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U.S. Sentate candidate Andrew Romanoff speaks with voters a candidate forum in Montrose on Oct. 20, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Andrew Romanoff denounces his rival John Hickenlooper in the Democratic U.S. Senate race as an out-of-touch centrist with ties to business interests who is willing to compromise and accept big campaign checks from corporations.

But decades ago, when he led a “New Democrat” coalition and served as a moderate leader in the state legislature, the same labels described Romanoff.

His record is raising questions about whether his conversion into one of the more liberal candidates nationwide running for U.S. Senate is a genuine evolution or political opportunism in a battle against Hickenlooper, a well-funded moderate former governor with backing from the national party.

“You can say his views have changed and evolved, and whether it’s convenient to do it in that particular circumstance is a big question,” said Jim Carpenter, a former chief of staff in Democratic Gov. Roy Romer’s office where Romanoff worked. 

In the 1990s, Romanoff epitomized the centrist movement within the Democratic Party, serving as adviser to the Democratic Leadership Council and co-chairman of the Colorado affiliate. The organization, aligned with former President Bill Clinton, called for the national party to “expand opportunity, not government” and policies “punishing criminals instead of explaining their behavior.”

As a state lawmaker for eight years starting in 2001, Romanoff charted a pragmatic political course working with business interests to deliver on legislation and even touted passage of a bill he called the “toughest illegal immigration package in the nation.”

Romanoff served the final four years as House speaker and helped Democrats win back-to-back majorities by raising big money through his own political action committee, which accepted contributions from corporate interests representing the oil and gas, insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

“At the time, Andrew was a pretty average, middle-of-the-road, moderate Democrat,” said Laura Chapin, a strategist who worked for Romanoff in the state House. “It was also the first majority Democrats had in a long time, so there was a natural impulse to say, ‘Let’s not go too far here.’”

When Democrats took control of the chamber in 2005 with Romanoff at the helm, he opened the session with this declaration: “Our job is not to indulge every liberal fantasy our supporters may have nurtured for the last 44 years.”

One of Romanoff’s top concerns was looking “anti-business.” But in that year, he told State Legislatures magazine, a publication of the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, that he “practically lived” at the chamber of commerce and delivered “the most pro-business session in five years.”

Former state Rep. Alice Madden, the House Majority leader who served as Romanoff’s deputy, said he was one of the most moderate Democrats in the chamber. He was careful about embracing major change and concerned with how to keep the party in power.

“He wasn’t going to be rah-rah out there for the most progressive policies,” said Madden, who is neutral in the race after her short stint as a candidate prior to Hickenlooper’s bid. “He was more: Study, do the calculus and see where it ends up.”

Romanoff’s position now is hard for some Democrats to recognize

The old Romanoff is a far cry from the candidate now seeking the party’s nomination for U.S. Senate in the June 30 primary.

In the campaign, he is embracing the policies put forward by his party’s most liberal members, such as the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All,” two potentially expansive new government programs. He signed a pledge not to accept campaign donations from oil and gas executives and forbid PAC donations of any kind. And he supports reducing funding for police departments and abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Long-time Democrats in Colorado barely recognize the new Romanoff, who is backed by national progressive groups and environmental activists who favor a no-compromise approach to Washington.

EXPLORE: Where John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff stand on key issues in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate

“He has really positioned himself farther to the left than when he served before,” said Mike Feeley, a state Senate Democratic leader before Romanoff’s tenure. “He was far more pragmatic and willing to compromise — and occasionally willing to cast a vote that certainly wouldn’t be called progressive.”

Carpenter, Romanoff’s former boss and a Democratic political consultant supporting Hickenlooper, called the focus of the candidate’s campaign a “conversion of convenience” that taps into the liberal base of the party in Colorado, where Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders twice won the Democratic contest for president over more moderate foes.

Romanoff has “moved left to capture that part of the party,” Carpenter said.

In a brief interview, Romanoff acknowledged the shift in political direction. Asked if he once considered himself a moderate, he replied: “On some issues, I suppose.”

What his record reflects, he said, is the fact Republicans held the majority before him and Republican Bill Owens held the governor’s office. As an example, he pointed to a measure he sponsored to provide domestic violence victims time off work to seek help, saying a compromise was needed to get it passed, even if it meant more incremental reform. “To get anything done, you had to work across the aisle,” he said. 

Romanoff says today’s issues need more progressive approach

The same question about Romanoff’s political compass blurred his first bid for U.S. Senate in 2010. Then — like now — Romanoff challenged the national Democratic Party’s favored pick, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a pragmatic centrist with substantial financial support.

The open lane for Romanoff in both races pushed him to the left where he called for more progressive and aggressive action. He embraced support for government-run single-payer health care at the time Bennet backed a public option. He blasted his opponent for accepting PAC money from special interests. And he pushed for quicker action on a conversion to renewable energy.

In the Democratic primary against Hickenlooper, Romanoff is making the same play on all three issues — and then going further to show he’s the more progressive candidate. He has embraced universal basic income, reparations for African Americans and a massive government-hiring proposal as part of the Green New Deal to address climate change.

Asked if he considers himself a moderate now, Romanoff said “it depends on the issue.” 

When it comes to climate change and health care, Romanoff said, the most radical position is to do nothing. “I’ve taken a progressive position on those issues because I think the problems demand it,” he explained.

Yet he still finds himself explaining his legislative record from more than a decade ago as Hickenlooper raises questions in debates and critics blast him with negative advertising.

John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff, pictured, outlined their differences in a virtual debate in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate hosted by 9News on June 9, 2020. (Screenshot)

The most notable issue is his support for immigration legislation in 2006. Senate Bill 90 required local law enforcement to report arrests to federal authorities if officers suspected them of being in the U.S. unlawfully. Another measure approved with Romanoff’s support barred people living in the U.S. illegally from accessing government assistance programs and required business owners to provide proof of the legal work status of their employees, which followed federal law. 

Hickenlooper signed a bill as governor to repeal parts of the immigration package.

Romanoff has called his support for the measure a mistake but said it was a necessary compromise to prevent a more draconian immigration measure at the ballot box. 

“I wish we hadn’t done that. I wish I hadn’t done that,” he said at a recent debate. “And I regret it … I wish we would have instead taken the risk and challenged the governor to call us back into a special session, even if that meant risking a ballot fight over the constitutional amendment itself.” 

Feeley, the former top Democratic lawmaker, said Romanoff’s explanation about the need for a political tradeoff “rings a little hollow.”

“There’s little doubt he could pass that legislation, but there sure as hell was doubt about whether something could pass at the ballot,” said Feeley who supported Romanoff in prior races but is backing Hickenlooper in the Senate contest.

Other legislation Romanoff supported includes a 2003 resolution “honoring President Bush’s leadership in his effort to protect the United States against Saddam Hussein.” Romanoff was among seven House Democrats who joined 33 House Republicans in cosponsoring the resolution.

The resolution reads that “the dictatorship of Iraq has continued to develop weapons of mass destruction.” At the time, it was widely believed that Hussein’s regime was developing weapons of mass destruction. Many prominent Democrats, including presidential candidates Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, supported the invasion of Iraq and have since said they regret their votes. 

MORE: Hickenlooper makes case for electability as repeated controversies continue to overshadow his campaign

During a debate earlier this month, Hickenlooper asked Romanoff whether his “support for the invasion of Iraq” ranked among his most regrettable political stances. Romanoff said he backed the resolution because it thanked the troops for their sacrifice but now believes it was “clearly a mistake.”

Romanoff also has expressed regret about his decision as a state lawmaker to start a PAC. The Romanoff Leadership Fund created in 2004 raised money to get Democrats elected to the House majority. The PAC was disbanded in January 2010, months before he made a no-PAC money pledge and used the issue against Bennet in the Senate race that year.

However, four years later, when running against Mike Coffman to represent Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, Romanoff accepted outside money from other candidates who took campaign cash from special interests.

He sparred with Coffman’s campaign over his 2014 pledge, and the Republican’s campaign said Romanoff’s “special interest mantra is a dishonest ruse.”

His allies look beyond his past to where he stands now

Pilar Chapa, a Romanoff friend, said he deserves credit for being ahead on major issues, such as single-payer health care. She said he’s always made the environment a huge issue, too. “I’ve always known Andrew to be pretty progressive,” said Chapa, who managed Sanders’ presidential campaign in Colorado.

In 2014, when Chapa worked on Romanoff’s unsuccessful campaign for Congress, he talked like a moderate to appeal to a broader swath of voters. But she said the candidate’s convictions didn’t change. “The times are really different from 2014 to today,” she said. “The issues people were mostly focused on were different.”

The Sunrise Movement, led by young people committed to addressing climate change, considered Romanoff’s prior record as a moderate before endorsing him. “He definitely had a history that was different from other progressive candidates,” said Michele Weindling, a regional organizer for the group. 

“A lot of people disagree with our support of Romanoff, but we believe it is the work of progressive movements to push candidates to be as progressive as possible,” she added.

Romanoff’s focus on climate change in the campaign and demand for an end to oil and gas extraction fits the organization’s values. The group recently held a protest outside Hickenlooper’s home in Denver to highlight the former governor’s past ties to the oil and gas industry and it is hosting phone banks to help elect Romanoff. 

“He has immensely shown what it looks like when a movement comes together to demand progressive change,” Weindling said. She added: “It’s really clear that Romanoff has proven his loyalty to progressive change over loyalty to the Democratic Party.”

Updated at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, June 24, 2020: This story was updated to reflect that Jim Carpenter, Gov. Roy Romer’s former chief of staff, did not hire Andrew Romanoff. But both worked in the governor’s office at the same time. And an earlier version listed the wrong title for Pilar Chapa. She served as a campaign outreach director for Romanoff’s 2014 campaign.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.