About a week ago, former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman stood before a ballroom full of LGBTQ activists and accepted an Ally Award from One Colorado.

Despite the recognition, it occurred to me that very few people in attendance truly understood the enormity of the sacrifice that propelled Coffman to that stage.

If asked, most people claim they would put moral conviction above personal gain. It’s a natural response that just feels like the right answer. We want to believe in our own strength of character.

Mario Nicolais

But few people ever actually face such a choice in a truly meaningful way. Fewer still must decide between standing firm by her principles and a career built over the course of decades. And only in the rarest circumstance does anyone make that choice in the public eye and at the pinnacle of her profession.

That is precisely the position where Coffman found herself over the past five years. As a Republican supporting equal rights for the LGBTQ community, Coffman found herself at odds with the base of her party. 

Coffman’s principled position doomed her campaign for governor. During the 2018 Republican State Assembly, a venue typically dominated by hardline activists, Coffman endured multiple attacks including at least one flier that labeled her “delusional.”

Coffman exited the race after she received only 6% of the vote at the assembly, not only missing the 40% mark necessary for nomination, but also the 10% that would have allowed her to then petition on to the ballot. 

Too graceful and introspective to lash out or lay blame in post-election retrospectives, Coffman even had praise for her Democratic successor, Phil Weiser, citing his intellect and ability to grasp legal cases and concepts. 

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Hopefully Weiser will also emulate Coffman’s courage to defend Colorado laws even when it means taking positions unpopular with his own party. Her brief supporting the state’s anti-discrimination law in public accommodations enraged many Republicans only months before her ill-fated assembly showing.

In fact, as Coffman recounted during her Ally Award acceptance speech, at least one conservative friend pulled her aside and asked her if defending the law “was really the hill I wanted my campaign to die on.”

Maybe that message struck home for me because I’ve known and admired Coffman as a friend and mentor for nearly 20 years. As One Colorado PAC Board member and fellow conservative, I even appeared in her Ally Award introduction video.

Or maybe it was because I had a similarly humbling experience when I lost a primary for state Senate due in large part to my support for marriage equality; I’d spent 15 years brandishing my resume to serve in public office and saw those dreams evaporate overnight, though my experience represented only a fraction of the fall Coffman endured as a sitting AG who had decades invested into her career.

Coffman continued on to elaborate on the friends she had lost, often people she had known and worked beside election cycle after election cycle, because of her decision. I’d felt that pain, too, losing friends and clients who turned a cold-shoulder to me years before.

Standing before a room full of people, I’m sure many didn’t realize just how alone Coffman may have felt. 

But thanks in large part to her strength, more and more Republicans have begun to take steps toward LGBTQ equality. Just this past legislative session, some Republicans helped pass a conversion therapy ban and Jude’s Law allowing transgender people to change their birth certificates more easily. 

Even the Ally Award crowd included Republicans like CU Regent Heidi Ganahl and CU President Mark Kennedy, who unfortunately had to leave before he heard Coffman’s stirring speech.

Coffman and I might have both seen our political careers die on the hill of equality, but hopefully we will be alive long enough to see other conservatives finish the climb.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq

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Mario Nicolais

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq