The two Republican candidates for attorney general both agree that there needs to be a balance between political activism and law when it comes to the top legal office.
Rep. Mark Waller of Colorado Springs and Chief Deputy Attorney General Cynthia Coffman both say that their first priority would be representing the state as its chief attorney if they were elected to the office. But they also believe that there is no hiding from the fact that there are politics at play in any statewide elected office.
Waller and Coffman are both vying for Republican delegate votes at the State Assembly in order to face off against Democrat Don Quick, the former district attorney of Adams County, who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.
The current attorney general, Republican John Suthers, has been criticized over his opposition to gay marriage and federal health care reform. Suthers has always maintained that his job is simply to defend the laws of the state, but some critics — such as the LGBT community and liberals — have accused him of using the powerful position to advocate for personal political beliefs instead of representing the legal interests of the state.
Waller feels there is a way to maintain political beliefs while handling the legal work of Colorado.
“There is a nonpartisan function to this office, but the attorney general is an elected official,” explained Waller. “It’s not an appointed position, it’s an elected position, and it’s not a nonpartisan election… you’re elected with an R or a D behind your name.
“I think that the attorney general does have a responsibility to the constituents that sent him there, which means weighing in on issues and giving your opinion as a representative of a constituency,” he continued.
Coffman does not disagree that politics comes up, despite the nonpartisan nature of the office. But she says it is important to balance being political and being judicious.
“There are times obviously when one has to remain neutral, even when one has strong feelings…” she said. “It’s always very important to address public safety and consumer protections, and to be an advocate for the people because you’re the attorney for the state and also the citizens of the state.”
Both Waller and Coffman may find themselves representing Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper if the governor is re-elected in November.
Waller especially has found himself disagreeing with Hickenlooper on a number of issues, including gun control.
The state is currently being sued after Democrats last year passed laws that banned high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds and required universal background checks. Suthers remained largely neutral on the gun control bills, and suggested that the 55 sheriffs who filed the lawsuit didn’t have standing to sue.
Waller believes that if he were in a similar situation, he would be able to separate his personal beliefs.
“You have this nonpartisan function of the office where sometimes it’s your role and responsibility to represent state agencies and defend the statutes and the constitution of the state of Colorado,” said Waller. “That doesn’t mean on a political level we’re going to agree on everything, that’s for sure.
“You figure out how to work those things out,” he added. “It’s no different than any of the elected offices working together.”
Waller, however, believes Suthers should have offered a more definitive legal opinion over the gun control legislation from last year.
“The sheriffs in the state of Colorado are law enforcement officers charged with keeping the public safe… the attorney general is the top law enforcement officer in the state of Colorado, charged with keeping the public safe,” explained Waller. “If I were the attorney general, I would have weighed in on that legislation.”
Coffman says she would have to think long and hard before using the office to offer an opinion about a specific piece of legislation or other policy issue.
“Those who I respect the most who are attorneys general across the country are those who are the most judicious about when they use their voice and their bully pulpit as attorney general…” she said. “You’re most effective in this role if you use it carefully and are mindful because then when you speak out on an issue it carries that much more weight.
“The position is a powerful one, it has a great deal of ability to influence both as the lawyer for the state and as a political voice, and there are times when one has to remain neutral even when one has strong feelings, and we’ve seen plenty of circumstances like that in the last few years…” Coffman added.
She is in a unique position to comment, given her marriage to U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, who is constantly in the political spotlight and running for re-election in a tight race.
“Mike’s a very good coach, but he doesn’t offer an opinion unless I ask for it, and that works well for us,” explained Cynthia Coffman.
“There are times when I’m campaigning when someone will bring up an issue that is a federal issue and ask about one of Mike’s votes, and I just smile and say, ‘I’m glad he goes to Washington and I stay in Colorado…’” Coffman continued.
Both Coffman and Waller agree that the position of attorney general can be a stressful one. But they have found ways to unwind in order to manage the stress.
Coffman says that the pressure does not bother her, adding, “I have always liked being in an environment with a certain amount of activity and stress, so it doesn’t particularly faze me.”
She finds herself reading and cooking in her personal time, pointing out, “I try to carve out a little friend time and go out to dinner or have coffee and conversations, that can keep me normal.”
Waller has his family to lean on, pointing to his wife, Jennifer, and his two children, Truman and Camille.
“One of the great aspects of being in the race for me is that my family is very nonpolitical, so I have a very well-grounded family,” explained Waller. “My wife says to me constantly when I get to go to fancy restaurants, ‘Mark, don’t forget, we’re Chili’s people.’”