Attorney General Cynthia Coffman is leaving her post Tuesday, marking an end to one of the more dramatic departures from power in Colorado’s recent political history.
It would have been hard to imagine four years ago that the rising Republican star would fail to land on her party’s 2018 primary ballot for governor, let alone not seek another term as the state’s top law enforcement officer.
But the 57-year-old veteran government lawyer says she’s neither disappointed nor regretful about how things turned out. “This is the right thing and the right time,” Coffman said last week in an exit interview with The Colorado Sun.
“It’s bittersweet to leave the Department of Law, but I’ve been here for 14 years and I was ready to go and do something else,” she said. “But I really want people to know what a tremendous asset the folks in the office are to the state of Colorado. It’s really important to me that the people know that.”
Coffman talked about her future, what happened with her unsuccessful run for Colorado governor and what she thinks is the top legal challenge for the state moving forward:
The following interview was edited for clarity and length
Colorado Sun: How did we get here? Four years ago, after you won the attorney general’s race, there was so much talk about what’s next for Cynthia Coffman. Now that we’re sitting here in your final days in this office, what is your feeling about the road you’ve been on?
Cynthia Coffman: I’m really content with it. I firmly believe in the fortunes and in divine guidance and think things happen the way they do for a purpose. I’m not regretful about anything. I’ve taken a lot from the last 14 years here, and I’m happy with the way we’ve been able to wind things up in this office and what we accomplished. There’s hindsight, but there’s not regret.
CS: Do you think the decision to run for governor was the right one?
CC: I didn’t want to run again for this office. I had made the decision not to do that. The decision to run for governor I don’t think was wrong. It didn’t work out, but to me that doesn’t equate to it being the wrong decision. I simply felt — personally and for this office — that it was time for a change. Change is a positive thing.
CS: Have you identified anything you think you would have done differently in the governor’s race?
CC: Not really, no. If I could have, I probably would have petitioned onto the ballot. But at the time that I made that decision, I think it was the right one based on what was happening, based on the finances of the campaign and where I wanted to spend my money. And then, of course, as in politics, the timing of things changed. I had my delegates lined up and my votes going into assembly, and that’s the best you can hope for.
CS: We’ve been talking to Colorado Republicans about what they think happened in 2018. What are your thoughts about what the GOP needs to do to move forward?
CC: I wouldn’t really assume that I know what the Republican party in Colorado needs to do. I don’t think there’s a formula or a pat answer. But I think it’s important to look at the voter trends and really study exit interviews — what unaffiliated voters had to say about how they made decisions. And then put that information to work for the party. I happen to think the answers are there and people just need to pay attention and adjust accordingly to the demographics, to the issues people are concerned about, and create a positive message.
CS: What do you think those answers are? It sounds like you have some ideas.
CC: We do have a state that has shifted significantly in terms of the population. I think, not unlike a lot of Western states, we have more unaffiliated voters than we used to. It’s a different marketing strategy when you’re talking to unaffiliated or uncommitted voters than when you are talking to people who will always vote for a party candidate.
CS: Were you surprised by the party’s losses on Nov. 8?
CC: No. I think that was very predictable.
CS: Are there any concerns you have about things that Phil Weiser, the Democrat who will take your job, will do? Or advice that you’ve given him?
CC: I don’t know everything he’s decided to do. I’m impressed with Phil’s intellect, how quickly he grasps legal cases and concepts. I guess that’s not unexpected for someone who is an academic. I came at this job having been in the office for a decade and having been in state government for 20 years almost. He comes from a very different background, and I would expect him to have a different outlook and viewpoints. I think that’s healthy for any office.
CS: Looking back, what do you think was your biggest accomplishment?
CC: The ability to work with law enforcement and protect law enforcement. And to protect victims.
CS: What do think the biggest challenge is that lies ahead for Colorado, from the law-enforcement perspective?
CC: I think it’s a resource issue. I remain concerned, from all my travels around the state, about just coverage, especially in rural Colorado. As we have more population, are more of a tourist destination — partly because of marijuana — that our resources for law enforcement are really stretched thin. There are so many services that citizens expect community leaders to provide, and I want to see that public safety and policing stays as a top priority. Honestly, if we lose oil and gas revenue — if it goes down significantly — it impacts public safety. I hope people will really think about that as they make decisions. It impacts the economy.
CS: During your tenure, you were really seen as being on the side of oil and gas and faced criticism for that — especially when you sued Boulder County over its moratorium on drilling. Do you feel like that criticism was unfair?
CC: What I did was uphold the rule of law. I think that’s what the attorney general is supposed to do, not based on her opinion but based on what the law says. Much of what I did with water, with clean power was simply saying this is a state issue, not a federal issue. Let the state decide.
CS: Now there’s so much talk about what’s going to happen at the legislature.
CC: Look at the big picture and think about the impact of changing laws like those that govern oil and gas development. You have to balance. You have to balance the environment and the economy. I think taking a temperate approach is important.
CS: During the campaign, Democrat Phil Weiser faced criticism from Republicans over his commitment to suing the Trump administration over immigration and health care. You did some of that — against the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration — during your term. What do you think is the right balancing act between activist and the need to protect your values and your state’s values?
CC: I think that’s a very difficult to describe. I think so much of that is based on the issues that come to you in this job. We always approached those decisions as a senior management team with the solicitor general taking the lead and analyzing the legal issues. I relied heavily on Solicitor General Fred Yarger to look at the constitutional issues and the separation of powers. That was actually the basis for the decisions we made, on which lawsuits to join and so what. We had a set of criteria that we always looked at in making those decisions so that we could be consistent and we could always explain to the people why we had done what we had done.
CS: Was there any lawsuit against the Trump administration that you came close to joining?
CC: My response to that would be “Look at the things that we didn’t join” and the fact that I didn’t take partisan positions that a lot of my Republican colleagues took when it came to joining lawsuits. I tried to be straight down the middle and make those decisions based on legal principles.
CS: What comes next for you? Is there any political future for Cynthia Coffman?
CC: I haven’t figured out what my next move is. I’m very happy to be a spectator in the political process. I have several thoughts about what I want to do next — irons in the fire — but no firm decision at all. I’m going to take some time off. I wouldn’t rule out another run for public office, but right now, I don’t foresee it.
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