Election 2018

Attorney general race draws sharp line between candidates' approaches

Brauchler, Weiser offer starkly different views on policy, law

Posted 10/5/18

One prosecuted the Aurora theater shooter. The other worked as an assistant to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. One's the elected district attorney in a south metro district of more than 1 …

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Election 2018

Attorney general race draws sharp line between candidates' approaches

Brauchler, Weiser offer starkly different views on policy, law

Posted

One prosecuted the Aurora theater shooter. The other worked as an assistant to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

One's the elected district attorney in a south metro district of more than 1 million people. The other worked in President Barack Obama's Justice Department.

And one says his opponent wants Washington to dictate to Colorado, while the other says his rival's background readies him for only 10 percent of the state attorney general's job.

Republican George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, and Democrat Phil Weiser, a professor and former dean at the University of Colorado Law School, stand opposite each other not only on political values, but in the approaches they would bring to the Colorado Attorney General's Office.

And amid the starkly polarized governor's race between Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, one veteran political analyst says the outcome of the contest for attorney general won't necessarily be in line with the gubernatorial race.

“The preference for governor will not dictate the preference for attorney general,” said Dick Wadhams, political strategist and former chair of the Colorado Republican Party. He added, “I think Colorado voters are very independent-minded.”

But another Colorado political analyst, Eric Sondermann, chalked the race up as a proxy fight that hinges on how Republicans and Democrats will fare in general this midterm season.

“I think this is going to be less a battle between Brauchler and Weiser,” Sondermann said, “than it will be between the generic Republican and generic Democrat.”

High stakes

The attorney general is Colorado's top legal official, known as the “people's lawyer” who combats consumer scams, defends Colorado's laws and protects its land, water and air, to name a few duties.

And despite the office's lack of a role in the lawmaking process, Wadhams says the attorney general is integral in affecting public policy in Colorado.

He pointed to current Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican who has moved to support or oppose laws or rulings even when the governor disagrees with her decision.

“In the case of Cynthia Coffman, she actually took on the Obama administration on the Clean Power Plan,” said Wadhams, who argued the federal rule that sought to put limits on power plants would have driven up consumers' energy costs. He added, “I think Coffman demonstrated the independence of the attorney general and also the impact.”

In an era where President Donald Trump draws the ire of many officials in various states, that ability to act could be a key factor in Colorado's direction.

Lawsuits against the president may factor into the race between Brauchler and Weiser, but the race is also “about how you define the job,” Sondermann said.

“Brauchler is defining it as you'd expect as a courtroom warrior,” Sondermann said. “Weiser is trying to define the job as more of an advocacy role and standing up to the president.”

Fork in the road

Brauchler, a Parker resident, has aimed to paint Weiser, of Denver, as a partisan who aims to “link hands” with other activist attorneys general, he said, arguing Weiser's approach to regulation would allow Washington to “dictate our existence.”

Colorado “has never been just about one thing politically,” Brauchler said. “This election seems like we're poised to become one thing, and that is extremely progressive. And I don't think Colorado has seen that — not in my lifetime.”

On the other hand, Weiser frames his campaign as a fight for people's basic rights and business accountability.

“You have the right to be free from discrimination,” Weiser said, and “to be protected as a consumer from fraudulent and deceptive behavior. Those rights are protected by our attorney general.”

The attorney general “fights for the people of Colorado, and that's the type of attorney general I'll be,” Weiser added.

But perhaps the largest contrast lies in the candidates' backgrounds — Brauchler accused Weiser of never having practiced Colorado law, drawing experience from being a professor and dean at the University of Colorado School of Law rather than courtroom experience.

“Nobody picks a team captain from someone who's never played the sport,” Brauchler said. He noted his near quarter-century of experience, including as a plaintiffs' attorney and military attorney in addition to public prosecutor roles.

Weiser's punch-back is that the attorney general's office is about far more than courtroom experience, he said.

“His background prepares him very well for 10 percent of the job,” Weiser said of Brauchler, claiming less than 10 percent of the position relates to criminal prosecution. “My background prepares me for the other 90 percent.”

The office governs a range of issues including consumer-protection cases, regulatory matters and legal advising, all of which "I have done,” Weiser said.

On the issues

The candidates do agree on some issues, like Colorado's marijuana law and, to some extent, federal encroachment on state matters.

Weiser and Brauchler both say they would defend Colorado's marijuana-legalization law against potential federal challenges.

“I was not a supporter of Amendment 64, but you know who was? Fifty-five percent of Colorado voters,” said Brauchler, adding that he was able to embrace it while trying to protect against negative effects of the illegal pot market.

That acceptance is an example of his commitment to the rule of law, Brauchler said, charging that Weiser is more partial to ideology and wants to be akin to an “adjunct legislator.”

Weiser maintains that his vision of the office is the role of “protecting the people of Colorado” by bringing cases against irresponsible companies, contesting the federal government when appropriate and supporting regulations. Weiser is for a ban on bump stocks — devices that alter the firing ability of semi-automatic firearms — and greater restrictions on access to military-grade weapons, his website says.

On other specifics, Weiser said defending equal rights, women's access to birth control and the choice to have an abortion, and addressing climate change are among his priorities.

The candidates differ on a 2017 Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission case, in which that state office was sued for a refusing to adopt an environmental rule, drawing Coffman to back the office's position, Braucher said. Weiser opposed Coffman's move, a stance Brauchler said speaks to his ideology.

Weiser questioned those who wouldn't support certain environmental rules, like Coffman, asking, “If you're protecting Colorado, why would you be against (methane regulation)?”

Weiser also said the move to end the DACA program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which gives protected status to people brought to the U.S. illegally as children — is against the law in his view. He'd fight against separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border, he added, a recent Trump administration practice that was later halted.

“My motivation is not a political motivation; it's a human motivation,” Weiser said, arguing it's in step with the rule of law to push against federal action the attorney general believes is illegal, whether the issue is of water or immigrants' rights.

Brauchler said he hopes Congress comes up with a solution so that immigrants who were brought here illegally as children can stay, but on the issue of sanctuary cities, he said Congress and the Supreme Court have made clear that states have no role in immigration policy.

It's “anathema to the rule of law” to allow cities to oppose federal immigration policy, Brauchler said.

What are the odds?

Who can pull off the win is an open question between a prosecutor who has cultivated a tough-on-crime image, and a professor with less name recognition who has the opportunity to ride a wave of anti-Trump sentiment among Democrats.

Wadhams, the Republican strategist, said Weiser's resume doesn't come close to Brauchler's.

“What propelled Brauchler to popularity in the GOP was his performance on high-profile cases — the Aurora theater shooting and others,” Wadhams said.

Wadhams bets on Brauchler to win because “I think George will be closer to where most Coloradans are on (the) issues,” he said.

Sondermann took a different view.

“I'd say advantage Weiser, and that has very little to do with Phil Weiser,” Sondermann said, arguing a win would have more to do with Democrats' potential to have a strong electoral year in general.

Wadhams has mentioned voters in Colorado often “split” their ballot, voting for one party for governor but another for attorney general. Sondermann agreed but said that practice of “splitting” shrinks as the country gets more polarized.

“It's not like the Colorado of 20 or 30 years ago,” where more of the electorate did that, Sondermann added.

Amid a political climate in which Sondermann has said 2018 could be a “deep-blue year” — and the polarized governor's race — Wadhams argued the attorney-general contest will be its own.

“It's a race Colorado voters look on as a very distinct one,” Wadhams said.

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