Ernest LuningErnest LuningAugust 25, 201710min772

The gloves are off and the fur is flying in the Republican primary for Colorado's next state treasurer. In a series of emails sent to state GOP activists and donors Thursday, state Rep. Polly Lawrence accused her fellow state treasurer candidate state Rep. Justin Everett and his allies — "his minions" was the phrase she used — of spreading lies and mounting "traitorous attacks" on her, while an independent expenditure committee backing Everett blasted Lawrence for "lying to get re-elected, only to conspire with liberals and vote like Democrats."


Peter MarcusPeter MarcusAugust 3, 201719min692
Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, right, laughs as she listens to their “how-we-became-friends” story as told by longtime friend Jesse Wright, left, an HIV-positive gay man for whom Coffman has looked after and helped care across almost two decades. After meeting Wright while delivering meals to him in 1999, Coffman says her friendship with him has developed to that of close friends; they talk on the phone several times a week and she visits him as often as she can, helping him manage his diabetes and neuropathy. The two were photographed at Wright’s home with his dog Missy on July 20, 2017. (Andy Colwell/Colorado Politics)

Colorado Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s office staff knows that when Jesse Wright phones, his call should be put right through.

“I have tried real hard to limit that so that I don’t interrupt whatever is going on for her,” said Coffman’s friend, Wright, a gay man who has been battling HIV for nearly 25 years.

Sometimes confused for the powerful attorney general’s brother, Wright has been under the part-time care of Coffman for 15 years — something that few would expect of a busy elected official who has been labeled a conservative for pushing court battles that have included blocking implementation of federal carbon-pollution standards, federal fracking regulations and clean water rules.

With Coffman seriously considering a run for governor — something that requires surviving a divisive primary — it seems surprising that she would so publicly advocate for gay rights. But that is just what Coffman has been doing, inspired by friends such as Wright and others.

“Certainly there are fewer voices of Republicans in the political debate when it comes to equality and gay rights, and I find it somewhat perplexing because Republicans are about personal responsibility and individual rights,” Coffman told Colorado Politics in a recent interview.

She received cheers and applause for an emotional speech following the 2016 attack at Orlando’s Pulse gay nightclub, where 49 people were massacred in the worse mass shooting in U.S. history. She abandoned prepared remarks to speak directly to Colorado’s gay community.

“You are here for each other, and we are all here for you,” Coffman said at the time.

Recently she stood on the steps of the Colorado Capitol surrounded by Democrats and told the crowd that she could be the only Republican attorney general in the country taking part in an LGBT pride event.

“I’m going to be challenging all of my colleagues to do this, because there’s no reason why we all shouldn’t be out here,” Coffman said at the rally at the state Capitol after marching down East Colfax Avenue in the annual PrideFest Parade.


History of LGBT advocacy
Years before Coffman would meet Wright, she began her LGBT advocacy work in Atlanta, where she was an aspiring attorney. It was the late-1980s, and AIDS was an epidemic that stirred broad fear and anxiety. Not much was understood about the communicable disease as the death toll — particularly in cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York — skyrocketed.

Atlanta, with its large gay population, was impacted more than many other communities. During law school at Georgia State University, Coffman lived downtown in the heart of “Hotlanta.”

In 1989, a young Coffman volunteered for a nonprofit called Open Hand, which is similar to Project Angel Heart in Denver, both of which deliver nutritious meals to people with chronic illnesses. At the time, AIDS was front and center.

“I wanted to volunteer with that group because I felt that people who were suffering from the disease were being ostracized and it was important to me … to be part of serving that population when other people were looking and going in the other direction,” Coffman said.

In high school in Lebanon, Missouri, Coffman had friends who were gay. By the time she graduated in 1979, one friend had committed suicide, and another had attempted suicide because they were unable to grapple with social stigmas attached to being gay. These friends couldn’t even find acceptance among their own families.

“We still have kids committing suicide for this reason, and as long as that is going on, we have a lot of work to do,” Coffman said.

She found herself inspired by the stories of her gay friends while working in Georgia for the state department of health. At the time, the department was conducting rule-making around HIV/AIDS. Some proposed collecting the names of people who tested positive for the virus.

“It reenforced for me that as a society we were discriminating against a class of people based on a disease that we didn’t understand,” Coffman recalled. “It gave me more appreciation for what people who were homosexual were facing, whether they had HIV or AIDS or not. People made an assumption that they were a leper, that they had the disease.”

Meeting Jesse — a lasting friendship
In 1999, two years after Coffman moved to Colorado, Coffman started volunteering at Project Angel Heart. About three years in, in 2002, Coffman became close with an HIV-positive man who lived by himself, as his partner had died of AIDS. That man was Jesse Wright.

Stricken by pneumonia — which was exacerbated by smoke from the massive, then-burning Hayman Fire — Wright was hospitalized. Coffman began having conversations with Wright and caring for him, which caused Project Angel Heart to ask her to make a decision. Coffman had to choose between the nonprofit and caring for Wright, as Project Angel Heart’s policy was not to get personally involved with individual clients.

She chose Wright.

Whether it’s taking him to doctor’s appointments, making sure that he properly takes his medication, delivering diabetic Popsicles (which Wright hates but tolerates), or simply offering him comfort, Coffman has never abandoned her friend, keeping in contact with him at least every other day.

“We are a big part of each other’s life and support,” Coffman said. “That’s had a lot to do with how I’ve looked at gay rights issues since then, because of Jesse, the people I’ve met through him and the experiences I’ve seen so up close and personal.”

Wright agrees completely: “I wanted to tell everybody she was my sister,” he said. “I can talk to her about anything, and I mean anything. Things that most people would feel uncomfortable about, I talk to her about them.”

And Coffman talks right back. With her recent divorce from U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, Cynthia Coffman has felt the pressure of her personal life being in the spotlight, an uncomfortable reality of being a public figure. But Wright has offered her an outlet.

“I would call it grounding for me and I’m lucky,” she said. “It just broadens my perspective, but it also reminds me that politics and public office is a small sliver of life for most people, and it should be put in perspective. I’ll be a better leader if I do that.”

Wright experienced many of the hardships that Coffman’s gay friends from high school went through. Now 57, he says he hasn’t had much family in his life since he was 17, when he left Kansas and was granted custody over himself. His father was intolerant of him being gay.

“He went through many of the things my friend who committed suicide did,” Coffman said. “They wanted to believe that when they found out that he was gay that they could change him and that he could decide not to be gay.”

In the Colorado legislature, Republicans have repeatedly opposed legislation that would have prohibited the practice of gay conversion therapy, in which counselors attempt to turn people from being gay.

“When we talk about conversion therapy, I get my hackles raised,” Coffman said. “Trying to use therapy to make someone into something they’re not is a dangerous practice.”

Coffman has become so committed to Wright that she at times gets angry if he goes to a doctor’s appointment without her. When they first met she paid off his parking tickets. Soon she would help him with his bills. When Wright moved about two years ago, Coffman purchased furniture for his apartment.

Early in their friendship, when Wright spent 45 days in the hospital for pancreatitis, Coffman stayed with him in the hospital nearly every day. Wright wasn’t aware that she was in the room, but when he began feeling better, hospital staff informed him of Coffman’s presence.

“They told her every day that I was going to die,” Wright said. “When I first met Cynthia and she was being so kind and everything, I told her, ‘Don’t get too attached because I’m probably not going to live anymore than a couple of years….’ But I have bounced back every time.”

Wright was lucky enough to survive the days when HIV/AIDS was considered a death sentence. He lived long enough to benefit from drugs that have kept him alive, while many of his friends with the disease have passed away over the years.

“From then on, she was willing to go to every doctor’s appointment because I made a big boo-boo, what I thought I heard wasn’t what I heard, and she heard it the right way, so I asked her if she minded coming with me … so she started coming with me to all my doctor’s appointments.”

Wright started taking opioids for the pain associated with his illness, and while he has been responsible with his dosing, his experience inspired Coffman to focus on the opioid epidemic facing the state and the nation. She makes sure that he is receiving proper medical advice on the subject.


Uphill battle for a Republican
While Coffman has been somewhat comfortable putting herself out there as a Republican on the subject of gay rights, it is not always perceived as a safe place to be for a conservative.

Margaret Hoover, president of American Unity Fund, a Republican group that pushes conservatives to advance LGBT issues, said that in the years it was fighting for marriage equality, more than 230 Republican lawmakers in state legislatures across the country voted for marriage equality, while only two lost their seats for it.

Still, perception is holding back the party from fully embracing LGBT issues, with much of the religious right of the GOP using organized political networks in an attempt to block support.

“Some of the bills that would be pretty harmful to LGBT individuals are happening in red states with red legislatures and red executives, and often it’s a governor who we work with closely and who decides that that bill is not right for his state,” said Hoover, a Colorado native who lives in New York and worked in the George W. Bush administration.

“What we found is there are some legislators who are there in their heart, but they’re afraid to be there politically,” Hoover said. “Cynthia is like this shining example of somebody who has the courage of her political convictions. Her political convictions match her moral convictions.”

She added that there has been a “backlash” within the GOP since efforts to advance marriage equality succeeded.

“What we’re actually doing is fighting skirmishes that are really seeded in backlash on same-sex marriage from a politically motivated religious right,” Hoover said. “The landscape can look dim, but if you look granularly at it … if you squint, you can see real signs of hope.”

While much of the country has moved beyond opposing same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, many in the GOP have been scared to embrace progressive positions. Though the national GOP has come to largely ignore the subject, it also has not taken a strong stance.

One Colorado, a left-leaning LGBT group, believes Coffman can lead the way for other Republicans to advance gay rights issues.

“We’ve seen for years that support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Coloradans and their families is not a partisan issue,” said Daniel Ramos, executive director of One Colorado. “In the fight for LGBTQ equality, we believe Attorney General Coffman’s support for LGBTQ Coloradans and their families serves as an example to other Republicans.”

Her friend Wright jokes that he doesn’t always agree with Coffman when it comes to Republican issues, despite their close relationship.

“We’ve had our talks about it,” Wright laughed. “I mean, it took Reagan so long to talk about gay issues, and they (Republicans) find him as their savior to save all, and he did nothing for nobody …. But I’ll vote Republican if she feels real strong about it.”

Coffman said she is not bothered by any backlash she might receive for being a member of the GOP and a strong advocate for LGBT issues.

“People will only come along if they see other people out there doing what I’m doing,” she said.

“Just as with abortion, some people’s opinions about gay rights and homosexuality are based in a biblical belief and a religious philosophy …. But I feel like I’m standing up for my friends, as well as for people I don’t know and haven’t met but I know are out there, that’s what being a representative of the people means …. I think being a leader can be uncomfortable sometimes.”

Denver resident Jesse Wright hugs his longtime friend Cynthia Coffman, right, who is Colorado’s attorney general and a longtime friend who visits Wright at home. They were photographed outside Wright’s Denver home on July 20, 2017. Wright, who is gay and HIV-positive, met Coffman in 1999 while Coffman was delivering meals to him as a volunteer. Since then, Coffman has become one of Wright’s closest friends as well as his caretaker; she calls him several times a week and visits him as often as she can, helping him manage his diabetes and neuropathy as well as occasional stays in the hospital. (Andy Colwell/Colorado Politics)


Peter MarcusPeter MarcusJune 26, 20175min302

A pivotal case involving a baker who refused to serve a gay couple in Colorado will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court said Monday that it would review the case, stemming from Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood. Phillips in 2012 declined to serve a gay couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins.

“This has always been about more than a cake. Businesses should not be allowed to violate the law and discriminate against us because of who we are and who we love,” Mullins said in a statement distributed by the ACLU, which is representing the couple.

“While we’re disappointed that the courts continue debating the simple question of whether LGBT people deserve to be treated like everyone else, we hope that our case helps ensure that no one has to experience being turned away simply because of who they are,” added Craig.

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission said the baker violated a state law requiring that all customers be served, regardless of their sexual orientation. The Colorado Court of Appeals in 2015 found that Phillips could not cite religious beliefs or free-speech in refusing to make the wedding cake.

The Colorado Supreme Court declined to take up the case last year, which upheld the ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals, bringing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rep. Brittany Pettersen, whose district includes Masterpiece Cakeshop, said it “troubles” her that in 2017 conversations over discrimination are still happening.

“Religious freedom is one of our most cherished rights in this country, and no one is trying to change that. However, it’s very clear that religious freedom does not give anyone the right to discriminate against anyone else,” Pettersen said. “I stand with the LGBTQ community and hope that the Supreme Court does the right thing and bans the last vestige of legalized discrimination once and for all.”

Pettersen is running against Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood in a Democratic primary in the 7th Congressional District. Kerr’s district also includes the bakery. Also running in that race is Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, a gay state lawmaker whose district does not include the bakery.

“Discrimination against LGBTQ Coloradans and all Americans is wrong – period,” Kerr said. “The excuse doesn’t matter – rights are rights, and the law is the law. The first vote I cast as a legislator was in support of LGBTQ equality, and my support has never wavered. I strongly believe the Supreme Court should come down on the side of rights and equality not bigotry and discrimination.”

The question is how the U.S. Supreme Court will swing with the addition of conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, a native Coloradan who was nominated by President Donald Trump to fill a vacant seat left by the death of Antonin Scalia. Gorsuch has so far been one of the more conservative members of the high court.

“All hardworking people, including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer, should be treated fairly and equally under the law,” said Laura “Pinky” Reinsch, political director for the gay rights group One Colorado.

“When they walk into a business that’s open to the public, they should be treated like anyone else and not be discriminated against. Let’s be clear, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case is about a business turning customers away simply because they were gay, which violates longstanding Colorado law.”

Republican state lawmakers in 2015 attempted legislation that would have allowed businesses to refuse service based on religious beliefs. The bills would have prohibited punitive action against business owners for refusing service under religious beliefs as well as stopped the state from blocking the exercise of religion in most cases.

One of the sponsors of the legislation, now-House Republican Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, said, “As Americans, we cherish our fundamental rights to free speech and freedom of religion. Every American should celebrate laws that provide greater protections for our most important freedoms … the freedom to live faithfully.”


Roger HudsonRoger HudsonJune 19, 20174min233

My phone lit up this weekend with news that a group of Republicans marching in Denver’s Pride Fest had been “attacked on the parade route by an angry group wearing masks.” One text described the attackers as cursing lesbians dressed all in black. Another text said that all was well and nothing appeared to be organized.


Ernest LuningErnest LuningJune 19, 20178min805

Colorado has some of the nation’s toughest non-discrimination laws but still has work to do, Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said at a Denver rally for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered equality Sunday. Coffman, the lone Republican on a stage filled with Democratic elected officials and candidates, told the crowd she could also be the only Republican attorney general in the country taking part in an LGBT pride event.