This year’s Denver district attorney’s race is far higher profile than any in memory, yet the three Democrats sparring in today’s primary bemoan that most voters aren’t paying attention.
“There are still people who don’t even know this race is going on,” said state Rep. Beth McCann, one of the Dems vying for that party’s nomination. “It’s not a position that draws a lot of interest, really. I mean, we’re constantly hearing registered Democrats saying they don’t even know if they got a ballot.”
Much has changed since McCann, Kenneth Boyd and Michael Carrigan each started contemplating bids for district attorney. That was pre-Ferguson, pre-Baltimore and pre-Black Lives Matter. It was also before a federal jury awarded $6 million to the family of Marvin Booker, a homeless street preacher whose death at the hands of sheriff’s deputies in Denver’s jail was deemed by longtime District Attorney Mitch Morrissey to be unworthy of criminal prosecution.
Those developments, plus amplified national conversations about racial profiling, police excessive force and over-incarceration, have shined a light like never before on Denver’s District Attorney’s office and its practices. There have been far more debates, forums, mailers and ads in this year’s DA race than in any other in Denver’s history.
Morrissey has run the office since 2005. Under fire for not prosecuting wayward law enforcement officers, he dodged an unsuccessful recall effort last year.
Carrigan, a corporate lawyer and University of Colorado regent, has sniped at Morrissey’s record of not prosecuting killer cops and not addressing problems of racial disparities in the justice system. Carrigan has pledged never to seek the death penalty, not to keep Morrissey employed in the office and to work toward lowering bail amounts “to make sure we stop putting people in jail because they’re poor, not because they’re dangerous.”
“Voters deeply want a new direction, a new approach to criminal justice here in Denver,” he said Monday. “I think it’s a reflection of national trends and that people aren’t happy to have career prosecutors, career government lawyers as their elected DAs.”
Years ago, Carrigan worked briefly as a Denver prosecutor and is now a partner at Denver’s Holland & Hart law firm. He says he has distinguished himself from his competitors by courting votes from throughout Denver, not just affluent, white parts of the city. He has snagged endorsements by several groups representing communities of color and by prominent Democrats such as Mayor Michael Hancock and former mayors Wellington Webb and Federico Peña.
He also has raised the most money in the pack – about $590,000 in contributions and loans. And he has benefitted from an independent expenditure committee financed by personal injury lawyer Frank “The Strong Arm” Azar. That dark money group, called Citizens for a Strong and Fair Public Advocate, recently produced a mailer featuring an unflattering, yellow-tinted picture of McCann looking rather, let’s say, dour.
“The Wicked Witch of the West,” is how McCann refers to the doctored photo of herself. “I was just very disappointed. I think it was un-called for.”
The mailer triggering gripes from women voters who’ve decried what they say are unnecessarily below-the-belt campaign tactics. It remains to be seen whether the mailer will backlash against Carrigan by turning off enough older white women who are known to be the make-or-break voting block in any Denver Democratic primary.
Carrigan, for his part, distances himself from the nasty flier mailed on his behalf.
“I obviously can’t have any communications with that group,” he said of Azar’s independent expenditure committee. “I don’t care for the approach they took. But by law I can’t even complain to them.”
Carrigan said outside money from Azar’s committee is “no different” than support for McCann from a group called the Colorado Blue Flower Action Fund. But McCann countered that the two funds “aren’t comparable at all.” Azar’s Texas-based committee was formed solely to get Carrigan elected, she noted, while Blue Flower is Colorado-based and accepts small donations from women throughout the state in support of a variety of female, pro-choice candidates.
“These are women who have worked for years to get women elected. Because of Citizens United, it’s important for women to have their input heard,” said McCann, who has raised about $360,000 in contributions and loans and garnered endorsements from several of her fellow Democratic lawmakers, including Colorado House Majority Leader Representative Crisanta Duran.
Years before being elected to the Statehouse, McCann used to serve as former Mayor Wellington Webb’s safety manager. Like Carrigan, she has embraced a reform platform by calling for far more transparency in the DA’s office than Morrissey has allowed and by pledging not to keep him employed by the office.
McCann has hedged on the issue of the death penalty. At times, she has said she wouldn’t seek it. At others, she has said she would.
Boyd – a senior deputy district attorney who has worked in the DA’s office for nearly a decade – has tried to distinguish himself from his Democratic rivals by saying he has vastly more experience as a prosecutor. Boyd is the nephew of former DA-cum-governor Bill Ritter, who has endorsed him. Morrissey, Ritter’s successor, also has endorsed Boyd, who has hinted that he may keep his boss on staff after Morrissey is term-limited in January.
Throughout the primary race, Boyd has defended the office’s decisions not to prosecute sheriff’s deputies for the 2010 Marvin Booker killing and for the 2015 killing of inmate Michael Marshall – both of whom were in jail custody. He also has defended the office’s record of not pressing charges against killer cops.
McCann and Carrigan both have said that, if elected, they won’t re-prosecute Clarence Moses-EL in connection to a 1987 rape for which Moses-EL served 28 years before a judge overturned his conviction late last year. Boyd, for his part, hasn’t commented about Morrissey’s insistence on re-trying the case despite the fact that another man confessed .
Other than a few minor procedural changes, it has been unclear what exactly Boyd means by his promise to take the D.A.’s office in “a new direction.”
Boyd, who has far less political experience than his Democratic challengers, has raised significantly less: about $200,000 in contributions and loans. He decries the negative mailers sent on behalf of Carrigan, whom he notes “ironically has done the most talking about keeping the race positive.”
“Michael made it very clear from the start that he was willing to buy the election and do what it takes to win,” Boyd said.
His tone Monday intimated he has come to terms with his status as an underdog in the Democratic primary. “I think we’ve done everything we could,” he said.
Boyd has made his extended family a main feature of his campaign messaging, noting in most of his speeches and ads that one of his brothers in law is a white cop and another is black and an ex-con. Apparently, by highlighting his family members, he has hoped to send a message of racial inclusion. But the oft-repeated talking point about his black brother-in-law has been derided by some in Denver’s black community.
Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it before, some have chided. Some of his best friends are black.
Whichever Democrat wins today’s primary won’t necessarily snag the DA’s job in November’s general election. The winner will face off against Helen Morgan, a chief deputy Denver district attorney and 22-year veteran of that office.
“Tomorrow will be fascinating for me, but it’s not the end. You’ll certainly be seeing much more of me,” said Morgan, who plans to take a leave of absence from the office later this summer so she can run full-time in a campaign that so far has raised about $320,000 in contributions and loans.
Morgan is a lifelong Democrat who’s trying to petition onto the ballot as an independent after “making the decision that party politics shouldn’t have anything to do with being DA.” Although she does not have the endorsement of Morrissey, her boss, she’s careful “not to take pot shots” at a D.A.’s office where she says “so many people do such excellent work.”
Having distinguished herself with her work on addiction and mental health issues, Morgan is lauded both by longtime veterans of the DA’s office and members of the criminal defense bar as exceptionally fair, thoughtful and smart.
Morgan has by far more prosecutorial experience than whichever Democrat wins the primary. She looks forward to campaigning one-to-one and to “having more detailed policy debates” than took place in most of the primary season forums.
While her three Democratic counterparts fret that Denverites haven’t focused closely enough on the D.A.’s race, Morgan is confident voters will take notice before the general election.
“It’s just now getting started,” she said. “This race isn’t over. Not even close.”