As Fracking Takes Center Stage in AG Race, Where Do the Democrats Stand?

Joe Salazar at an education rally outside the Capitol.EXPAND
Joe Salazar at an education rally outside the Capitol.
Joe Salazar
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In 2016, after U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders swept the Colorado Democratic assembly's presidential nomination in a landslide victory, state Democrats realized how far left their voter base had gone.

Now, more Colorado progressives are putting up a serious fight against the establishment wing of the Democratic party in the lead-up to the primary elections on June 26. Nowhere is this more visible than in the Democratic primary race for state attorney general.

Democrats want to win the attorney general's office — badly. With Republicans controlling the White House and Congress, Democratic attorneys general have become important checks to executive power. Attorneys general have taken Donald Trump to court nearly fifty times, over such issues as the so-called Muslim ban, reproductive rights, emissions regulations, the recent tax overhaul and net neutrality.

The most well-known Democratic AG candidate is Joe Salazar, a state House representative out of Thornton and a civil-rights attorney who has long been a common fixture on the front lines of criminal justice and immigration protests in the Denver area. The Colorado native, who traces his Spanish heritage back several centuries to the San Luis Valley and his indigenous roots to the Apache, is also the most high-profile candidate to be endorsed by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders this cycle. Salazar was one of only a few sitting members of the Colorado General Assembly to endorse Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary race against Hillary Clinton. (Sanders beat Clinton in Colorado by nearly 20 percent.)

Salazar proudly touts his community organizing and activism experience dating all the way back to his college days at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he and others in the Chicano community led the effort to establish the first ethnic-studies department at CU. He is also one of the founding fathers of the university's first Latino fraternity, Sigma Lambda Beta, which he helped establish after being blocked from entering a fraternity during its recruitment period because he wasn't white. Salazar become an investigator for the Colorado Civil Rights Division and then for the Colorado Division of Insurance, where he investigated bail bonding agents, before attending law school at the University of Denver, where he studied employment, civil rights, and constitutional and federal Indian law.

He has continued to advocate for communities of color over the years: Salazar is a founding member of the nonprofit advocacy group Colorado Latino Forum; he introduced the 2013 bill to repeal the "Show Me Your Papers" 2006 law, which the governor signed; he protested the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock; and last year, Salazar pushed back against the Trump administration's Muslim ban during a rally at Denver International Airport. He admits that his community activism and civil rights work has pitted him against law enforcement in the past, but that's exactly why he wants to become what's often called "the people's lawyer."

"The thing about law enforcement is they still don't see themselves accountable to the table. They exist because the people say they exist, and once we start breaking through that barrier of their illusion, that's how we can start making substantive changes," Salazar says. "I'll be here for [law enforcement] as an ally if they need an ally, but being attorney general means you take positions sometimes against law enforcement."

Then there's Phil Weiser, who grew up on the East Coast as a first-generation American and whose mother was born in a Nazi concentration camp in Germany. Weiser is the former dean of the University of Colorado law school who has years of experience on the Hill. During the Obama administration, he went to Washington to serve as a senior adviser to the National Economic Council director and as deputy assistant attorney general in the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice for a couple of years before returning to academia in Colorado. He also served stints as a law clerk for the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver as well as for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the ’90s. Weiser has limited court litigation experience in Colorado, but says that his broad legal experience is what sets him apart in the race.

"When I was at the [U.S.] Department of Justice under Obama, I oversaw sixty lawyers, and that's an experience that Joe Salazar doesn’t have — leading teams, evaluating cases and being effective in picking and driving the right cases forward," Weiser says, adding that as a law professor and dean in Colorado, he has experience working on contracts, regulatory issues and appellate cas work, which gives him a breadth of experience outside of the courtroom.

Phil Weiser, former CU law school dean, is running for state attorney general.
Phil Weiser, former CU law school dean, is running for state attorney general.
Phil Weiser

Besides experience, what separates these two candidates? For one, Weiser raised $1.4 million this cycle and has blown almost all of his cash to get his name out in front of voters. In the last two weeks of May alone, he spent more than $271,000 on television and radio ads across the state and thousands more on digital advertising. Salazar's $113,128 in total campaign contributions is small potatoes by comparison. Both candidates received access to voter files from the Colorado Democratic Party, which was calculated to be a $15,000 in-kind contribution to each campaign.

And Weiser is certainly in the establishment camp of the Democratic party.

Weiser was endorsed by establishment, pro-oil and gas industry Democrat Ken Salazar, who is also a former Colorado attorney general and was U.S. Secretary of the Interior in the early years of the Obama administration, where he opened offshore drilling in the Arctic and approved Gulf drilling projects that caused the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Ken Salazar happens to be a distant cousin of Joe Salazar's. Joe says all of the Salazars in Colorado trace their roots to the San Luis Valley and northern New Mexico.) In addition, Ken Salazar chaired Hillary Clinton's White House transition team in 2016 and currently serves as legal counsel for Anadarko, the company responsible for the fatal Firestone explosion early last year that killed two people when a pipe leaking methane in a basement exploded. Ken Salazar, who has publicly stated that fracking has never created a single environmental problem, even threw a private fundraiser in his home for Weiser this month. Weiser has also been endorsed by seven former statewide officeholders, including governors Roy Romer and Bill Ritter, according to his campaign site.

Here's a recent campaign ad where Weiser proudly touts his endorsement by Ken Salazar:

Weiser has tried to distance himself from Ken Salazar's day job in the oil and gas industry while still embracing Ken himself, saying that he would be "tough and fair."

"Ken Salazar endorsed me the day I announced, May 11 [2017], before he was representing Anadarko, and so that came later. I have not talked to him about his representation at Anadarko. I don't know anything about that representation. ... What I can tell you is I don't care what lawyer is for any company, I'm going to be tough and fair in enforcing the key protections for Colorado consumers, for Colorado citizens," Weiser says. He adds that his campaign has received anti-fracking support from people like Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones. (It should be noted that anti-fracking protesters have called on Jones to resign since the fracking moratorium expired this year with no intentions from the commission to replace it. Protesters even attempted to stage a protest at her house but were actually at the wrong address. Boulder County is, however, suing Suncor and Exxon Mobil over climate change, so there's that.)

While immigration and gun violence are politically polarizing issues — cue talking points on sanctuary cities and the Second Amendment — fracking is one of those hot-button issues that doesn't truly belong to any one party. Take industry-friendly Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and former Denver mayor, who bragged about drinking fracking fluid produced by Halliburton in 2013 and then tried to convince the U.S. Senate Panel on Energy and Natural Resources that fracking fluid is "benign" and doesn't pose a threat of groundwater contamination. (There is no standard fracking fluid in the industry, and chemicals used aren't always fully disclosed under Colorado state law.) And let's not forget the time the state's favorite chugger drank water right out of the Animas River in front of a Durango Herald reporter, which had been polluted by an accidental release of three million gallons of waste from the Gold King Mine, to prove that the river was safe again for cities to source as drinking water. (Of course, Hickenlooper didn't totally drink the Kool-Aid this time; he made sure to drop in an iodine pill and wait thirty minutes before gulping down a bottle of river water.)

Environmental protection is an especially hot topic in the state attorney general race, with both candidates making it a centerpiece of their campaigns. But Weiser and Salazar are worlds apart on how to handle the proliferation of fracking, which is at the heart of the environmental debate in Colorado.

Salazar has long been an outspoken critic of the oil and gas industry, even getting into a social-media battle with Hickenlooper over his cozy relationship with oil and gas. He helped kill a bill in 2014 that would have reinstated eminent-domain rights for oil and gas pipelines. And this year, he put forward a bill to codify a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling to force the state to make public health, safety and the environment a pre-condition to permitting. Current Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman appealed the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court, where it is currently pending. If the case is still pending after the November elections, Salazar says, he would immediately withdraw the case in his first hours after assuming office. Salazar also says he supports a 2,500-foot setback for oil and gas developments, which could eliminate most new projects in the state, and is in favor of giving local municipalities some regulatory and land-use authority within their jurisdictions, which Coffman has consistently opposed.

Weiser says he agrees with the appeals-court decision to put public health first when considering permits, but he would not come out against fracking. Instead, he says that he needs to learn more from public health experts and that he's "committed to following the data and science."

Weiser says he doesn't support a 2,500-foot-setback ballot petition that environmental advocacy organization Colorado Rising is currently circulating, claiming that the measure is ineffective, "over broad" and could turn mineral-rights owners who might otherwise be sympathetic away from environmental protections. If he becomes attorney general, he says, he would set up a special unit in his office to provide legal resources to local governments seeking to limit oil and gas activity.

"Colorado law does not allow a flat ban on oil and gas development, and that raises the question of what restrictions that protect the public health safety and environment are allowable. ... My approach is going to be to work with and counsel different localities as they do just that," Weiser says, pointing to Broomfield's new charter amendment, which passed in November and affords the city some local control over oil and gas regulations. On the oil and gas setback petition, Weiser says, "I understand the impulse and frustration. I've studied and looked at it, and my conclusion is it won't serve as an effective protection, as it will be over broad in important ways, and that we need to figure out the right, appropriately focused measures. ... This doesn't achieve that goal."

Update: This story was updated at 9:20 a.m. on June 15 to correct Weiser's legal experience in Colorado and clarify that both candidates have received similar in-kind contributions from the Colorado Democratic Party.

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