Colorado Republicans’ best shot at statewide public office in the 2014 elections is likely the attorney general’s seat — which the party currently holds — and already some formidable candidates are lining up for a potential primary battle when incumbent John Suthers leaves after next year due to term limits.
Because campaign laws are very prescriptive, the candidates have been hesitant to formally announce. But at least two Republicans are very seriously exploring the possibility of running.
Deputy Attorney General Cynthia Coffman of Denver and House Minority Leader Mark Waller of Colorado Springs appear to be chomping at the bit to replace Republican Suthers.
Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck is also rumored to be interested in the four-year elected office. Buck was recently diagnosed with cancer but he says it is in remission. He could not immediately be reached for comment.
Waller’s interest in running is one of the worst kept political secrets in the state. He joked, “Do reporters get together and say, ‘Let’s bug a particular elected official?’” noting that he had received multiple calls on Tuesday asking whether he was going to officially announce his candidacy.
“There have been a lot of people that have come to me and talked about the possibility of running,” explained Waller, a former prosecutor. “It is something I am still weighing and considering… There are several more people thinking about getting into this race as well… so those are all factors that we’ll have to wade through as we determine what to do.”
The minority leader agreed that the AG’s race is certainly going to be a “significant race” for the Republican Party, but he believes observers should not count his party out of other contests in 2014. That includes the gubernatorial race, in which former Congressman Tom Tancredo and Secretary of State Scott Gessler have filed paperwork to run, and Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray is seriously considering a run, as well as some others.
“It’s going to be a good Republican year,” opined Waller. “The Democrats have overreached in such a way that it’s going to make them vulnerable, and I believe we have the right message moving forward to make Colorado a successful state, and I think that’s most important.”
Waller cringes when he hears pundits argue that Colorado has turned from a red state to a blue state:
“Currently four out of our seven congressional seats are Republican, three out of the four statewide offices are Republican,” explained Waller. “In 2010, this is recent history, [we took] the majority back in the Statehouse, and sure we lost that in 2012, but because we so recently last held it, I don’t think we can say for all time we’re not going to have a Republican control one of the legislative branches.
“In fact, I think there’s a good chance that one or both of the legislative branches will flip back Republican [next] year,” he added.
Waller believes messaging is crucial to Republicans in 2014. Wooing Latino voters and moving away from wedge social issues such as opposing gay marriage and abortion could help the GOP. But Waller says it’s more about communicating an agenda.
“It’s not our message. I think our message is good,” said Waller. “But I think, as Republicans, we have not done well with delivery of our message, and that’s what we need to do better.
“Our message about jobs and the economy is a good message, and it’s an important message… But what we don’t do a good job of is explaining how that message… applies to the individual,” the minority leader concluded.
Coffman agrees that politics and messaging are a part of campaigning, even for an office that is primarily bipartisan. The AG’s office handles the legal work of the state. But she doesn’t have the same firebrand style as many career politicians.
“I think you would probably see some difference in my style of campaigning and speaking with people and connecting with people,” acknowledged Coffman. “But when I have a strong feeling about something… I can be very vocal and appropriately assertive, and I can certainly hold my ground in a debate, or in a discussion.”
Coffman knows what it’s like to be around the political limelight. She is married to U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, who has been known to share his opinions, no matter how controversial.
But more so, Coffman says she knows what it’s like to do the work of the people. Last year she was voted best public sector lawyer by Law Week Colorado, a prestigious honor within the law community. It was recognition of a career of public service.
Since graduating from law school at Georgia State University in 1991, Coffman almost immediately went to work in the public sector, working for the Attorney General of Georgia. She later worked for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games before moving to Colorado in 1997 and landing a job with Colorado Legislative Council.
From there, Coffman worked for the Department of Public Health and Environment as director of legal and regulatory affairs before she was promoted to deputy executive director of the department.
In 2004, she served as chief legal counsel for then-Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican. Coffman has served as deputy attorney general for Suthers since 2005.
“This has been my dream job,” Coffman bashfully admitted, shyly noting that she has wanted to be a lawyer since she was a child.
“I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was 11 years old. And, to me, this is the ultimate lawyer job,” Coffman added.
She says she would continue the work of Suthers, who Coffman greatly admires. Suthers certainly has the admiration of many, but he has also raised many eyebrows along the way, most recently signing the state onto a brief that urged the Supreme Court to uphold California’s Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage.
He was also one of 26 state AGs who sued the federal government over President Barack Obama’s federal health care law. Suthers was actually in attendance when the Supreme Court heard arguments.
Coffman does not believe it is inappropriate for the AG’s office to weigh in on such meaty topics.
“I think you would see a similar level of visibility and activity, but perhaps on different issues,” she said. “This position is an opportunity, and I think there’s a responsibility for whoever is in it, to highlight issues that are important… to the people of Colorado from a legal perspective.”
Don Quick, the Democrat
But not all AG candidates agree that Suthers has appropriately inserted the state into certain matters. Don Quick, the former Adams County district attorney, is currently the only Democratic candidate to have filed paperwork for the AG’s race.
He told The Colorado Statesman that Suthers was wrong to sign the state onto the Proposition 8 legal battle.
“That’s not a Colorado law,” explained Quick. “We do not have the authority to defend it, that’s a California law, so I wouldn’t have gotten involved in that.”
But Quick does believe the AG’s office should consider such landmark cases to get involved with when there is a compelling interest.
“I don’t think all class actions by the attorney general are wrong, you have to kind of figure out what are the ones to get involved in and which ones to not…” opined Quick. “That’s always the challenge of the attorney general, is you’re the lawyer for the state of Colorado, you have obligations to defend Colorado state law…”
Quick has received the high-profile endorsement of recently retired Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, perhaps one of the best-known Democrats in the state. Salazar served as Colorado attorney general from 1999-2005.
Quick and Salazar worked together when Quick was chief deputy for Salazar at the attorney general’s office. Salazar joined Quick for his candidacy announcement at the Capitol on May 6.
“I was thinking about the characteristics that you want to have in this state for an attorney general. In my view, those are three: honesty, willingness to uphold the rule of law no matter what the political consequences are, and three, making our community safer,” Salazar declared on the west steps of the Capitol. “I think on all of those fronts, Don Quick gets an A+.”
Salazar also pointed to Quick’s work on juvenile justice and keeping adolescents away from crime and in school. Quick played a key role in creating the Adams County Youth Initiative, which launched in 2005.
“There is really something that stands out in my mind above anything else with respect to what Don did in making communities safer, and that is his absolute passion in making sure that we prevent our young kids from going down the path of wrongdoing in the first place,” attested Salazar.
Quick pointed out that juvenile crime dropped in Adams County by over 44 percent, and that the most violent crimes by juveniles dropped by 92 percent from eight years ago.
“That cannot be your only strategy, to incarcerate people,” said Quick. “We also have to figure out how to do a better job preventing crime across the state of Colorado, and the best place to do that is with our kids.”
Quick said Salazar’s endorsement was important to him, but not because it’s a political endorsement, but because it was based on his work with Salazar over the years.
“Where Ken’s is special is he’s not endorsing me because I’m a Democrat,” explained Quick. “The reason he’s endorsing me is because for six years he saw the work I did at the attorney general’s office.
“Ken Salazar is a direct guy, and if I hadn’t done a good job for him, he wouldn’t be out telling people that I did,” Quick continued. “Obviously Ken is very popular in a lot of respects on both sides of the aisle, and so that’s important. But to me, just as important, or maybe more important, is the substantive recommendation he’s making.”
Rumored Democratic candidates
Rumors have been circulating that Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett might make another run for attorney general on the Democratic ticket. He ran in 2010 and lost to Suthers. But Garnett tells The Statesman that it is unlikely that he will pursue another run next year.
“I would like to run for state office again at some point; this is not a good time for me personally,” he said. “And I also don’t want the people of Boulder County to think that I’m always turning around and running for something else. I’ve got another eight years I can be district attorney in Boulder, so I think it’s unlikely I’ll get in the race.”
Garnett added that he does not want to hurt the Democratic Party by crowding a primary field, suggesting that he supports much of what Quick has to offer.
“I want to see the Democratic Party run a strong progressive candidate for AG,” explained Garnett. “I’m watching the race closely. I’m personally fond of Don Quick, I’d like to see how his campaign develops in watching him develop his position on some of the issues that are important.”
Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, is also rumored to be considering a run for AG. She could not be immediately reached for comment on Friday.