Cynthia Coffman is Colorado's attorney general, but she'd like to be the state's next governor. In the following in-depth interview, she lays out the case for why voters should throw their support behind her candidacy.
There is no shortage of prominent challengers for the governor's office, as is seen by the list of individual Q&As with hopefuls that Westword has published to date in addition to our recent feature roundup, "Get to Know Colorado's Gubernatorial Candidates, in Their Own Words."
On the Republican side, we've spoken to businessman (and nephew of Mitt Romney) Doug Robinson, entrepreneur and former state legislator Victor Mitchell, tech expert and author Barry Farah and 2016 Denver for Trump co-chair Steve Barlock, in addition to former congressman Tom Tancredo, who dropped out of the contest earlier this year, and 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler, now aiming at the attorney general position Coffman will be vacating. And an interview with State Treasurer Walker Stapleton will be appearing soon.
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On the Democratic side, candidates/interview subjects include former state senator Mike Johnston, onetime Colorado treasurer Cary Kennedy, Congressman Jared Polis and ex-Republican-turned-Dem Erik Underwood, as well as businessman Noel Ginsburg, who withdrew from the competition last month, and Representative Ed Perlmutter, now focusing on a re-election effort in the 7th Congressional District.
Coffman was once half of a Colorado power couple; she was married to Representative Mike Coffman before their split in 2017. Prior to becoming attorney general, she worked in legal positions with the Colorado legislature and a former governor, Bill Owens, and she believes the breadth of knowledge she obtained along the way will serve her well as the state's chief executive.
After talking about her background and her reasons for running, Coffman takes on a range of issues she sees as important, including transportation, education, sanctuary cities, workforce training and health care. She also weighs in on President Donald Trump, whom she considers to be a mostly positive force despite his stylistic dissimilarity to her, what she would do if the federal government tried to crack down on Colorado's marijuana industry, and the importance of having a Republican in charge of redistricting and reapportionment following the 2020 census.
With the Colorado Republican Assembly taking place on Saturday, April 14, at CU Boulder's Coors Events Center, Coffman's remarks, delivered during a car ride between Montrose and Delta on the Western Slope, couldn't be more timely. The conversation starts like so:
Westword: Why should Coloradans choose you to be the state's next governor?
Cynthia Coffman: I think that I am the best qualified, based on my experience not just as attorney general, but having been in public service in Colorado for many years. I know how state government should work, and I know that things aren't working now. I know the people and the way to fix problems. I think that I'm definitely the best qualified person and the right fit at the right time.
Where are you from originally? And how would you describe your family?
I grew up in Missouri — in southern Missouri, down in the Ozarks. My sister and I still own our family farm down there. We're the fifth generation. I have relatives in Missouri, and I have a very dear older sister who lives in Seattle. My parents have passed away now.
When did you first become interested in the law?
I knew when I was eleven that I wanted to be a lawyer. I was one of those precocious children. My father was a lawyer in our home town, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I thought that being a lawyer was the only honorable profession, if you can believe that now. Because really, then it was. Attorneys were leaders in their communities and involved in issues and helping the public. I thought that seemed like the perfect job. I went to the University of Missouri Columbia, which is where my dad went to school. I got my undergraduate degree there. I waited five years until I went back to law school. By that time I was ready to quit working for a while and go back to school. I was living in Atlanta, and I chose a public university, Georgia State University, that had both a day and a night program, similar to DU, so I could work and go to school.
You alluded to your public-service work in Colorado, and you've held many governmental positions over the years: a job in the Colorado General Assembly's office of legislative council, senior management jobs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, chief counsel to Colorado Governor Bill Owens and working with Colorado Attorney General John Suthers before becoming attorney general yourself. How will these various experiences help you as governor?
I think in each one of those jobs I had in Colorado government, I learned something key to how government runs. All put together, I understand how the legislature and the state budget functions and how the governor should interact with the legislature on decision-making. I've made friendships in both political parties and am able to get things accomplished because of that. In the AG's office, really every major issue in state government and boards and commissions crosses our desks. So I'm aware and up to speed on issues that concern voters in Colorado. I think all of that put together means that I'm primed and ready to get to work.
The gubernatorial field this year is incredibly crowded. Did that give you any pause before deciding to throw your hat into the ring? And why did you decide the time was right for you to run now?
I didn't really find the number of people intimidating. I think in politics, you have to make a decision based on your own personal readiness to take a job on, and that was the case for me. I believed there were things I wanted to work on, and I wanted to be able to be in the CEO position, have the policy authority to make changes that you don't have as attorney general. My decision was based on things I want to fix so we can make the state a better place for the people of Colorado.
Your list of important issues for the campaign begins with transportation, and you note that Colorado has $9 billion in unfunded highway projects. Where will the money come from to make those projects a reality?
The legislature is debating this right now, so I'm interested in seeing what they propose. I think we're fortunate right now in Colorado to have a thriving economy. There's money in the general-fund budget that we can allocate to transportation. We have also gotten help as a result of the president's tax cuts and jobs acts. I don't know that we'll ever be in another position like the one we're in now, to take those resources and bond against those to be able to afford the top-tier projects CDOT has identified. That's the way I would go about it. There are proposals for tax increases on the ballot, but I frankly don't think that's necessary. What's important now is that the state government show its willingness to put money from the budget into transportation.
You mentioned the president. How do you think he's doing?
I'm glad we have a Republican president, as a Republican myself. I think there are things policy-wise that are very beneficial to the country, the tax cuts being chief among those. The president has a different style than I have — not surprisingly, since we're different people. But he has a different approach and a different way of characterizing things. And sometimes I cringe, and I would put things differently. But overall, I am pleased with the progress we're making as a country.
You underscore the need to deal with sanctuary cities. What would you do as governor to end sanctuary-city policies in Colorado?
Obviously, home-rule communities have a greater deal of independence when it comes to making policy in some areas. And immigration is a federal issue, so there's not a particular way for the state to enforce federal laws. That said, I think the governor has a very significant voice in setting out policy for the state of what we should and shouldn't be doing in terms of following federal law. It concerns me greatly as attorney general that we take all the steps we need to take to protect public safety. By saying that people who are in the country illegally and are arrested for a crime may be released before ICE is notified and has an opportunity to pick that person up I think is just wrong. I think it puts public safety at risk, and that's the most concerning thing to me about sanctuary policies. I would sit down with the mayors who are involved in making these policy decisions — those who have made them, those are are thinking about it — as well as city councils and say, "What is it that you're trying to accomplish, and is there another way to achieve it other than not following the rule of law?"
When it comes to education, you emphasize the need for more choice, but Colorado already has a large network of charter schools. Do you believe that religious schools should also be included in a voucher-type system for parents?
There are parts of Colorado, certainly, that have charter schools. And then there are other school districts that haven't been willing to approve charters. What I would like to see is for districts around the state that have enough students to support it to approve charters, and I would like to see another entity rather than the district making that decision. Because I think we've got to have more options rather than fewer. I think competition is beneficial. I support, really, all types of education, because I think kids learn differently and parents should have options to choose the best environment for their children to learn in, whether that's home schooling, online education, private or public schools. The more we can offer quality choices to parents, the better. When I say I favor school choice, I'm talking about all those things.
Are additional funds needed to improve schools as well? And if so, where will you find the funds without raising taxes?
I don't know if we need additional funds or not, because I haven't been close enough to the budget to really be able to give that a fair answer. And because we're a local-control state when it comes to education, a lot of those decisions are being made at the local level. That said, if we can get more money into the classrooms, where the kids are and where the teachers can use more resources, then I favor that. But I don't want to see administrations grow, and I don't want to see the bureaucracy developing tools just to get the system to give them more money.
Some lower-income families feel that school choice isn't open to them because of transportation issues, among other things. How would you as governor come up with ways so that everyone, no matter their income level, would be able to benefit from greater school choice?
Right now, I'm driving out between Montrose and Delta, and having charter schools here might not make sense because there aren't the number of students and the resources to do that — whereas in the metro area, I think Denver has done a good job of incorporating charter schools, and they've been very successful. Jefferson County, their school board has been more reticent about approving charters because they want to keep that per-pupil income in their public school system. It varies. It's hard to generalize and say we should do something all across the state when I think we need to make those decisions district by district and community by community.
Another one of your major issues is expanding workforce training and technical education. How would doing that help people in parts of the state that haven't experienced the sort of economic boom that's been felt along the Front Range?
It's interesting: I was just talking to the publisher of the Delta newspaper about how the community has absorbed those who lost employment in coal mines. Some people have found jobs that are transient; we talked to a waitress whose husband is involved in zinc mining in Tennessee, which I didn't know was something we still did. But Denver's Office of Economic Development has helped with workforce training here, with some folks being able to work on the broadband project. That's the sort of thing I think we have to do when jobs are lost or one of our smaller towns needs help or needs employers — to match up workforce training and develop job skills so we can say to a company, "Hey, you need to put your next manufacturing plant in Cortez, because we'll go in and train enough employees for the skill set that you need so that they can work for you." I think there's an intentionality in planning for economic expansion and helping people get jobs.
When it comes to health care, how as governor would you prevent Colorado from having to foot the bill in the face of the federal government's inability to reform the system?
We have really, I think, a tension between the federal government and Congress and what the states hope to do with health care, and I think Colorado is in that position. Right now, without changes coming at the congressional level in terms of health care and competition, I think states need to be freed up to innovate, and I think asking for waivers when appropriate from the federal government and from federal regulations is going to be a really important part of Colorado addressing needs here at home. I think you'll continue to see a shift from the federal government regulating and dictating our health-care system and states taking on more of that responsibility in lieu of federal leadership. I think we have yet to see what that looks like, but rather than considering it as a negative, we need to turn it into a positive in Colorado and say, "What does this give us the freedom to do that we might not have been able to do under federal regulations?"
As attorney general, you've defended Colorado's marijuana laws. As governor, where would you stand if there was federal intervention, and what do you see as the pros and cons of legalization several years after retail marijuana sales went into effect?
In terms of federal intervention, I think my position as governor will be very similar to my approach as attorney general. This is something Coloradans voted into the constitution in the initiative process, and I will defend the fact that this is part of Colorado's state law. Obviously, with Attorney General Sessions choosing to retract the memos that were put into effect during the Obama administration, we're now left with our U.S. attorneys having the discretion to make enforcement decisions. So far, as nearly as I can tell, there hasn't been a change in Colorado in terms of how legalized recreational marijuana is being addressed. But I think we have to see what comes down the road — if either the attorney general or Congress decides to take more action.
I think we've done a decent job in Colorado of setting up a regulatory scheme and having law enforcement enforce the laws. I say "decent" because I think there's room for improvement as time goes on. Overall, as far as pros and cons of legalizing marijuana, I was not in favor of it, and I have great concerns about how school-age kids perceive marijuana as a drug and the risks that are associated with it for them, as young kids with developing brains. I have much fewer problems with adults making those decisions for themselves and having that free will, and much more concern about kids. To me, the jury's out on the extent to which having legalized recreational marijuana is causing more impaired driving, because I don't think we have the solid statistics that we need to judge that.
A lot of candidates in both parties are blessed with tremendous resources. How will you compete against them, and how do you think your name recognition may help you?
I've watched it time and time again in Colorado: The person with the most money doesn't always win the election. And so I'm not intimidated by that or worried about it. I won my AG race with less money than my opponents. So much of this is being wise and creative with the money you have, and having a message that appeals to voters. I think that's more important than how much money you can put into your campaign. Once we get to the general election, there's going to be so much money coming into Colorado, because it's seen as a pick-up state for Republicans and a state that Democrats are going to want to defend. I think name recognition is a tremendous benefit, and I plan to make the most out of that. It's worth far more than dollars to have the name ID and have a reputation from being in office of serving the public in Colorado.
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What is your worst-case scenario for what could happen in the state if a Democrat is elected governor?
I want my party to be in control of the governor's position for redistricting and reapportionment. That's extremely important to me, because it sets the stage for another decade of elections. We will pick up a congressional seat, an eighth congressional seat, I feel confident, after the 2020 census, because of the population growth we've seen. So we will be redrawing lines in a significant way for our congressional districts, and Republicans have historically not come out on the winning end when it comes to redistricting. I want to see that change. That, to me, is one of the most important things about becoming governor — to help oversee that process so it is fair. I'm not saying I think Republicans need to have an advantage, or Democrats do. I think we need to have as fair a process that's reflective of our population as we can. But that's something I want to be in control of, because I think it helps determine the future and what Colorado becomes. Frankly, I think the state is better off with a Republican ideology and more fiscal conservatism in place than with the things the Democrat Party is in favor of.
What would be the major benefits for the state if you're elected governor?
People will get someone who can assume the job and who will have a cabinet that's going to work well for the State of Colorado. It's a management job and it's a leadership job. I've been in various management positions in government, and having a cabinet that works and working with boards and commissions and choosing judges are all things I have seen and feel confident that I can do an exceptional job at.