Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in House leadership, encouraged Democrat Levi Tillemann to end his primary campaign in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District during a December meeting at a Denver hotel, saying that state and national congressional and party leaders had decided “very early on” to consolidate their resources behind another Democrat, Jason Crow, to run against Republican incumbent Mike Coffman, according to detailed notes Tillemann wrote immediately after the meeting.
Hoyer told Tillemann that party leaders who had been through a few go-arounds in the district — one of the top-targeted and most expensive congressional races in the country the past two cycles — would be “negligent” if they didn’t get involved, adding, “If we just lay back as leaders that have some experience, as leaders that have gone thorough that district four or five times and lost, that’s not a rational thing to do,” according to the notes and a conversation Tillemann had with his campaign manager, Juan Rodriguez, minutes after the meeting ended.
“If you stay in the race — and, frankly I would hope you would not — but if you stay in the race, it is not useful to the objective to tear down Crow,” Hoyer told Tillemann, according to the notes.
Hoyer doesn’t comment on private meetings, a spokeswoman told Colorado Politics, but the veteran lawmaker said in a statement he was proud to support Crow.
“It is a positive thing that Democrats across the country — and in Colorado — are engaged and motivated, and that energy is going to help Democrats take back the House. I am proud to join countless Coloradans in supporting Jason Crow in Colorado’s 6th District. His working-class roots, service as a decorated veteran, and positive, progressive values will make him a welcome addition to the U.S. Congress,” Hoyer said.
Hoyer’s support for Crow, one of four Democrats running in a primary in the district, has been public since his leadership PAC made campaign contributions to Crow last year. But his explanation that party bosses consider Tillemann a spoiler and are leaning on him to stand down, in part because the party’s state delegation recruited Crow — and recommended that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee support him — directly contradicts the DCCC’s repeated insistence it’s staying neutral in the battleground race.
U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette, Jared Polis and Ed Perlmutter, Colorado’s Democratic House members, disputed the account through spokespersons. While Perlmutter acknowledged he supports Crow — he’s known Crow and worked with him for a decade on veterans’ issues — all three lawmakers denied they had a hand in recruiting Crow and maintained there had been no decision by the delegation to marshal resources in support of his campaign.
A spokeswoman for the DCCC declined to comment for this story.
The DCCC, the campaign arm of the House Democrats, in mid-November listed Crow among 11 congressional candidates named to its Red to Blue program to provide fundraising and organizational support. The announcement drew protests on social media from Colorado Democratic Party Chair Morgan Carroll, Coffman’s 2016 challenger and a DCCC Red to Blue candidate in that year’s election, who said the move amounted to an endorsement. It was, she said, contrary to both what DCCC officials had told her to expect and the organization’s stated policy of neutrality.
“The DCCC verbally said they would be neutral and in practice just endorsed one of the candidates in CD6,” Carroll wrote in a Nov. 16 Facebook comment reacting to news Crow had receivd the DCCC’s designation. “The neutrality policy is ours at the Colorado Democratic Party but it SHOULD be their policy too at the national level. My 2 cents.”
A spokesman for Carroll declined to comment further for this story.
Two Democrats familiar with the DCCC’s operations at the national level said it would be unprecedented for the organization to add a candidate in a contested primary to its Red to Blue program without at least a sign-off from members of the state’s delegation.
Crow, a Denver attorney and decorated Army Ranger veteran, jumped in the race last April against five-term incumbent Coffman, an Army and Marine Corps veteran and former state treasurer and secretary of state, joining Aurora attorney and former school board candidate David Aarestad in the primary. Tillemann, a clean energy expert and former Obama administration Energy Department official, announced in May he was exploring a run and made his campaign official in July. Political newcomer Erik Stanger launched his bid for the nomination late last year.
Tillemann and Rodriguez told Colorado Politics that Hoyer’s exhortation, and the extraordinarily candid explanation that accompanied it, suggest Democratic party leaders haven’t learned from the scandals that rocked the party during and after the 2016 presidential contest, when accusations emerged that the party tilted the nomination toward Hillary Clinton and away from Bernie Sanders.
“It’s about the DCCC not trusting the judgment of their own people, not trusting the efforts of local party officials who have worked assiduously to make sure it’s a fair fight,” Tillemann said in an interview.
“It’s about a systemic effort to disenfranchise Democratic voters. The DCCC is acting like these contests are fair fights, and they’re not. It’s happening all across the country, and it’s at odds with our fundamental values of fairness and democracy. It’s a form of voter suppression, and it’s something we would condemn in the strongest terms if we saw the Republicans doing anything analogous.”
Rodriguez, who worked on the Sanders campaign in Nevada and Colorado, said he was appalled but not surprised.
“The DCCC is deciding months before the primary who’s going to be the nominee, who they’re going to back and who they’re going to try to force out. It comes down to who has the willingness to do what they tell them to do,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Crow dismissed Tillemann’s claims.
“We don’t know what was said in a private conversation between two people, but what we do know is that Jason has the support from folks like Mark Udall to local county commissioners to Bernie Sanders’ (state) political director who are working with Jason to beat Mike Coffman, and that’s what this campaign is focused on,” Alex Ball, Crow’s campaign manager, told Colorado Politics in a statement.
Rodriguez said his description of Tillemann’s meeting with Hoyer was based on a discussion with Tillemann that took place almost as soon as the meeting had concluded, along with his review of notes the candidate took right after it had occurred, which was also Rodriguez’ first day on the job. He said Tillemann, author of the book “The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future” and a journalist with credits in The New Yorker, among other publications, wrote an extensive and detailed narration of the meeting, including numerous direct quotes.
Hoyer had proposed that the two sit down late on the afternoon of Dec. 15 at the downtown Denver hotel where Hoyer would be attending a Crow fundraiser later that evening.
They met for more than an hour in a roped-off section of the lobby of the Hilton Denver Downtown, a regular site of Democratic events and fundraisers — the 2017 state reorganization meeting and annual fundraising dinner were held there, as will be next month’s Obama Dinner. First they engaged in what Tillemann characterized as a pleasant talk, for a time discussing their shared acquaintance with Tillemann’s grandfather, the late U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, a Bay Area Democrat who entered Congress in 1981, the same year Hoyer was first elected.
Soon, however, the conversation took a turn.
Hoyer told Tilemann he hadn’t known he was planning on getting in the race and added that it wasn’t personal, but maintained that “very early on” a decision had been made by congressional leaders in Colorado and people in Washington, D.C., that Crow was the candidate they were going to run against Coffman, and they had decided to consolidate their money, resources and political capital around Crow.
He repeated the assertion several times that the decision to back Crow had been made “very early on” and said that party elders would be “negligent” if they didn’t get involved in the race.
An incredulous Tillemann asked if that meant Democratic leaders had made their decision before voters would have a say and if that meant they’d decided the DCCC knows best.
“That’s certainly the consequence of our decision,” Hoyer replied, adding, “A judgment was made very early on by the Colorado delegation, and that decision redounds to your detriment.”
Pressing, Tillemann asked whether Democrats shouldn’t have a say in the caucus and assembly process, to which Hoyer said, “They’ll make a choice of one candidate over the other in the primary, but the choice they will make that will make a consequence to the Congress of the United States is in the general (election).”
At another point, Hoyer agreed with Levi’s characterization of Hoyer’s position to mean voters should just line up behind the party’s candidate.
“That’s certainly the consequence of our decision,” Hoyer said, admonishing Tillemann for putting “it in the most negative of terms.” He suggested Tillemann was “reject[ing] out of hand” the responsibility of “the party and the DCCC and the leadership of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives” to do their best to win the seat, which could help hand the gavel to Democrats after the 2018 election.
Then Hoyer stated in no uncertain terms: “I’m for Crow. Because a judgement was made very early on. I don’t know Crow. I didn’t participate in the decision. But a decision was made very early on by the Colorado delegation.”
Soon after, a Hoyer staffer interrupted to say the congressman had to wrap things up.
Tillemann said he appreciated Hoyer’s time and respected his service to the country but disagreed with the approach Hoyer had articulated and would be in touch. Hoyer closed the meeting by asking Tillemann to call his office to discuss Tillemann’s allegation that his campaign was facing attacks from Democrats like Hoyer had said could damage the party’s prospects in the fall election.
Tillemann told Colorado Politics the exchange with Hoyer confirmed his worst qualms about the Democratic Party.
“Our system is committed to the idea that primaries are an important step within the process during which party voters have a say as to which candidate represents their values, their community and their vision for the future,” he said. “What we see not only in the 6th Congressional District but across the country is a proactive and systematic effort by backroom politicians to circumvent the democratic process. That is not democracy, that is paternalism. That is what turns people off from the entire political process.”
Tillemann added that Hoyer’s message, while unexpectedly explicit, wasn’t a surprise.
“We had the sense the DCCC was trying to rig the primary,” he said. After meeting with DCCC officials early last year, Tillemann said he felt frustrated, so his campaign reached out to other Democrats in Washington but ran into cold shoulders there too.
“We don’t want favoritism; all we want is a fair fight,” he said. “We couldn’t get past a receptionist. What we requested was that the DCCC stop jumping on the scales and that they give all candidates within that primary process a fair shot.”
Through a spokeswoman, DCCC officials confirmed they met with Tillemann multiple times.
It isn’t just an insiders’ game, he continued, but an attempt to “drag us toward the center” when the Democratic establishment supports more conservative candidates regardless of the district — even when the chances of electing Democrats appears higher this year than in memory, as evidenced by results late last year in Virginia, Alabama and across Colorado in local elections.
“What we see is a systemic set of forces that is driving the Democratic Party toward a conservative bias, candidates who are cookie-cutter and uninspiring chosen by party apparatchiks,” Tilleman said.
“This is what I call trickle down democracy. They’re doing the exact same thing we criticize Republicans for in the economic sphere. They are drowning out the voices of voters with money and backroom deal-making. It doesn’t work when you give all the resources to someone at the top in an economy, and it doesn’t produce the best results for your constituents when you give all the resources to a favored candidate in an election in Democratic primaries.”
CLARIFICATION: DCCC officials and Tillemann both confirm they met multiple times last year. Tillemann said he couldn’t get past receptionists when he attempted to meet with other Democrats in Washington, not with the DCCC, as an earlier version of this story suggested.