BY PETER JONES
To hear Levi Tillemann tell it, his congressional candidacy is the perfect marriage of modest roots, public-policy experience and entrepreneurial knowhow.
“As someone who grew up in a working-class Latino community, but has spent his life studying the intersection of technology, markets and policy, I believe that I am uniquely positioned to understand the people of the 6th Congressional District,” the first-time candidate said.
Tillemann, 35, is the latest hopeful to enter the Democratic primary to challenge U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, the five-term incumbent who has managed to hold onto his seat, despite a purpling of the redrawn once-Republican district and two vigorously fought contests against experienced higher-profile Democrats.
“We’ve been going after Mike Coffman with a really standard playbook. I think we have to be more creative. We have to be more aggressive,” Tillemann said.
Like party favorite Jason Crow and David Aarestad, who launched their campaigns months ago, Tillemann has never held elected office. [A fourth novice, Gabriel McArthur, left the race in July to run for Colorado secretary of state.] But unlike his competition, Tillemann has already held an official appointment in Washington, D.C., spending two years as an advisor to the Energy Department under President Obama.
In that role, the candidate says he helped develop policy on such high-tech issues as autonomous vehicles and infrastructure. He was lead author on “Revolution Now: The Future Arrives for Four Clean Energy Technologies,” which prognosticated the future of wind, solar, LED lighting and electric vehicles.
“We have a lot of people from various backgrounds in Congress, but we don’t have very many technologists who have spent a lot of time thinking about the future of the economy and how it is going to affect the everyday lives of people,” he said.
Tillemann wrote 2015’s The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future, published by Simon and Schuster. He graduated with honors from Yale and earned a Ph.D. in international economics from Johns Hopkins University. He and his brothers took NASA’s Create the Future award after working with their late father on an ultra-high-efficiency engine.
Raised in a large Mormon family in northwest Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood, Tillemann says he sees similarities between his childhood quarters and the 6th District Aurora community he now calls home.
“I grew up with families who had the same concerns and the same challenges and the same hopes and aspirations as the people here in my community,” he said. “[Berkeley] has turned into a very hip kind of up and coming neighborhood, and a lot of the people who used to make their homes in neighborhoods like Berkeley are now in Aurora and Brighton.”
While the candidate does not necessarily see gentrification as the enemy, he does view corporate consolidation, automation and online retail as contributors to the decline of the working class. Valence Strategic, his own high-tech business, has helped startups, corporations and even nations adjust to the 21st century economy, he says.
“I understand why and how these changes are happening and I can fight for the families of the 6th Congressional District in Washington,” he said.
Although the election of President Trump was what got Tillemann’s political wheels rolling, it was a conversation with his paternal grandmother, Nancy Dick, Colorado’s first woman lieutenant governor, that pushed him to run for Congress.
“My grandma was a single mother of three children,” he said. “Her husband was killed in a car accident when my father was 3 or 4 years old. She raised her kids by working the front desk at hotels and finding whatever work she could to make ends meet. The fact that someone with that kind of background could end up as a respected public servant was an inspiration.”
Politics runs on both sides of the family. His maternal grandfather, Tom Lantos, was the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress.
Like his Jewish mother who converted to Mormonism, Tillemann left the family’s first-generation faith when he found it no longer made sense to him doctrinally or fit his progressive worldview, particularly on gay rights.
Although Coffman has put some distance between himself and Trump on such issues as the recent ban on transgenders in the military, Tillemann thinks the incumbent is still too close to the president on many issues.
“We’ve done an analysis on Mike Coffman’s votes, and when Republicans need him he’s there. When they don’t need him, he’s not there. That’s called political survival. It’s not called moral leadership,” Tillemann said.
Coffman campaign advisor Tyler Sandberg was quick to tie Tillemann to the goings-on in the Democratic Party establishment.
“While Nancy Pelosi told The Denver Post that the power brokers in D.C. prefer Levi’s Democratic primary opponent Jason Crow, the Bernie wing of the Democratic Party is unlikely to let the national party committees decide the nomination,” Sandberg wrote in an email to The Villager. “While both candidates have never lived in the district until they decided they wanted to run for Congress, it will be interesting to see how much influence Nancy Pelosi still has in the primary.”
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