Article Launched: 3/28/2006 01:00 AM
denver & the west
From tour of duty to treasurer duty

Mike Coffman, who returns today to the state post he left for a seven-month stint helping Iraqis establish free elections, says he appreciates life "a lot more."

By Chris Frates
Denver Post Staff Writer

State treasurer Mike Coffman is headed back to his Capitol office today with a fresh perspective on life and democracy after a seven-month tour in Iraq.

"I appreciate life a lot more. I don't take things for granted the way I did before I went there," said Coffman, who helped the Iraqis establish free elections.

Coffman left his position as treasurer in June at age 50 to rejoin the Marines serving in Iraq. He was released from active duty Saturday and will resume his post as treasurer today.

Coffman cannot run for re-election because of term limits, but he is a candidate for secretary of state, Colorado's chief elections officer.

He said he hopes to use his experience assisting elections in Iraq in his bid.

"I feel like I've got a lot of experience, certainly in the importance of elections, the importance of voting," he said.

Coffman, dressed in his Marine uniform, would not talk further about his political plans because, he said, it was against military regulations to discuss partisan politics while in uniform.

When Coffman arrived in Iraq in August, he was charged with helping coordinate a constitutional referendum election in October and parliamentary elections in December. He was based outside Fallujah, a hotbed of the insurgency.

The Iraqis, Coffman said, "pretty much ran their own elections in most of Iraq," except in those places under insurgents' control.

Coffman assisted with elections in the Anbar, Najaf and Karbala provinces, and parts of the Babil and Baghdad provinces.

Coffman, a Marine major, said 80 percent of the Iraqi people supported free elections.

"I spent my time working with the 20 percent that wasn't (supportive)," he said.

In the areas under insurgent control, the Marines had to bring in poll workers from outside the provinces because locals were afraid of being killed if they cooperated.

The polling centers had to be fortified with barriers, sandbags and razor wire, he said.

After the elections, Coffman was assigned to work on local economic-development issues, but he quickly realized that, without national reforms, it was a hopeless endeavor.

"It's a socialist economy. All major industries are state- owned, run by bureaucrats. They were incredibly inefficient, subsidized by oil money," he said.

The only banking system was for state payroll, and there was no legal system to enforce contracts.

He asked for a reassignment and was sent to work with three local interim city councils. It was during that assignment that a vehicle in Coffman's convey was hit by an improvised explosive device.

"There's a real distorted view of what goes on there," Coffman said. "The Marines that I worked with were very confident about what they were doing and very optimistic that they were making a difference."

Overall, Coffman said, the biggest success was the elections.

The biggest failure in Iraq, Coffman said, was "not having an adequate postwar plan."

Staff writer Chris Frates can be reached at 303-820-1633 or