Rep. Mike Coffman on Obamacare crowd: “Partisan activists” were “making a show”

Rep. Mike Coffman’s regular listening session for constituents has become a bullet point in the national news storyline about the looming repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

Rep. Mike Coffman’s regular listening session for constituents has become a bullet point in the national news storyline about the looming repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

A reported crowd of 150 people turned out to meet the U.S. Congressman at the Aurora Central Library last Saturday, Jan. 14. Many of them wanted to talk about health insurance.

Could this be a Democratic mirror image of the conservative Tea Party activism that dogged the birth of the Affordable Care Act? A lot of people sure seem to hope so. Let’s review what has happened so far and the coverage it has attracted.

Frank Anello yells against the Affordable Care Act's repeal as U.S. Representative Mike Coffman speaks. The Martin Luther King Jr. Marade, Jan. 16, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)  mlk; marade; martin luther king jr; city park; denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty;

Frank Anello yells against the Affordable Care Act's repeal as U.S. Representative Mike Coffman speaks at the Martin Luther King Jr. Marade, Jan. 16, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

For context:

Coffman and Colorado’s three other Republican representatives openly support the repeal and replacement of the ACA, or Obamacare. All four of them signed an opinion piece in the Denver Post, arguing that insurance and related costs are becoming excessively expensive, especially in rural Colorado.

The threat of repeal has stirred significant fears among those who have benefitted from it.

“I am potentially going to lose my health insurance. I’ve had a preexisting condition. I’ve had breast cancer. What’s going to happen to me?” Berthie Ruoff said on a 9News segment about the meeting.

“My spouse who had health insurance passed away. What do I do? You know, what am I supposed to do?”

She reportedly was not among the people who got to meet with the congressman.

Coffman’s office had advertised the event as a chance for “one-on-one” meetings with people who live in the Sixth Congressional District. Faced with the large crowd, he started seeing small groups instead.

The event originally was scheduled to go from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m. Nelson Garcia, a reporter for 9News, claims that Coffman left six minutes early while “more than 100 people were waiting to meet with him.” (Coffman’s staff told 9News he had met with more than 70 people.)

Coffman’s critics quickly accused him of dodging questions and constituents.

Steve Krizman, a health marketing consultant and communications professor, has dubbed the Congressman “Backdoor Mike.”

Coffman’s office said it was simple logistics. They apologized that he wasn’t able to see everyone, saying that they had only reserved the room for 90 minutes, as previously advertised.

The story quickly gained traction. Garcia’s video of Coffman leaving the event has reached nearly 3,000 retweets in a few days. As Corey Hutchins wrote, the “scene could not have been more damaging for a public official…”

Huffington Post’s politics staff wrote that all this shows that the “(p)opular resistance to the repeal” has begun, “with the first signal that Republicans could face major political repercussions coming from the large Denver suburb of Aurora, Colorado.”

To New York Magazine, it was “a taste” of the backlash that may come. (An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found support for the law at its highest level ever last week.)

Here’s what Cornell University professor Lawrence Glickman told The Colorado Independent:

“I do think there’s a really good chance that as constituents all over the country contact their local representative … I could easily see it being replicated in different parts of the country.”

On Sunday, Coffman claimed his meeting was the target of a liberal political stunt.

“I have been doing five minute one-on-one constituent meetings for the last five years although I do allow small groups, if they share the same issue concerns. This gives an opportunity for everyone to be heard and not just the loudest voices in the room,” he wrote on Facebook.

“… Yesterday, activists angry about the election results and angry about the impending repeal of Obamacare came with the goal of making a show. That’s their right. But the great majority of Americans want the Obamacare mess cleaned up. My resolve isn’t the least bit shaken by these antics — the American people want Obamacare repealed and replaced.”

It’s worth noting that at least one from the crowd, Democratic Rep. Paul Rosenthal, was not a Coffman constituent. To some commenters, this was a sign that the entire protest was an organized stunt. Rosenthal says he was there representing the entire state. At least one Democratic group, ProgressNow, has instead called it a “grassroots” effort.

(Ultimately, in my opinion, it will be hard to separate “formally organized plans” from “ideas that gained traction on social media.”)

Coffman’s next step:

On Monday, Coffman told The Colorado Independent (check out Hutchins’ analysis there for much more on this story) that he thought the main problem was the size of the venue.

The congressman said he’d like to accommodate up to 300 people in a future meeting. He’s looking for a “very large venue” and trying to “really get the word out for people to come.”

This post has been updated multiple times.