Phil Weiser on Why He Should Be Colorado's Next Attorney General

Democratic nominee Phil Weiser is running against George Brauchler in the November race for state attorney general.
Democratic nominee Phil Weiser is running against George Brauchler in the November race for state attorney general. Phil Weiser
Phil Weiser, a lawyer with a broad range of professional experience, is running as the Democratic candidate for Colorado attorney general.

Earlier in his legal career, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court justices Byron White and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He also served in the Justice Department during two presidential terms. More recently, he was dean of the University of Colorado Boulder's law school.

Weiser says that his family history has profoundly impacted him. His mother was born in the Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945. He says that the difference between being born in a concentration camp and clerking on the Supreme Court was one generation. And he now wants to serve the people of Colorado and is competing against George Brauchler to become the state's next attorney general.

Here's why Weiser thinks he is the right choice for the job:

Westword: Why do you want to be the next Colorado attorney general?

Phil Weiser: This job is incredibly important. It's the people's lawyer defending our rights, leading on behalf of the people to solve challenging problems. Right now, we're facing what might be a crucial test for our democracy. Can it operate in a way that shows people that government is worthy of trust, that government can take on important problems? Or are we going to see more and more the cynicism of distrust? The opportunity we have here in Colorado is something special. The people of Colorado want to work together. I believe, as attorney general, I can work with county commissioners, district attorneys and state legislators to lead this office of 500 people in an effective way across a wide range of issues.

It's a challenge to campaign, but I found this to be incredibly educational and inspiring, and I believe it can make me a better attorney general.

What do you have that George Brauchler doesn't have?

This is an important point. George Brauchler has spent his career as a criminal prosecutor. His campaign has depicted the office as if he is the king DA. What I have is a wide range of legal experience in working on the Supreme Court, at the Justice Department, in the White House. I've led consumer protection cases in the Justice Department. I've advised on regulations and legislation and worked on legislation and regulation from the environment to civil rights to consumer protections to technology. We need a broad-based lawyer who understands a range of different areas with leadership experience to lead an office. There's 500 people in that office. If you've got an energetic, innovative leader, that office becomes an engine for progress for our state. Whereas if someone really doesn't have the broad base of experience or proven leadership experience, we end up with an office that underperforms and doesn't fulfill its mission to be the peoples' lawyer.

Brauchler says that you don't have the relevant experience to be qualified for the attorney general position. How would you respond to that?

It's ridiculous. Look at the experience I have. It's comparable to what Ken Salazar had, to what Cynthia Coffman had. It's comparable to Gale Norton. The idea that we need a criminal trial lawyer to be our attorney general is flatly wrong. The job is not to be a trial lawyer; it's to be a leader. The job is not only to do criminal prosecution; it's to do a range of legal issues. The job is not only to do trials, it's also to oversee regulatory law, appeals, legislation, advising government agencies. By concentrating on a narrow part of the job, George Brauchler is trying to define the job as if it fits the only experience he really has. And that's fundamentally deceptive. What we really need to talk about is what are the priorities for the next attorney general. There are a range of issues that the AG is going to make critical choices on. Does Colorado stand for supporting or overturning Roe v. Wade? Does Colorado stand for supporting equal rights for people based on sexual orientation and gender identity? Is Colorado committed to addressing climate change? Those are the critical issues that we should be talking about. The idea that I'm not qualified to be attorney general is insulting to the intelligence of voters.

One issue that you two diverge on is dealing with the opioid epidemic. Brauchler is waiting to see whether he would get involved in suing pharmaceutical companies. You have said clearly that you want to sue pharmaceutical companies. Tell me why that's the right decision.

Because I've done my homework. The conduct of Purdue Pharma, to take one case — and I'll quote the Oklahoma attorney general, who's a Republican: It's evil. That company knowingly told people that Oxycontin was not addictive, encouraging the use of the product in a way that would lead to people becoming dependent on it, so they could make lots of money and in the process destroy people's lives. If you are an expert in consumer protection, as I am, that is a textbook case of wrongdoing. And it's the job of the peoples' lawyer to represent people and to make it right. And the way to make it right is to win a bunch of money, which will be the outcome here, and to take that money and support drug treatment across our state. George Brauchler saying that he's not committed to this is inexplicable to me. I have heard around the state just how devastating the opioid epidemic is. We need a sense of urgency, not someone who is admiring the problem.

Do you think that Colorado has overcrowded prisons?

It's an empirical point. Go to Alamosa County, look at the jail. It is way overcrowded, and the main reason it is overcrowded is because of the opioid epidemic: 92 percent of people in the Alamosa County Jail are opioid users. There weren't a lot of women in that facility ten years ago, but there are now, and the reason is because we need to create more drug treatment opportunities, because then we can both do the right thing and support people, but also we can address the overcrowding of our prisons.

I think we need a more humane and common-sense approach in the criminal justice system. Right now, we're often on auto pilot, just putting people in jail and prison, but we're not looking at the question of, wait a minute, does this make sense? Is this humane?

For example, with our bail system, we have a system where if you can't afford to pay bail, you end up sitting in jail and sitting and sitting and sitting, so you end up pleaing for time served — whereas other states, like New Jersey, have said, if you're not a danger to society, if you're not a flight risk, then we are not going to keep you in jail. That's the sort of criminal justice improvement that I'd like to see us make. I'd also like us to provide more diversion programs for juvenile offenders rather than being so quick to put them in jail.

What about immigration? If you're elected attorney general, will you direct law enforcement to not cooperate with ICE, or will you leave this up to them?

The goal of the attorney general is to support and advise our government, including local governments, on what it takes to comply with the law. Under Colorado law, law enforcement is only authorized to keep people in jail when they have committed crimes that warrant being detained. If you get a letter from the Department of Homeland Security asking for an individual to be detained, that is not a valid basis under Colorado law for detaining somebody. The Department of Homeland Security does not have the authority under our Constitution to commandeer local law enforcement. So I will advise local governments on what Colorado law requires and authorizes, and I'll defend the state of Colorado against encroachment from the Department of Homeland Security if they seek to commandeer Colorado law enforcement agencies.

Would that make Colorado a sanctuary state?

I'm not going to use that phrase, because it's not a valid term. It doesn't mean anything. The phrase I will use is: We need Colorado law to follow what the legislature provides and act in a way that is appropriate with respect to the underlying policy issues. Here's what I can say about Denver's policy: Denver said, if you end up coming into a courthouse to testify for a crime, we are going to promise you that we're not going to then detain you. That promise, by the way, is a real commitment that makes us safer, because when people who are undocumented are afraid to show up and testify, we're less safe. So I understand the logic behind Denver. And I also understand that under Colorado law, detaining people without actually having an underlying reason to do so is lawless.

Brauchler plans to prioritize going after illegal marijuana. How are you going to approach illegal marijuana, and how are you going to approach further regulation of recreational marijuana?

The decision of the Colorado voters to legalize marijuana, I believe, represented a thoughtful step forward in terms of criminal justice reform. We made a decision that we're not putting people in jail anymore for using marijuana. And given where we are in our levels of incarceration, that was a very sound decision.

Number two, by making it legal, we're taxing it and we're using those proceeds for things like mental health services in Eagle, homelessness in Aurora, and college scholarships in Pueblo. It's become a vital part of our economy. There are a couple of different challenges we have to work on, and the attorney general is crucial in this.

First is a regulatory matter, making sure we have a responsible system of providers and operators. And I would approach that first and foremost from a regulatory side to ensure that people are operating within the law and we're addressing concerns like kids getting access to marijuana.

There is also some black-market activity and, as appropriate, the attorney general can support local district attorneys with resources, particularly in local areas. But in the scheme of prioritization, number one is to protect the will of Colorado voters and to stand up against the Justice Department that might seek to commandeer our law enforcement. We get to decide our sovereign destiny, and I will be a lawyer for the people who will work to do that.

How can the attorney general combat gun violence?

When I've spoken with high school students, this is their top issue. The law that we passed is both defended and enforced by the attorney general. If the attorney general believes that the Second Amendment doesn't allow background checks, a statement that George Brauchler has made before, then our peoples' lawyer may not defend and enforce a critical protection against gun violence, background checks. The same goes for limits on magazine capacity. I'm committed to defending and enforcing our laws. On the enforcement side, we need to work with sheriffs and ask, are we doing a good job enforcing this requirement? We really need to work hard to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. I'd also be an advocate of a national background check, because that will be more effective than only doing the state level.

We also have to work on improving our law. I appreciate that George Brauchler has advocated for a red flag law. That's important. I'd also like to see us ban bump stocks, which enable weapons to operate as weapons of war and don't have any legitimate purpose. The attorney general's office also oversees the Safe 2 Tell program, which is critically important. It's a national model because we need to learn about threats, both suicides and homicides, that can prevent mass shootings from happening. And I would very much support and empower that program.

And finally, I want to work on safe gun storage because most of the deaths that actually happen are suicides, not homicides.

Anything else?

Yes. Our attorney general is an important check not only on our federal government commandeering us, whether it's immigration or marijuana, but on the federal government violating rules of law and undermining critical protections for Coloradans. A couple examples. First, the Affordable Care Act guarantees that you can't be subject to discrimination for health care based on pre-existing conditions. The Justice Department is refusing to defend and enforce that protection, which means we need our state AG to be on the side of the people and fight for this protection. I'll do that as attorney general. George Brauchler won't.

Number two, we in Colorado developed the methane rule to protect our air quality and address climate change. Our oil and gas companies are complying with it. Our citizens get the benefit of cleaner air. But two-thirds of methane emissions comes from the surrounding states. When the EPA adopted a methane rule identical to ours, it didn't put any imposition on our oil and gas companies. In fact, it helped them because it put them on a level playing field. But it gave our citizens cleaner air. Our current attorney general has actually fought against that methane rule. George Brauchler says he's against it. I would fight to protect it because we in Colorado care about climate change, care about clean air. We have been a leader on it and deserve an attorney general who is committed to it. And I believe the EPA's efforts to undermine the rule are illegal because they violate the Administrative Procedure Act. And so far, state attorneys general, not including Colorado, have prevented the effort to undermine this rule.

A final point. The census happens every ten years, and the Constitution requires an actual enumeration of the population. Steve Bannon sought to engineer an effort to discourage some people from being counted based on their immigration status. Our governor said this is terrible for Colorado, but our current attorney general refused to do anything about it to protect the rule of law. I would. I would stand up for Colorado's interest in an accurate count of the Census.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.