DENVER (AP) – Candidates for one of the top congressional races in the country debated in Spanish on Thursday as they compete for a district with a growing Hispanic population.
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman has been furiously studying Spanish for the past year; his Democrat challenger, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, is fluent, having served in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica.
They are locked in one of the most expensive and intense House contests in the country. Organizers billed the debate as the first Spanish-language congressional debate between non-Hispanic candidates.
Coffman has changed his stance on whether people in the country illegally should be allowed to stay, after his district was redrawn to include the immigrant-heavy city of Aurora. He said he supports citizenship for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, but that he opposes "special" treatment for others.
Romanoff said it is important that such a diverse district have a representative who supports an immigration overhaul, "not just in days before an election, but in their whole career."
Coffman previously opposed a bill to allow people brought into the country illegally as children to become citizens, Romanoff said. Coffman also introduced legislation to overturn requirements that diverse areas provide bilingual ballots to voters and had spoken positively of notorious immigration hardliner Rep. Tom Tancredo.
Coffman said he does support immigrants, noting that Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez had praised his leadership on a proposal to let people brought to the country illegally as children to earn their citizenship by serving in the military.
Coffman said he only opposed Obama trying to implement immigration changes unilaterally.
"I want congressional action because that guarantees a fundamental right," he said.
Romanoff was asked about his own support for a 2006 state law that would have required police to alert federal authorities to immigrants they suspected were living in the U.S. illegally. Many Democrats voted for the legislation, then touted as the toughest immigration measure in the nation.
"The law was an error," Romanoff said. He said he was wrong to support it and added that he's proud Democrats have since rejected it. He said he's always supported citizenship for people who come here illegally.
The two candidates also sparred over the environment, the cost of college and the health care overhaul during the 30-minute debate. Afterward, Coffman said: "I think it was important to show respect for the community."
Gina Millan, a community organizer who watched the debate at the Entravision studios in Denver, was elated. She said it was an important chance for Spanish-speakers to hear the candidates address the issue and that even bilingual members of the community got a jolt from watching the exchanges.
"This is so, so big for our community, a debate in our own language," she said.