HIGHLANDS RANCH | For the faithful of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, it’s still about about the “Bern.”
But if the former Democratic presidential candidate has advice, the faithful are eager to listen. Yesterday, to a packed high school gym southwest of Aurora, Sanders said it’s time to replace incumbent GOP Congressman Mike Coffman with Aurora state Sen. Morgan Carroll, and fans said they got the message.
Unknown is whether that message will influence those likely to decide the race, unaffiliated voters in a district that has about one-third registered Republicans, Democrats and neither.
Carroll, the Democratic challenger in Aurora’s 6th Congressional District race, was the reason Sanders came to ThunderRidge High School, but he spent just as much time rallying the troops against GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and into the corner of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
About 1,100 people filled the gym at the school Saturday night, many of them eager to hear Sanders speak. Across town in Denver, fans of Trump were gathering at the Denver Western Stock Show complex, waiting for the GOP nominee later Saturday night.
“We’re here for Bernie,” said Thunder Ridge students Claudia Schwartz and Angelica Quintero, both 15 years old. The teenagers said they liked what Bernie stood for, and that if they could vote this year, they would likely choose Clinton or a third party nominee as their candidate — just so Trump would not be President come Nov. 8.
“Somebody told me Highlands Ranch was a Republican district. I guess not. Highlands Ranch is ready for change,” Sanders told the cheering crowd when he stepped on stage around 8 p.m.
Sanders started his speech off on a populist tone, citing America’s glaring income disparities and why the Democratic Party platform is still the people’s party.
“The difference between Secretary Clinton and her opponent, between Morgan Carroll and her opponent, is the Republicans think Citizens United is a good idea,” Sanders said, referring to a Supreme Court decision affecting campaign donations by corporations. “They think it is a wonderful idea for billionaires to pour millions of dollars into this Congressional district. We have a different point of view. We believe in democracy, not oligarchy. One person, one vote. Not billionaires filing lawsuits.”
Coffman said in a statement Saturday that he sees Carroll as an extension of Sanders, and disagrees with both on many issues.
“On the largest issues facing our country — Obamacare, ISIS, the debt — I couldn’t disagree with Bernie Sanders more fundamentally. He’s deeply and profoundly wrong about the challenges this country faces,” Coffman said. “But unlike Morgan Carroll, Sanders is from time to time capable of reaching across the aisle on issues where agreement is possible. Bernie and I both served on the conference committee focused on cleaning up the mess this Administration has made of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, and I know he and I will be able to work together for our veterans after this election too.”
Sanders said Clinton, if elected president, would draft a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Carroll has long been a vocal critic of the Citizens United decision.
So far, donors have pumped more than $1.7 billion into the presidential race, according to an Associated Press tally of election and advertising records.
Outside groups that face no contribution limits account for about one-third of that total. Money has been pouring into those groups ever since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in a case known as Citizens United. That ruling and subsequent court decisions and regulatory changes made it clear to wealthy donors that they can give as much as they’d like, so long as the candidates themselves aren’t controlling how that money gets spent.
“In America you live in a country that has more income and wealth inequality than at any time since 1928,” Sanders said. “In the last 16 years we have seen a 10-fold increase in the number of billionaires.”
Sanders touted Carroll and Clinton for being politicians who did not advocate for trickle-down economics. He said Carroll and Clinton support union workers, raising the minimum wage, and equal pay for equal work.
He emphasized his party’s commitment to reducing student debt.
“Hillary, Morgan and I believe, we’ve got to make public colleges and universities tuition free,” Sanders said.
He pointed to interest rates being as high as 12 percent for some student loans while consumers can easily buy a new car with a loan at 1 percent interest or refinance a home at 3 or 4 percent.
Sanders said tax reform is one way to pay for many policies he has advocated, including raising the minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour, providing universal healthcare and free college tuition.
He poked fun at Trump boasting about living a luxurious lifestyle while also claiming more than $900 million in losses in 1995. The filing legally allowed Trump to reduce his tax bill to zero for as many as 18 years.
“I’ve been running around this country telling people our tax system is broken. In one day Trump did more to educate people about that reality than I did in a year and a half,” Sanders said.
Carroll, who introduced Sanders to the crowd, echoed much of Sanders’ stance, emphasizing the need for campaign finance reform and her work to fight lobbyists in the state legislature.
“When you stand up to lobbyists you earn a few enemies along the way,” she said. “Out of all the (congressional) House races in the country, this is the only one that is targeted by the Koch Brothers. That’s what happens when you take on powerful special interests. Our job is to send the Koch Brothers packing, Mike Coffman packing.”
This year for the first time, Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by the Koch brothers, started a grassroots campaign to re-elect Coffman, the Republican incumbent for the 6th Congressional District.
Coffman handily won the seat for re-election two years ago against former Denver Democratic state Rep. Andrew Romanoff. This year, pundits say polls are much closer. Democratic voter turnout has been unusually high so far, and Carroll has landed endorsements and TV ads by President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, Clinton family rallies and now a rally with Sanders.
At the rally Saturday, Carroll also touted her own record as a state legislator who passed bills bills to prevent racial profiling, protect voter rights, and enact stricter gun laws.
“After the Aurora movie theater shooting happened five minutes from where I live, I passed our criminal background check bill,” she said. “That has stopped thousands of violent felons from attempted purchases in Colorado. We did that despite violent death threats, we didn’t back down.”
The rally started at about 7 p.m. with several state officials stumping for Carroll. Speakers included Joe Neguse, the executive Director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, and Democratic House District 31 Rep. Joe Salazar.
Salazar was greeted with raucous applause from the crowd when he mentioned the Standing Rock Sioux and their protest against the Dakota Access oil pipeline in southern North Dakota.
“This is your moment to say you can no longer tolerate the hatred in the world,” he said. “Oil and gas companies cannot take our constitutional rights away from us.”
Salazar also poked fun at Coffman, comparing the Aurora congressman to “Wimpy The Moocher” from Popeye.
“Wimpy’s really good at taking, just like Coffman’s good at taking. He takes your votes and doesn’t do anything,” Salazar said.
Salazar said though Coffman “learned a little Spanish,” he hasn’t done anything to help the Latino community, and does not support comprehensive immigration reform.
“Carroll, she’s not a poser, an imposter or Wimpy,” Salazar said, and pointed to Carroll’s long career in the state legislature.
Carroll said she supports comprehensive immigration reform while Coffman said he supports limited and specific paths to citizenship.
Ken Salazar, the former Secretary of the Interior, also spoke in support of Carroll at the beginning of the rally. He tied Coffman, who has said several times he is not voting for the Republican presidential nominee, to Donald Trump.
“So I want Morgan Carroll to beat Michael Coffman this Tuesday,” Salazar said. “Michael Coffman stands for the vision embraced by Donald Trump and the Tea Party.”
Jennifer Hope, a chapter lead with the gun reform advocacy group Colorado Moms Demand Action, said she was at the rally specifically for Carroll.
“Of course we love Bernie,” she said. “But I‘m here to support Morgan Carroll because the Aurora shooting happened in Mike Coffman’s district. His response has been less than adequate.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.