously referred to during the 2016 Presidential campaign.

Again, Mike Coffman is unlikely to repeat the mistake of saying out loud what Clinton thought of people like Charlotte’s family.  After all, you don’t survive nearly 30 years as a career politician by making foolish mistakes.

But Mike doesn’t have to say it out loud.  Just look at what he’s doing.

The Kindness of Strangers

pot of beans on fireI practiced law for 10 years, which, according to one of my favorite gag lines, “was about five years too many.”  But law was by no means my only career mistake.  And today, shortly after having cleaned out my office in preparation for retirement, is not a bad time to reflect on a life that could serve as an illustration of Malcolm Muggeridge’s autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time.

But, in such a target rich environment, where to begin?

An image that easily comes to mind is in the upper reaches of Gore Creek, beneath Red Buffalo Pass and above Vail in about the spring of 1975.  Alone with my backpacking gear, I had parked my ’69 VW Bug at the foot of Vail Pass when it was still a two lane road, and hiked several steep miles up the trail to timber line.  I pitched my yellow pup tent on a huge ledge, just as the sun was setting down the valley to the west.

As I sat there admiring the view, a small herd of deer cautiously emerged from the dark shadows of the forest to graze in the lush meadow beneath me.  Then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, they vanished; something had spooked them.

Not too far away, a faint column of smoke rose from another campsite.  On my way up, I had talked briefly with the man, about my age, who was camped there.

“Mind if I sit down for a bit?”

“Go ahead,” he replied, “make yourself comfortable.”

I lowered my pack, found a smooth spot on the log on the opposite side of the fire from him, and took out my water bottle.  The grass around the rock fire ring was gone, beaten down to ash smudged dirt.  Pinto beans seethed in a soot encrusted pot over the flames; I didn’t see anything else on the menu for dinner.

Assuming that he was in need of my back packing expertise, I said, “It’s going to take forever  for those beans to get cooked at this altitude.”

“That’s ok,” he replied, “I have time.  I’ve been up here about a month.”

“Wow,” I replied, regretting I had said anything about the beans.  “You’ve been up here since before the snow melted.  What have you been doing?”

“I got home from Vietnam a while back.  I wanted to get away and try to clear my head.”

Vietnam: that miserable war had just wound down to it’s miserable conclusion.  But, unlike our current miserable wars, at least it did, finally, come to an end.

I don’t remember much else about that encounter.  And it’s likely that I wouldn’t remember it at all if it hadn’t been a sort of echo of my own experience in the Gore Range that weekend:  camping alone, seeking direction. Having just graduated from Colorado University with a European history degree, I wanted time alone to think and pray about what I was going to do with my life.

The decision facing me was a binary career choice:  law school or seminary to study church history.

Why nothing beyond more schooling?  For one, I had actually grown to enjoy the academic life since becoming a Christian two years earlier. Unlike my first years in college, I had taken school much more seriously, was learning how to write, and had excelled in most of my classes.  One semester, for the first time, I got straight A’s (not counting the Russian History class that I had dropped when I got so hopelessly behind.)

But there was also an element of fear, fear of facing the real world.  School was a safe, familiar environment.

A few weeks before, at a loud graduation party a friend who was getting an engineering degree asked me over the din of Led Zeppelin, “What are you going to do when we’re done?” When he heard that I was thinking of law school, he scornfully asked, “Why don’t you get a real job?”  I had no ready answer.  Maybe this time in the Gore Range would help.

I had submitted law school applications at CU and Denver University.  And for the graduate program at Princeton seminary for church history.

With my checkered academic record, the Colorado University law school rejected me outright.

The Denver University law school was only willing to admit me to the night program.  And, to make that achievement even more dubious, it was about then that DU was in financial hospice care; they were probably admitting anyone who could fog a mirror.

With the encouragement of a German History professor who took an enthusiastic liking to me, Robert Pois, I applied to Princeton Seminary.  They rejected me, but I figured there were plenty of other places out there where you could study church history.  True, I had only the vaguest idea of what I would do with such a degree: even I knew that the job prospects for teaching history at the college level were dismal.  Nonetheless, I stubbornly clung to the notion that this was an option worth keeping open.

I was certain of one thing, however: I wasn’t going to seminary to become a minister.  To this day, I can’t attempt much more than speculation about why I was so averse to that career path.  It wouldn’t have been without precedent in my family.  My grandfather Swalm was a Nazarene pastor.  My uncle was a Nazarene Army chaplain in Korea; he was killed by friendly fire during the chaotic retreat down the peninsula in the first few days of that war.

Yet another war in a far distant part of the world which, even now, threatens to drag us into a conflict that should be none of our business.

But it wasn’t just family history that could have led me into the pulpit.  Since shortly after becoming a Christian, I had been an enthusiastic participant at the Hillside Church of the Savior. It was a Jesus Freak  church that met in the home of Gene Thomas.

Like Gene himself, the house was a hulking, physically unattractive structure overlooking Boulder Creek just north of the CU campus.  On Sunday evenings, the place would be packed with students sitting on the floor and the overstuffed chairs strewn through the house.

Before church began, dinner would be served; one evening I made split pea soup for 100 in the Thomas’ cramped kitchen.  The congregation, many of whom looked like the main reason they had come was for a free meal, formed a line around the dining room table and then found a place to sit.  How much split pea got spilled on the carpets?  Plenty, I expect. Very young families were just making an appearance at the church; infants on blankets, some discretely at their mothers’ breast.  Gene’s wife, Gerri, put up with a lot.

Dinner over, Doug Bush led the rousing choruses on his ringing, 12 string guitar.

Gene, whose day job was operating his phone answering service, would then perch himself on a stool at the foot of the stairs that led to the second floor.  From there, he made Jesus’ parables come alive.  He was generous with his talents and resources, nurturing young leaders, allowing his home to be overrun each week.

I was baptized by one of Gene’s young assistants in the CU swimming pool; it wouldn’t have made sense for Gene to haul his bulk in and out of the pool.  My parents came from Denver to see me get dunked.

For my last two years of college I shared a two story house with a few other guys from the church in Boulder’s “The Hill” neighborhood just west of the campus.  To this day, it’s a good memory; one of my roommates became a brother in law.

Years later, after I had moved back to Denver, I learned that Gene had been forced to resign when it came out that he was a homosexual.  When I heard it, my stomach was tied in a knot of disbelief.  With a new Believer’s naivety, it was unimaginable.  But, it would not be the last time my church life was touched so nearly by such a resignation.  Gene died in 2012, survived by his wife of 63 years and a host of grandkids.

Somewhere along the way, I spoke with one of the guys at the church, Bobby Winters, about my career dilemma.  Young, in his 20’s, bold in sharing the Gospel, he was nonetheless dying from kidney failure.   His intense face had already taken on a sallow, yellow pallor; he died when his first kidney transplant failed and a second organ couldn’t be found.  His advice was straightforward:  “Have you prayed about it?”  He asked the question with a calm certainty that my answer would be forthcoming.

“I have,” I replied.  But I said it with what I hoped was a poker face that didn’t betray my uncertainty.

My problem with prayer is long standing:  it’s more like daydreaming than prayer.  Much of what I did that weekend was daydream.  And, truth be told, not much has changed for my prayer life in the intervening decades.

So, how was the decision made?  Not by me.  I flipped a coin.  Not much of a career counselor.  So, sometime during the weekend, it came up “law school.”  And that’s what I did.

In “A Street Car Named Desire” Blanche DuBois utters the play’s most famous line:  “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  So have I.  And despite having treated Him at times like a stranger, He’s been kind to me far beyond my just desserts.