Peter Blake

Coffman v Romanoff an alpha-MAIL battle

Is there still a year to go before voters in the 6th Congressional District finally choose between Mike Coffman and Andrew Romanoff? Can’t the two of them just duke it out next Tuesday during the statewide school-tax election and get it over with?

Democrat Romanoff floods the inboxes of desired supporters and donors with a river of emails. Republican incumbent Coffman has just sent out an 8×11-inch campaign mailer, on thick, slick stock and in four colors. It tells us how he “supported a BI-PARTISAN EFFORT to end violence against women.”

He “fought” (in Washington, they don’t simply vote and cosponsor) to pass laws to “protect women serving in the military from sexual assault,” to protect military whistleblowers and to “strengthen and pass” the Violence Against Women Act.

An unidentified soulful woman looks out at you from one side; a smiling, flag-backed Coffman is on the other. Coffman proclaims: “I’m helping lead the fight against domestic violence …”

icon_op_edWait, I’m wrong! It’s not a campaign piece at all. Instead of a stamp at the top right there’s his signature, meaning it’s franked. On the top left it claims to be a PUBLIC DOCUMENT and OFFICIAL BUSINESS.

“This mailing was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense,” it adds candidly — in smaller type. “It is provided as a service to 6th Congressional District constituents.”

In other words, it must be the kind of straightforward constituent letter congressional representatives sent out for decades. They dutifully detailed the issues before Congress and report their stands on them. Or they might have sent out questionnaires or postcards inviting you to town halls, all in business-like black on white.

Except this piece obviously isn’t one of those. It’s an out-and-out campaign mailer lacking only the no-no words “Vote for…” or “Re-elect…”

It’s not illegal. Congress changed the rules around the turn of the millennium — incumbents benefiting incumbents. There once was a limit on how much franked mail they could send out, and what could be in it. Now they can send out as much as they can afford under the “Members’ Representational Allowance,” a lump sum which covers personal expenses, staff salaries, district office rents — and constituent mailers.

It varies slightly from district to district, depending on the distance from Washington and local office rents. In 2012 the allowance ranged from $1.27 million to $1.53 million, with the average being $1.35 million.

The fewer staffers you have, or the less you pay them, the more you can spend on mailings.

The rules were also liberalized to allow color, various type fonts and better graphic designs on constituent mailings.

Of course there are still guidelines which mailers must pass. They are spelled out in a 72-page franking manual, which in tedious detail tells members they can’t include family or personal material, or holiday greetings, or partisan attacks. Nor should they include “I” or “me” or their name more than eight times on a standard sheet of paper.

Photographs of the member are also strictly controlled. The size limit on a standard sheet is 6 square inches.

Isn’t it a little early to be sending out not-technically-campaign literature for a 2014 election? Not if it’s one of the few seriously contested House races in the nation, apparently. The Coffman-Romanoff showdown is currently a toss-up in the eyes of most political observers.

The challenge isn’t necessarily making Coffman less conservative than he was, but he’s now stressing different issues — such as violence against women.

Coffman has a long way to go before he can catch up with the king of Colorado’s constituent mailers, former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez of the 7th District. He won his first race, in 2002, by a mere 121 votes over Democrat Mike Feeley. He obviously ran scared for re-election in 2004, and exploited the new mailer rules to the full. He sent out at least eight four-color mailers by my count.

Not every one went to every constituent. Most were targeted — to seniors, to veterans, to voters likely to have school-aged children. He could afford them because he paid the lowest staff salaries in the state delegation.

The mailers must have worked. Beauprez won re-election by 29,000 votes over Democratic Dave Thomas.

Coffman’s mailer apparently was sent just to female voters in the 6th District.

Fund-raising has been close. At the end of the third quarter Coffman had $1,227,658 cash on hand, and Romanoff $1,334,500.

Romanoff, a former speaker of the Colorado House, is something of a carpetbagger, having just registered at an Aurora address in the 6th District last February. He previously was a Denver resident. You don’t have to live in the district you represent, but it’s considered political suicide not to.

He’s serious about his political ambitions, having sold his home near Washington Park in 2010 to finance his losing primary campaign against Michael Bennet for the U.S. Senate. Coffman may have to keep those tax-paid mailers coming, but the rules say he must stop 90 days before next year’s primary. 

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com

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