Attorney General Cynthia Coffman of Aurora is the latest candidate to enter the crowded Republican primary. She joins state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo and businessman Doug Robinson, among others. Courtesy of Cynthia Coffman for Governor
BY PETER JONES
Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, the latest to nudge into the crowded Republican gubernatorial primary, rejects claims that she is too “moderate” for a packed room of men vying to out-conservative each other. She cites her 2014 run for Colorado’s top attorney.
“I was very successful in the caucus and assembly process getting support from people who didn’t agree with me on every issue, but saw that I had the courage of my convictions,” the Aurora resident said. “People in the Republican Party will have the opportunity to hear me talk about issues, and I think they will find that labelling me in a particular way is not easy.”
While Coffman earned raves from her fellow Republicans for defying Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper on issues of perceived federal overreach, she has been greeted askance in more-conservative quarters for her positions on social issues, particularly abortion and gay rights.
Coffman believes her views put her squarely in the mainstream of Colorado voters—a clear benefit, she says, in a state that has been reluctant to elect Republican governors.
“To me, when you’re a governor in a state that is as politically split as Colorado is, it is particularly important that you govern from the center and that you govern to solve problems, and not pursue a particular ideology on every issue,” the candidate said.
As some Republicans flock to such hopefuls as former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, an anti-illegal immigration firebrand, Coffman cautions Republicans that hardline stances are not in the party’s interests for the general election.
“That would only lead Republicans into the same situation we have found ourselves in so often, which is where the candidate is not electable by the entire population of Colorado,” she said.
Coffman, 55, the former wife of Tancredo successor Mike Coffman, was in one sense a surprise candidate when she formally entered the primary last month. Although known to be mulling a run to become Colorado’s first woman governor, many—including District Attorney George Brauchler—were ready to assume she would run for re-election rather than enter a less certain contest full of well-funded heavy hitters. Coffman’s announcement prompted Brauchler to switch from the governor’s race to the wide-open primary for attorney general.
For Coffman’s part, the timing of her announcement was born more in the realities of her current job than uncertainty, the candidate says.
“It actually didn’t take me long to make the decision. I just chose to announce it a year out from the general election,” she explained. “I have a very big job as attorney general and didn’t want to spend two years campaigning when I think that all people feel is necessary as voters is a good year to listen to candidates.”
Although Coffman once told The Villager that her political ambitions ended at the Colorado Department of Law, she says she gradually changed her mind as she talked to constituents and realized that the truly important issues were more germane to the governor’s office.
“It’s been an evolution for me,” she said. “I very much enjoy my work as an attorney for the state, but as I expanded my role and became a larger part of state government, I became aware of issues that we’re facing—issues of soaring growth and infrastructure that has not kept up, issues around the urban-rural divide, and places in the state of Colorado that have not recovered from the recession.”
Coffman points to her two decades in state government as unique among her primary competition of former lawmakers and businessmen.
Born in Missouri, she earned her law degree at Georgia State University in Atlanta before beginning her legal career in 1993 at the Georgia attorney general’s office. Three years later, she was hired as a lawyer for the Olympic games in Atlanta.
After moving to Colorado, Coffman worked for the research office of the nonpartisan Legislative Council at the state Capitol before landing a position at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Then Gov. Bill Owens tapped her as his chief legal counsel before Attorney General John Suthers appointed her as his deputy.
“If there’s anything I understand, it’s what works in Colorado government,” she said.
After being elected attorney general in 2014, succeeding term-limited Suthers, Coffman made headlines for her public battles with Hickenlooper—first on perceived overreach by President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency and then opting not to join a lawsuit challenging President Trump’s decision on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
“I think there’s something to be said for a good balance between the two parties,” Coffman said of her run-ins with the current governor. “It’s difficult sometimes when the governor and the attorney general are of different parties because these are two independently-elected offices who can sometimes go in different directions.”
The attorney general was the subject of inner-party gossip in 2015 when she was accused of attempting to blackmail then-state Republican Chair Steve House over an alleged extramarital affair. Although Coffman would not explain what actually happened in the fracas, she insists it was mischaracterized.
“It was dealt with and the party moved forward. Steve House and I are on good terms,” she said. “It was an emotional time for everybody. I didn’t blackmail anybody.”
Coffman made the news more recently when her office joined the U.S. Supreme Court case over a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
Although Coffman’s office is representing the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which favored the couple as a matter of legal obligation, Coffman is a supporter of gay rights in principle, noting a close personal friend with HIV she helps care for.
“It is sometimes portrayed as a crusade, and that is not untrue,” she said. “But [my support for gay rights] started at its foundational beginnings because of relationships I’ve had with people I’ve seen discriminated against.”
Coffman is likewise supportive of abortion rights.
“I want abortion to be rare. I want it to be safe, and I want us to be doing things as a society that diminish the need for there to be abortion,” she said.
The candidate, who opposed legalized marijuana in Colorado, also pledges to defend the state’s voter-approved system in the event of federal encroachment.
Her history in legal analysis is a big part of why Coffman thinks she would make an excellent chief executive.
“The legal and critical thinking we are taught in law school becomes a part of how we approach every issue and problem,” she said. “I think that is a great benefit in the role of governor.”
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