Attorney General Candidates Debate the Issues

Three Democratic candidates talk policy and justice reform

Democratic attorney general candidates debated on Thursday at the Community College of Denver. From left: Rep. Joe Salazar, moderator CCD President Dr. Everette Freeman, trial attorney Brad Levin and former University of Colorado Law School Dean Phil Weiser. / KALEY LAQUEA, LAW WEEK

On Thursday, the Community College of Denver and the Colorado Criminal Bar Association hosted a debate among Democratic attorney general candidates Rep. Joe Salazar, attorney Brad Levin and former University of Colorado Law School dean Phil Weiser. Former deputy state public defender Angela Campbell and criminal defense attorney Phil Cherner moderated the debate. The event was attended mostly by CCD students and bar members.

“Your engagement is how we get our democracy back on track,” Weiser said to students in his opening statement. 

Throughout the debate, all three candidates harped on the importance of Democratic leadership in the attorney general’s office under the Trump Administration. The first few rounds of questions touched on broader issues of gun control, marijuana regulation, environmental and consumer protections and criminal justice.

Campbell asked candidates how they would enforce the state’s 2013 gun laws considering there have been reports that sheriffs in some jurisdictions have not been enforcing them. 

Salazar highlighted his legislative experience in working on and voting for bills on gun control. 

He reflected on his experience of being on the floor in 2012, as news of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting began to flow in and his subsequent votes to get rid of high capacity magazines and close gun show loopholes. 

“I was shocked. Although we passed the law, these elected officials had the temerity to sit there and say they weren’t going to enforce what we’d passed,” he said. He noted that the attorney general’s office oversees POST training and has a powerful role in law enforcement. 

“If we have law enforcement in the state of Colorado that doesn’t want to enforce our laws, then maybe they shouldn’t be POST certified, and that’s something I’ll look into as attorney general, providing those due processes where we need to.”

On approaches to consumer protection and fraud, Levin pointed to his experience as a trial lawyer defending individuals against large insurance companies. 

“The problem is we’ve got an attorney general right now who’s got more interest in making sure that corporate interests are being protected than making sure consumers’ rights are being protected,” he said.

Candidates were asked their opinion on the death penalty and ways they would approach the unfair application of capital punishment. Weiser called the execution of innocent people a “moral stain on our nation’s consciousness.” He pointed to recent controversial cases in Arkansas and Texas, calling the death penalty “unwise.”

“We have a public defender system that’s a model for the nation. We don’t allow people to get a terrible defense,” he said.

Levin took a jab at Republican attorney general candidate George Brauchler, who prosecuted Aurora theater shooter James Holmes. Brauchler sought the death penalty but a jury failed to unanimously agree. Levin underscored the high costs of the trial incurred by the state. 

“That’s not the way we should be operating the state. We need somebody who’s going to step toe to toe with Mr. Brauchler,” Levin said.

Questions shifted to specific policy issues about things like Colorado’s Violent Crimes Assistance Team and Peace Officers Standards and Training. VCAT was formed by former Attorney General Gale Norton and aims to help smaller rural jurisdictions prosecute death penalty cases, but the program isn’t defined by statute. Cherner asked candidates what they believed the role of VCAT should be. Weiser acknowledged the unit has been misused. Salazar said he “didn’t think the unit would exist when I’m attorney general.”

Candidates were asked to note what changes they would make to POST training “in light of complaints that officers are more likely to use deadly violence against people of color, and less likely to engage in de-escalation techniques when confronting people of color.”

Candidates diverged slightly on their approaches to oil and gas regulation. Weiser criticized Coffman’s legal guidance to the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission on issues of drilling, calling her approach “wrong as a matter of law and bad policy.” Salazar highlighted his sponsorship of House Bill 1071, which attempted to codify a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling in a case against the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission. But Levin stressed the large role that industry jobs and funding plays in the state and vowed to find a way to work together. 

The last round of questions touched on backlogs of cases at the attorney general’s office and the ethical role of the office in seeking justice over convictions. 

Salazar noted that high turnover rates and understaffing are big problems he’d like to tackle if he wins. Weiser pointed to his former leadership experience as CU Law dean and implementation of successful streamlining policies. 

The three candidates are joined by Amy Padden in the race for the Democratic nomination. George Brauchler is the only Republican in the race. 

Criminal defense attorney Joyce Akhahenda attended the event to hear more from the candidates, but afterward felt the questions and responses didn’t illustrate their distinct policy approaches. 

“I would’ve liked if they would’ve asked them how they differentiate from each other,” she said. 

—Kaley LaQuea

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