DENVER — About 70 protesters complaining about a lack of access to Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, and about his policy positions, held signs and chanted outside the Hyatt Regency hotel in the Denver Tech Center as he addressed the Colorado Water Congress on Friday morning.
“I just want you to know that I’m applying for your membership chairman and will do what I can to make sure that any new attendee outside is paying their dues,” Gardner said at the opening of his remarks, acknowledging the protesters outside the hotel to his audience of water professionals.
After his remarks to the Water Congress audience, Gardner was asked during a question-and-answer period if he could address whether he felt he was being accessible to his constituents.
“Well, I’m glad you were able to ask that question in person,” Gardner said to much laughter and applause in the crowded hotel ballroom.
The question had been posed by a reporter from Aspen Journalism, who had paid to attend the Water Congress conference, and had just been outside talking to the protesters. Access to the ballroom where Gardner was speaking had been controlled by security guards and was limited to those wearing a conference badge.
“Over the past year I have traveled and visited every single county in Colorado, been to all 64,” Gardner said, in a more serious vein. “Since Jan. 1, we’ve received over 25,000 letters that we’ve responded to. In the two years I’ve been in office, we’ve received over half a million pieces of correspondence. We have less than 40 people to respond to every single one of those.”
Gardner also said that his offices have successfully worked on over 3,000 requests for assistance from constituents so far during his tenure.
“We have eight offices,” said Gardner, who was elected to the Senate in 2014 after serving two terms in the House. “I’m very proud of the work that they do. Whether you are in Yuma or whether you are in Durango or Grand Junction, we try and get them out and about throughout the state.
“In the case of Darlene, that’s a one-woman shop,” Gardner said, referring to the staff person who works in his office in Yuma. “And Darlene’s not there today. And she’s not always going to be in her office every day because I want her learning the issues, visiting the state, and talking with constituents. That’s very important to me. I pride myself on the best constituent service in the state of Colorado.”
Calls from New York and California?
Gardner also alluded to the flood of calls his office has been receiving in the wake of President Trump’s inaugural.
“We have expanded our voicemail capabilities,” he said. “In fact when we realized that we were getting flooded with phone calls from California and New York and paid activists around the nation, we had to expand that. The first night we expanded it we had over 3,000 voice mails. But what’s happening is Californians and San Franciscans are crowding out the ability to hear from Coloradoans, and that gets frustrating.
“Anyway, I will continue to meet every Coloradoan I can, to work hard to represent the interests of the state, and to make sure, whether it is the voices of Colorado Water Congress, or even the Aspen Journalism folks, that we make sure we’re here to answer questions,” Gardner concluded.
The audience applauded again.
Gardner’s not alone in getting a flood of calls and emails lately from citizens. The Denver Post reported this week that every member of the Colorado congressional delegation has been inundated with calls after the Women’s March on Washington.
After his remarks at Water Congress, Gardner spent about 15 minutes talking to various conference attendees and then left the hotel through the kitchen.
The senator’s press secretary, Alex Siciliano, was trying on Friday from Washington to find out if the senator, or anyone from Gardner’s office, had talked to the protesters outside the Denver hotel, but it did not appear that they had.
In terms of substantive issues related to water and land, Gardner said in his remarks at Water Congress that when it comes to investment in infrastructure across the country, water infrastructure needs to be funded along with such elements as roads and bridges.
He said he was in favor of moving the headquarters of the BLM from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, given that 99 percent of BLM land is west of the Mississippi River.
And he said he wants faster federal review of water storage projects in Colorado, that he did not support the selling off of federal land, and did not favor trade measures that could hurt exports from Colorado.
Access really an issue?
The protesters at the water meeting, who had gathered in the cold morning air just off the hotel’s property, were chanting slogans such as “Cory Cory hear our story” and carrying signs that said “Cory Gardner, we your people need to talk to you,” and “Senator Gardner meet us in person” and “Why won’t you meet with us?”
Another sign said, “Sen. Gardner, let’s talk about health care, environment, education, immigration, equality, Russia.”
It’s not clear if access to Gardner is really a significant issue or whether protesters are more frustrated by President Trump’s policies and cabinet nominations and Gardner’s support for many of them.
James Morgan, a protester from Lakewood, said, “We’re just overwhelmed with so many issues” and that many of the protesters felt that the Trump administration is “tyrannical.”
But Morgan also said he had found it much easier to reach someone on the phone in Sen. Bennett’s office than Sen. Gardner’s office.
On Friday after Gardner’s speech, helpful people did in fact answer the phone in Gardner’s offices in Denver, Grand Junction and Fort Collins, but only voicemail was reached in his offices in Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Greeley, Yuma, Durango or D.C.
Admittedly, whether someone picks up the phone in a regional office may not be a true measure of constituent service, but it was relatively easy to reach someone in three of Gardner’s offices on Friday.
Calls to all of Bennett’s offices on Friday morning resulted in a helpful person answering the phone in the Denver office, but not in his other offices.
On Tuesday, about 50 protesters had gathered outside of Gardner’s offices in Durango and Denver, also complaining about a lack of access to the senator, according to the Durango Herald.
Gardner did hold a telephone town hall on Tuesday evening, where 100,000 recorded calls were placed to voters in the state’s 3rd Congressional District, according to his press secretary. As part of the exercise, callers could choose to pose a question after a voicemail prompt, and then the senator addressed a number of the questions live from his office in D.C.
Earlier this week, Sen. Gardner released a statement to The Denver Post about his constituents contacting him.
“I’m grateful when my constituents contact me to express their thoughts and concerns because their feedback allows me to do my job best and develop legislative solutions that benefit Coloradoans,” Gardner said in a statement. “I encourage my constituents to continue to contact me — whether it’s an e-mail, a phone call, or a social media post — to express their opinions and participate in the democratic process that makes our country so unique.”
However, Ian Silverii, the executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, was critical of Gardner’s recent responses to his constituents.
“Senator Gardner promised that when he went to Washington he would represent all Coloradoans,” Silverii said. “The fact that he had all night to hold the gavel while the GOP rushed through a gutting of the Affordable Care Act without a replacement plan, but can’t seem to field the calls or emails he’s getting from his constituents, gives us the impression that he’s not listening, and not serving Coloradoans. Cory Gardner needs to serve Colorado, not Washington D.C., not Republican leadership, and not Trump.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017.