Two El Paso County lawmakers embroiled in a bitter Republican primary have evoked a 4-year-old guest-farmworker bill and former Congressman Tom Tancredo during their fight over conservative credentials.

House Majority Leader Amy Stephens of Monument and Rep. Marsha Looper of Calhan have been drawn into the same legislative district and must run against each other in the June GOP primary.

Looper co-sponsored the 2008 guest-worker bill, which Stephens opposed because she said it didn't offer enough safeguards to ensure that foreign workers returned home after the harvest.

When the bill became a campaign issue, Looper responded that it came straight from a measure sponsored by Tancredo — a claim that drew scoffs from Stephens and a sharp rebuke from the bill's Democratic Senate sponsor.

In addition, a handout from the state Department of Agriculture at the time said the bill was patterned after "a pilot-project concept based on Canada's seasonal agricultural worker program."

"Don't you think that Marsha would have mentioned Tancredo's involvement during the debate?" Stephens asked. "She never said his name until now."

Looper countered that as the lead sponsor, she knows the language behind the bill. She added that the Arizona Minutemen endorsed the proposal.

The argument between Looper and Stephens highlights how explosive their race is expected to become and how important conservative credentials play in El Paso County.


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Tancredo, who retired from Congress in 2008, said he can't remember the details of his bills well enough to do specific comparisons with Looper's measure — but that it sounded like there were similarities. He has endorsed Looper, who also is being supported by lobbyist Steve Durham, one of Tancredo's closest allies.

Looper co-sponsored the bill with former Sen. Abel Tapia, a Pueblo Democrat who now oversees the Colorado Lottery. He said he chose to work with Looper because "Marsha is not a Tancredo right-wing person."

"It was a far cry from a Tancredo bill," Tapia said, adding he never would have signed on to the measure if it had anything to do with the controversial congressman who made illegal immigration the cornerstone of his congressional career.

The Looper-Tapia bill created a five-year test program allowing the state to work with private firms to cut through the red tape involved in obtaining so-called H-2A visas for foreign agricultural workers. It was signed into law by former Gov. Bill Ritter in 2008.

Looper and Tapia said at the time that farmers complained they couldn't get enough workers to harvest labor-intensive crops.

Lobbyist Kristen Thomson, whose client was the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, said the bill was "heavily, heavily, heavily, heavily negotiated." She said it was rewritten at least three times after it was introduced and more than 80 amendments were offered.

If there were any similarities to a Tancredo bill, she said, they were taken out during the debate.

"I don't even remember Tancredo's name coming up," she said.

Over the years, Tancredo has been critical of guest-worker programs.

"Farmers moan and groan over what they allege is a shortage of legal agricultural workers. In fact, under current law, farmers can import an unlimited number of foreign ag workers using the H-2A visa," he told Cox News Service in 2006.

"Their true motive for breaking the law is that they want to reap maximum profit by paying substandard wages, not that there aren't enough workers."

Lynn Bartels: 303-954-5327 or lbartels@denverpost.com