Aurora Democrat Levi Tillemann, a former Obama administration official and expert in clean energy technologies, announced Thursday that he’s formed an exploratory committee to consider challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman in the 6th Congressional District in next year’s election.
If Tillemann gets in the race, he’ll be the fourth Democrat seeking the nomination to take on Coffman, a five-term incumbent, in the suburban swing district.
Tillemann says he plans to travel the district in the coming weeks to “knock on doors, visit taquerias and diners, participate in community meetings and hear more about what’s important to the mothers and fathers, workers and students, citizens and dreamers of CD 6.”
“We need a government that can build a better present without surrendering the future,” he said in a statement. “The policies of Mike Coffman and Donald Trump are failing Colorado. Let’s harness the power of innovation and common sense to strengthen our communities and bring the jobs of the future to Colorado.”
Tillemann said he’s considering a run because he’s alarmed at the Republican policy agenda and points a finger at Coffman’s role in advancing it.
“Donald Trump and his allies are fighting to roll back hard-won gains for workers and families,” Tillemann’s campaign says. “Republicans want to gut healthcare for low and middle income Coloradans, transfer tax dollars from workers to billionaires, ransack our Western lands and abandon America’s legacy of human rights. Stopping that far right agenda is the urgent mission of our time.”
Invoking a prominent Coffman campaign pledge, Tillemann charges, “In 2016, Rep. Mike Coffman promised to hold Trump accountable. He hasn’t. In 2018, it’s time for the citizens of Colorado to hold Coffman accountable.”
Coffman won his fifth term by a wide margin in November, defeating former Senate President Morgan Carroll — she was elected state chair of the Colorado Democrats in March — by 7.3 points, while Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the district by about 9 points. It’s one of 23 congressional districts nationwide won by Clinton and represented by Republicans, a status that landed Coffman on a list of targeted incumbents released by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee earlier this year.
The battleground district — it was pegged among the most competitive races in the country for the past two elections — hugs the eastern side of the metro area, including eastern Adams County, all of Aurora, much of eastern Arapahoe County and a dense slice of northern Douglas County, including Highlands Ranch. It includes roughly equal numbers of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.
Tilleman, a Colorado native, boasts some pioneering political forebears.
He’s the grandson of Nancy Dick, the first woman elected lieutenant governor of Colorado, who served two terms with Gov. Dick Lamm starting in 1979 and is chairing Tillemann’s exploratory committee. He told The Colorado Statesman he plans to tour at least some of the district in the 1952 MG-TD roadster his grandparents Nancy and Howard Dick drove to Colorado more than 60 years ago — the same car his grandfather once raced in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
His other grandfather, Tom Lantos, fought the Nazis in Hungary and later immigrated as a refugee to the United States, eventually becoming an American citizen, an economics professor and the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress. Lantos, who died in 2008, represented a Bay Area district in California for 27 years and chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee during his last term.
Tillemann is managing partner at Valence Strategies, a consulting firm made up of what he calls “Obama administration science policy wonks.” The company advises businesses, nonprofits and government entities about robotics and artificial intelligence with an eye toward the impact those technologies will have on jobs, he said.
Appointed in 2012 as a policy advisor in the Department of Energy under President Obama, Tillemann was part of the department’s Autonomous and Connected Vehicles Energy Working Group and developed projects including the eGallon calculator to help consumers compare the “gallon equivalent” of electricity costs and the “Revolution Now!” study that examined new energy technologies.
Tillemann is the author of “The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future,” a book he says shows “how smart policy creates jobs through innovation, how clean energy builds strong economies, and how shrewd regulation actually saves money and lives.”
The other Democrats hoping to challenge Coffman are Jason Crow, an attorney and Army combat veteran; David Aarestad, an attorney and former Cherry Creek School District board candidate; and Gabriel McArthur, a Bernie Sanders delegate to last year’s Democratic National Convention.
Tillemann, who lives near the Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora, stresses his roots in the state, noting that he learned Spanish in the neighborhood when he grew up in North Denver. (Crow and his family live a few blocks east of the 6th District boundary in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood, and, while he says they’re house-hunting in the district, the Coffman campaign has been bludgeoning the candidate over it.)
In a statement about Tillemann’s potential run, a spokesman for Coffman’s campaign took aim at Crow and another favorite Coffman target, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, while also poking at divisions within the Democratic Party still raw after last year’s elections.
“Levi Tillemann must not have gotten the memo,” Coffman campaign advisor Tyler Sandberg told The Statesman. “Nancy Pelosi and the DCCC have already anointed Jason Crow as the Democratic challenger in the 6th Congressional District. In the same way that Debbie Wasserman-Schultz worked to bequeath the nomination to Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, the Democratic establishment in Washington, D.C., has decided that Jason Crow is their man in the 6th CD over all these other more grassroots, more progressive candidates. So before he gets too far along in all this, Mr. Tillemann might want to fly back to Washington, D.C., and get the DNC’s permission to maybe run for a different office. Turns out the Democratic establishment isn’t very democratic.”
A regional spokeswoman for the DCCC repeated what have already become familiar attacks against Coffman in a statement about Tillemann’s exploratory committee.
“With each passing day that Rep. Mike Coffman puts his party ahead of the people he represents, he becomes more vulnerable,” Rachel Irwin told The Statesman. “His record speaks loud and clear: He voted 62 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act and he paved the way for the passage of the Republican Rip-off and Repeal bill. Colorado voters will remember and we fully expect to have a strong candidate to challenge Coffman in 2018.”
Tillemann enrolled in Regis University on a debate scholarship when he was 15 and later transferred to Yale. He founded IRIS Engines, Inc., while pursuing his Ph.D. in Japan and China studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. A regular contributor to The New Yorker, Slate, Fortune and National Public Radio, Tillemann speaks Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese.