Colorado Politician Signs Up for Iraq Duty

Colorado state Treasurer Mike Coffman, with fiancee Cynthia Honssinger, announced his plans at a Thursday news conference.
Colorado state Treasurer Mike Coffman, with fiancee Cynthia Honssinger, announced his plans at a Thursday news conference. (By Lyn Alweis -- Denver Post Via Associated Press)
By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 7, 2005

DENVER, May 6 -- As the elected treasurer of a state that faces looming budget deficits and a complex effort to revamp its tax laws, Mike Coffman has had a lot to think about right here in Colorado. But for many months now, Coffman says, he has been thinking about a different set of governmental problems -- those facing the emerging national and provincial governments in Iraq.

So the veteran Republican politician stunned his party and his state when he announced that he will leave his job as state treasurer -- temporarily, at least -- and rejoin the Marine Corps for service in a civil affairs unit helping Iraqis shape their new government.

Coffman, who retired from the Marine Reserves as a major, said he will get his former rank back. He said the corps has assured him that he can leave Iraq next March, which will give him enough time for his next political venture -- a campaign for Colorado secretary of state in the 2006 general election.

Coffman, 50, has been mentioned as a potential Republican candidate for governor -- Gov. Bill Owens (R) will leave office after the 2006 election -- or for U.S. representative from a suburban Denver district. But he has formally dropped out of the gubernatorial race, and had told associates that he will not run for Congress, either.

He joins a number of local and state politicians who have been called to duty in Iraq. Maryland Delegate Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's County Democrat, missed this year's legislative session while serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.

Coffman asked Owens to see to it that he can go back to being state treasurer when he returns from Iraq. Owens's office said Friday that the governor is looking for a way to do that. Although the treasurer is elected in Colorado, the governor has the right to appoint one in case of a vacancy.

The assignment to Iraq will be the second time Coffman has interrupted his political career to join the Marines. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, he took a leave of absence from his seat in the state legislature to serve with a Marine Corps civil affairs unit in Kuwait.

Coffman served as an enlisted man in the Army before attending the University of Colorado, and as an infantry officer in the Marines after graduation. He remained in the Marine Reserves until his retirement in 1995.

Mentally, Coffman said Friday, he never really left the Marines. Last year, amid the preparations for the first national elections in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, he contacted the corps to see whether he might be needed in the January polling. But the Marines turned him down, he said.

Undeterred, Coffman made new contacts months ago and formally applied in March to go back to active duty. On Tuesday, he got orders to report to Camp Lejeune, N.C., for two months of training and then for a seven-month tour of duty in Iraq. Coffman said a seven-month tour is standard for Marine reservists called to active duty.

His expected absence from Colorado this fall means he will miss a potentially difficult campaign season for Republican office-holders. This November, Coloradans will vote on a referendum to permit increased state spending and suspend operation of the state's strict tax-limitation mechanism. Owens, the Republican governor, has endorsed the measure and says he will campaign for it. But much of the GOP is staunchly opposed. Coffman will be in Iraq when the argument heats up.

Coffman says he will file to be a candidate for secretary of state before he leaves for Iraq. He seems to have his campaign slogan for the new job prepared already: "If I can put together an election in Iraq," he said Friday, "I think I'll be able to run elections in the state of Colorado."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company