As primary ballots hit mailboxes this week, a Bernie-backed progressive lawmaker and a well-funded mainstream law professor are competing for the Democratic nomination for attorney general.
While the Republican candidate, 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, faces no primary challenger, the two Democratic contenders have just three weeks of campaigning left before the June 26 primary election. Joe Salazar, a practicing attorney and state representative from Thornton, and Phil Weiser, former dean and current law professor at the University of Colorado, agree on most issues but envision different approaches to running the office.
“We need a Colorado native son who actually practices in Colorado courts on civil rights cases and a host of other kinds of cases to defend this state against the orders of the Trump administration,” Salazar said Thursday at a nonpartisan debate in Denver. “I’m the only one here with those three levels of experience of the law, of the policy and of the politics.”
“This is what is at stake: It is the rule of law,” said Weiser during his opening remarks while holding two copies of the Constitution. “This office needs to be effective on getting results…. What that depends on is having a leader with proven leadership ability, the ability to get things done and make progress. I’ve done that my whole career.”
Brauchler did not participate in the debate.
The attorney general serves both as the state’s chief law enforcer and as head of an office that functions as the state’s all-purpose law firm.
State attorneys general have sued the federal government over new or changing policies such as net neutrality, the Muslim ban, and a new citizenship question that the Trump administration wants included on the 2020 Census.
In Colorado, the new AG likely will challenge federal law enforcement on marijuana policy and take over litigation on controversial cases such one that will determine whether or not public health and environmental issues will take precedence in oil and gas regulations.
“The AG is a critical position — it has impact over police practices, criminal justice reform, drug policy… We refer to it as the people’s lawyer,” said John Krieger, spokesman for American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, one of the groups that hosted Thursday’s debate.
Salazar introduced himself by noting that both the Spanish and Native American sides of his family have lived in the Colorado area for centuries. He earned his law degree from the University of Denver and has almost 15 years of experience practicing employment-, civil rights-, constitutional- and federal Indian law. He has served as a state House representative since 2013.
He emphasized his legislative experience in his opening remarks, noting that as vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee he oversees the office he’s now seeking to run. “We know what’s happening with the budget. We know what’s happening with the policies of the Attorney General’s office and there needs to be a change,” he said.
Weiser, a Denver resident, is currently a professor of law at the University of Colorado, specializing in internet-, antitrust-, and constitutional law, among other areas. During the Obama administration, he served as a senior advisor to the National Economic Council director and as the deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division. Weiser also worked as a law clerk to Justices Byron R. White and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the U.S. Supreme Court.
His mother was born in a concentration camp the day before it was liberated, and Weiser is a first-generation American. “I grew up hearing about the belief in a better future, and that optimism has gotten me through my whole career.”
Weiser and Salazar agreed on many policy stances during Thursday’s debate, including the need to work towards more transparent records about police brutality cases, lower expensive bonds that block low-income people’s ability to leave jail, and improve relations between law enforcement, communities of color and white communities.
Weiser repeatedly called for using the office’s 500-person staff to provide legal resources to Colorado communities and stressed his leadership experience. Salazar called for using the Attorney General’s office’s lobbying ability to prod policy reforms in the legislature. He emphasized his political, legal and policy-making experience.
Here’s where they stand on other issues…
Pension fund investments
In March 2004, the state legislature passed a bill that allowed the Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA) to invest in venture capital funds without releasing details about those investments to the attorney general, the legislature or members of the state government. In 2013, Westword published an article outlining how this policy has benefitted outside money managers. Without access to the investment documents, the attorney general can’t investigate potential fraud.
Weiser hadn’t heard of the 2004 law when asked about it Thursday. He said that Cynthia Coffman, the sitting attorney general, is spending too much time putting drug users in jail and not enough time investigating white-collar criminals.
“Securities fraud is a real concern and investors being taken advantage of by people who engage in fraud is something that concerns me. So, I’ll look into this situation, see whether this law needs to be looked at,” he said.
Salazar said the attorney general needs access to PERA’s investment records to know if fraud is happening. If he is in a position to prosecute based on information detailed in those documents, he said he plans to do so.
“Under Attorney General Joe Salazar, one of the policy positions that will be advocated for will be a change, if not an outright repeal of that 2004 law,” he said.
Sanctuary cities, immigration and ICE
In 2017, the Colorado legislature was divided on how to handle “sanctuary” cities – meaning those that limit their cooperation with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in order to protect undocumented immigrants. The Ralph Carr Freedom Defense Act, which Salazar sponsored and which ultimately was shot down by the Senate, proposed making Colorado a sanctuary state. A divided Congress, in the meantime, also considered an anti-immigration bill crack-down on sanctuary cities that was ultimately killed by the House.
Weiser said Coffman, a Republican, has been “complicit” with ICE by infringing on the rights of immigrants in Colorado. He would use the office’s staff to provide legal support to sanctuary cities and work to pass a statewide law so that Colorado law enforcement wouldn’t use immigration detainment practices that make immigrants too afraid of deportation to report crimes.
“This undermines our public safety and welfare,” he said. “It is against our constitutional tradition.”
“Thank you, Phil, for recognizing the legislation that I’ve moved forward on two years in a row,” Salazar told his Democratic opponent, drawing chuckles from the audience.
Salazar pointed out that his first act as a state representative was to repeal Senate Bill 90, commonly known as the Colorado “Show Me Your Papers” Law, which required police to report suspected undocumented immigrants to ICE. Those who had been targeted, he noted, are “people who look like me.”
About reforms that Weiser intends to make in the future, Salazar said, “I’ve already done it, and I am doing it.”
The plea deal problem
According to the ACLU, 70 to 97 percent of criminal cases in Colorado end in plea deals – some regardless of a defendant’s actual guilt, but reached to avoid heavier charges, fines and sentences. These deals can send people to jail with high bonds before trial and overcharge them criminally. In these situations, low-income Coloradans have few options.
“I’m going to use this office, the people in it as an engine for innovation, collaboration and in this case criminal justice reform because we’ve got to do better now,” Weiser said, advocating teaming up with district attorneys and police departments to enact changes.
Salazar is skeptical about relying on law enforcement for reform.
“What do you say think the district attorneys say in response to that kind of innovative thinking? They say, you’re not going to take our tools away from us,” he said, referring to tools like high bonds costs, flexibility in fines, and plea deals that give prosecutors leverage.
He proposed making district attorneys’ offices pay overcharge fees if they can’t justify the criminal charges and bond amounts in court.
Oil and gas regulation
The case of Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, currently before the Colorado Supreme Court, was filed in 2014 by six teenagers who argued that state regulations should put public health and environmental impact first, ahead of economic interests.
Weiser said that he would set up a special unit dedicated to providing legal resources to local governments that are seeking to limit oil and gas drilling in their communities.
Salazar talked about a House bill he sponsored this year attempting to codify the Colorado Court of Appeals decision in the Martinez case that prioritized public health and environmental protection over profits. Although the bill died in committee in the Republican-controlled Senate, Salazar said it speaks to the commitment he has already shown to further regulate the oil and gas industry.
Court record transparency
Brauchler built his political career prosecuting death penalty cases – including the one against Aurora theater shooter James Holmes – and rallying to preserve capital punishment in Colorado. His 18th Judicial District includes Arapahoe County and communities to the south and east, and is where all three of the state’s death row inmates were prosecuted.
His office has been criticized for withholding evidence that could have been helpful to those and other capital defendants, and for rallying to shroud in secrecy court documents accusing its prosecutors of misconduct. The Colorado Independent filed a petition with the state Supreme Court to unseal court documents that detailed misconduct allegations and sought to throw Brauchler’s office off the case against death row inmate Sir Mario Owens.
Attorney General Coffman has defended efforts to keep those court documents sealed. And The Independent is awaiting a decision from the state Supreme Court on whether the judge who ordered them sealed at Brauchler’s office’s request did so constitutionally.
“George Brauchler’s lack of transparency in this matter is a cause for concern, and undermines the public’s confidence in our justice system,” Weiser said. If the Supreme Court grants the petition and if the 18th District Court ultimately doesn’t comply, then this could become an issue the attorney general has to act on.
“He likes to hide documents, and I think that’s repugnant,” he said. “George Brauchler doesn’t like being transparent — that’s the problem with George Brauchler.”
According to Brauchler, he has complied with the law every day and will continue to do so.
“This is not us denying access to anything. There is a judge that decides whether it is released or not — that is not a decision that my office makes,” Brauchler said. “We can have input through motions and arguments, but ultimately it’s a judge’s decision.”
“We’re the most transparent DA office in the state,” he said.
Compensation for a wrongful conviction
A judge released Clarence Moses-EL from prison Dec. 2015 after he spent 28 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Reporting by The Colorado Independent chronicled his attempts to prove his innocence and the state’s seemingly systematic and intentional resistance. Those attempts included winning a court order to test the DNA in the case, only to have Denver police throw evidence – contained in a box clearly marked “DO NOT DESTROY” – in a dumpster.
Colorado has a law that compensates the wrongly convicted $70,000 for each year that they spend needlessly behind bars. In Moses-EL’s case, that totals almost $2 million.
In February, the only two officials who could authorize compensation for Moses-EL – AG Cynthia Coffman and Denver District Attorney Beth McCann – declined to do so, saying the fact that a jury exonerated him at his re-trial doesn’t prove he is actually innocent. The only evidence that could have provided that proof was trashed by police.
As attorney general, Weiser said he would work to resolve the case, give Moses-EL the appropriate compensation, and not litigate based on a lack of evidence.
It is wrong for the state to withhold compensation due to a lack of evidence when the state itself destroyed the evidence that could have established Moses-EL’s innocence, he said.
Salazar emphasized that he has voted in favor of compensation as a legislator.
“Clarence Moses-EL, he deserves justice,” Salazar said. “(Compensation) is one way of doing that. I would withdraw the challenge filed by Cynthia Coffman, so that he gets the compensation he deserves.”
With less than 20 days before this month’s primary election, Weiser has almost five times more money left in his campaign coffer than Salazar. Weiser’s strategy is to keep increasing his name recognition, and he plans to use some of the $122,000 in his campaign coffer for advertising purposes.
Salazar has $23,000 left to spend, but says he isn’t concerned. He is currently 19 points ahead in a Magellan Strategies poll conducted at the end of May. He said his work as a lawmaker and political activist have earned him one strong name recognition among voters.
Brauchler has the most funding – $213,000 – still available.
Brauchler was a candidate for governor until late last year when Coffman entered the race and Brauchler switched his candidacy to fill the attorney general’s seat she’ll be leaving vacant. The Republican AG contender has a law degree from the University of Colorado, served as a justice in the military and is a colonel in the Colorado Army National Guard.
As an outsider, Brauchler said it’s interesting to watch the Democratic primary race in which he said Weiser has all of the establishment endorsements and has raised record amounts of money, and the more progressive Salazar ihas raised less money, but is still far ahead in polling.
For his part, Brauchler thinks both candidates are too extreme for Colorado.
“Neither one of them comes from a traditional Colorado attorney general background,” he said. “In my life I’ve never seen two candidates with less relevant qualifications for attorney general office candidates. That’s not up to me. The voters will decide that.”
Photo by Shannon Mullane