Congressman Mike Coffman has been studying Spanish for less than two years, but he launches into it with the seeming comfort and ability of a veteran speaker.
The Colorado Republican, who won re-election in 2014 in what was considered the most competitive House race in the country, drew some skepticism when he began taking Spanish and going to Latino neighborhoods and adopting a more moderate view of issues such as comprehensive immigration reform.
His district’s boundaries were redrawn in 2011, after the Census came out a year earlier, and suddenly the predominantly white, Republican area was ethnically diverse – including 20 percent Latino – and was winnable by a Democrat.
That made last year's mid-term election, as Politico put it, "a proxy war for the national Democratic and Republican parties" in the battle for the growing Latino electorate.
Coffman, 60, does not deny that the need to reach out to Latinos, a community he concedes that he knew very little about, was non-negotiable if he was to remain in Congress.
But what began as a survival tactic, Coffman said, developed into a genuine interest and respect for Latinos and the Spanish language.
Where many politicians drop such outreach and nearly vanish from certain communities once an election is over, Coffman, who won re-election in 2012 and 2014, engages with Latinos and studies the language as if he were still campaigning.
“Es muy importante para la comunidad,” Coffman said in an interview with Fox News Latino where the questions were in English but he often responded in Spanish.
“It’s a sign of respect for the community,” he said, translating his response to why he dove into learning Spanish, a language he continues to study several times a week with his Colombian-born tutor. “It’s been exciting for me to reach out to Hispanics, Asians, African immigrants and learn.”
“My district totally, dramatically changed,” Coffman said. “I lost a lot of my more Republican areas, and got a heavy immigrant population.”
Suddenly, he was addressing issues such as immigration from a perspective he had lacked before.
Now, he was formulating his views and ideas after speaking directly – without translators – in Spanish to families separated after deportations, and undocumented youths who had been in the United States since they were children and shared with him their despair over not being able to go to college or get a driver’s license because of actions their parents had taken.
Coffman says he was taken aback by the chilly reaction he got at first by some Latinos and Asians to whom he made overtures.
“They said to me that Republicans were anti-immigrant,” he said, “that was the Republican Party’s image even among legal immigrants. That surprised me as I was campaigning.”
Coffman and Romanoff made national headlines with their decision to hold an all-Spanish televised debate, a rarity in the country. Univision promoted it weeks ahead of time, something that Coffman says made him more known to Latinos in his district.
The Coffman success in a diverse district has the national Republican Party watching closely.
The Republican National Committee is holding Coffman up as a model for the kind of engagement Republicans must employ if they are to turn around their image among Latinos.
“At the RNC we’re leading by example, while shining a spotlight on leaders who go the extra mile," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told a large audience at an annual U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce summit in Washington D.C. last month.
“Like Congressman Mike Coffman in Colorado. He was first elected to Colorado’s sixth district in 2008. When that district was redrawn after 2010, he found he had an even larger Spanish-speaking constituency," Priebus said. “For Congressman Coffman, communicating with these constituents was important. He wanted to do his part. So he took intensive Spanish courses, and in the last election, he even participated in a Spanish language debate on Univision. And he’s still continuing his classes."
“In states like Colorado and Florida, that work made an important difference in securing Republican victories."
Coffman has softened his stance on immigration. In the past he expressed opposition to giving undocumented immigrants a break, and did not support the DREAM Act.
Now he supports allowing immigrants who were brought to the United States as children a chance to legalize if, among other things, they are willing to join the military or go to college.
“They were brought here through no fault of their own, and this is the only country many of them really know,” Coffman said.
Other undocumented immigrants, he said, should have an opportunity to obtain work visas and pay taxes.
“It can’t be done by executive order” however, Coffman said. “It has to be done by Congress.”
But neither the Democrats nor his own party seem to have the will to address immigration in a rational, efficient way, he said.
“For Democrats, it’s all or nothing,” Coffman said. “Republicans want a step-by-step approach to reforming immigration, but they seem unwilling to take a first step.”
He is working with colleagues such as Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican, on measures that would give some immigrants a chance to legalize their status if they meet strict criteria.
“We need to come up with a version of the DREAM Act that is acceptable to both parties,” he said.
“We need a system where people can go back and forth, bring them out of the shadows, let them work here,” he said. “We need to get something done on immigration reform, something that is aligned with our economic needs, and we need to be compassionate about keeping families together. It’s important going into 2016.”
During the campaign for re-election last year, Democrats accused Coffman of being insincere.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said his change of heart on some issues of importance to Latinos amounted to a "political deathbed conversion.”
“Mike Coffman, from his record and his past, has shown that he’s not on the right side on immigration,” said Rick Palacio, the Colorado Democratic Party chairman, to Politico. “Going from that extreme to trying to soften his stance says to me and to a lot of people in Colorado that he’s a political opportunist.”
Coffman dismissed the criticism, saying that many of his GOP colleagues, like many Americans in general, were modifying their views on the complex issue of immigration.
Bob Martinez, a former Colorado Republican Party chairman who often pushed for his party to be open-minded on immigration, defended Coffman's altered views.
“I think it’s good. I’m hoping a lot of Republican politicians realize how damaging to the party [the issue has] been,” Martinez said to Politico. “Mike Coffman has made a 180-degree evolution on this issue. … I think it’s fantastic.”
Had Coffman not changed, Martinez added, “I think it would have put him in jeopardy.”
For now, Coffman continues immersing himself in the Latino cultures and Spanish language.
He listens to Rosetta Stone lessons on flights between Washington D.C. and Colorado. He watches “Sabado Gigante” and Spanish-language news shows. And he regularly meets with Latinos groups and officials of the Mexican consulate.
This summer, he plans to attend an intensive Spanish-language class in Mexico.
“If it goes well,” he said, “I’ll do it again for a longer time.”