Colorado GOP lawmaker Cole Wist ‘thinking seriously’ about run for attorney general if Cynthia Coffman runs for governor

Author: Ernest Luning - November 3, 2017 - Updated: November 6, 2017

WistAssistant House Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, speaks at the Colorado Capitol. (Courtesy photo)

Cole Wist, Colorado’s assistant House Republican leader, says he’s “thinking seriously” about running for state attorney general in next year’s election if GOP incumbent Cynthia Coffman decides to run for governor, and he expects to announce his plans within weeks, he told Colorado Politics.

Coffman said months ago she was weighing a bid for governor rather than run for a second term but has yet to declare her intentions.

“That job is occupied with a Republican incumbent at this point,” Wist said in a telephone interview. “I’ll be watching closely to see what Attorney General Coffman decides to do. Should she decide to run for governor, I’m thinking seriously about running for that spot.”

Noting that the holidays were fast approaching — with the legislative session starting soon after — the Centennial lawmaker said he hopes to be able to launch a campaign before Thanksgiving if Coffman shifts to the gubernatorial race.

“I’d like to be in a position to announce over the next couple of weeks. If I’m going to start raising some money and getting ready to run, I’ll need December for that,” Wist said. “I’m trying to be respectful of her process and her timeframe,” he added.

Nine Republicans are already running in a primary for the office held by term-limited Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. The GOP field grew this week when former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo entered the race after a private poll showed he held a wide lead over declared and potential Republican candidates, including Coffman.

Another Republican official, U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, told The Denver Post in July he was considering a run for attorney general if Coffman jumped to the governor’s race. But after two months passed without a decision from Coffman, Buck said in a radio interview  it was “very unlikely” he would do anything other than run for another term in the 4th Congressional District.

Buck told Colorado Politics last month that chances he might run for attorney general had dwindled as the weeks passed without word from Coffman.

Wist said he hadn’t heard other Republicans were exploring a run for attorney general but added that it wouldn’t surprise him if some got in if Coffman declined to seek reelection.

“My thought process is independent of where others might be on the race at the moment,” Wist said.

A spokesperson for Coffman didn’t respond to an email from Colorado Politics.

The Democratic primary for attorney general includes five candidates — state Sen. Joe Salazar of Thornton, former CU Law School Dean Phil Weiser, prosecutor Michael Dougherty, former federal prosecutor Amy Padden and Denver attorney Brad Levin.

In an interview with Colorado Politics on Thursday, Wist, 54, described his approach to the law and his thoughts on what he might do if — he emphasized the word several times — he winds up running for attorney general.

Wist said his experience as a legislator and more than 25 years practicing labor and employment law have prepared him for the job and could give him a fresh perspective on the office.

“It’s been a while since we had an attorney general who came from the Legislature, and I think there’s something to be said for someone who understands the lawmaking process and has been involved on that side,” Wist said. (Duane Woodward, elected to the first of two terms in 1982, was a former state senator and is the last Colorado attorney general to have served in the General Assembly.)

“I’ve always looked at my job as an attorney as helping clients work through problems,” Wist continued. “Sometimes that means we litigate, sometimes that means we negotiate — but above all else, it’s a problem that needs to be solved.”

Wist got plenty of attention earlier this year as one of the chief drivers of bipartisan legislation to address a thorny, longstanding issue blamed, in part, for a housing shortage across Colorado. The construction-defects issue — basically, the rules governing how homeowners can sue condominium developers for defective construction — had stymied previous General Assemblies.

Ultimately, the bill wound up passing both chambers unanimously, but only after weeks of tense, high-stakes negotiations led by House sponsors Assistant Democratic Leader Alec Garnett of Denver, Republican Whip Lori Saine of Dacono and key co-sponsor Wist. The three won accolades from Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who cheered the legislation as an unlikely breakthrough.

“I tried to approach that as a litigation-reform issue,” Wist said. “Our litigation needs to function in a way that promotes justice and gets to a conclusion sooner than later. It’s a matter of how you go about solving problems, and how you go about building consensus and trying to do problem-solving through a collaborative process. You try to find common ground, and then you’re better able to design a solution.”

Wist said key issues he could tackle as attorney general include tensions surrounding law enforcement and the justice system, government transparency and government’s relationship with the energy industry in Colorado.

“What concerns me about the current climate is, I see a lot of attacks on law enforcement, I see a lot of attacks on our institutions,” Wist said. “Law and order exists to protect our communities, to protect our citizens. I want to make sure our legal processes are working to do that.”

Noting he co-sponsored major Open Records legislation last session, Wist said transparency was “critical in terms of understanding the process, and folks understanding why decisions are being made.” That doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions, he said, “but that reflects my philosophy that government works well when it’s most transparent.”

As for the battle over energy development across the state, Wist pointed out that he grew up the son of a coal miner in Paonia, a coal mining town on the Western Slope, calling that background “a big part of what makes me who I am as an attorney.”

“I think we can regulate energy and do it in a thoughtful way without regulating it out of existence,” he said.

Wist won a vacancy appointment in January 2016 to the House District 37 seat in suburban Arapahoe County. He was elected to his first full term a year ago with 55 percent of the vote.

A member of the House Judiciary Committee, the Joint Committee on Legal Services, and the Joint Legislative Council, Wist said he plans to finish his term — rather than resign to campaign — if he gets in the attorney general race.

He lives in Centennial with his wife, Susan, and their three daughters.

After a stint co-chairing an employment law practice group at Holland & Hart, Wist recently rejoined the Denver office of labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart. For more than 25 years, he’s represented management, with a focus on workplace safety and health and industrial crisis management, according to legal directories.

“Primarily representing mining and oil and gas clients, he consistently leads the charge against excessive regulation and over-reaching by state and federal governments,” the House GOP says in its profile of Wist.

Wist ran as a Democrat for a state House seat on the Western Slope in 1996 but lost by 4 points. He switched his affiliation to Republican soon after that and says he hasn’t looked back.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.