George Brauchler has become the first major Republican figure to announce that he's seeking to be elected governor of Colorado in 2018.
On the Democratic side, ex-state senator Mike Johnston entered the campaign in January, and after former senator Ken Salazar declared that he wouldn't be taking part in the race, other Democratic hopefuls began positioning themselves for a run. Note that Representative Ed Perlmutter is expected to throw his hat into the ring on Sunday, April 9.
Brauchler, currently the district attorney in the 18th Judicial District, gained national and international attention for prosecuting James Holmes for the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. His decision to seek the death penalty against Holmes was controversial and unsuccessful. But Brauchler continues to believe in capital punishment, and he was openly critical of how Governor John Hickenlooper handled the scheduled execution of Chuck E. Cheese killer Nathan Dunlap in 2013. The term-limited Hickenlooper, who has admitted to being troubled by the death penalty and its application in the U.S., gave Dunlap a reprieve but stopped short of granting clemency — a move that Brauchler publicly denounced during a period when he first flirted with a gubernatorial bid. He also thought about challenging Michael Bennet for his U.S. Senate seat in 2016.
Below, find a wide-ranging interview with Brauchler; it was conducted on the morning of April 6, prior to news of Perlmutter's impending declaration on the Trump administration's bombing of an airfield in Syria. During the conversation, the voluble Brauchler talks about previous false starts; his interest in redistricting; what he sees as the biggest issues facing Colorado (transportation and education, whose shortfalls in the state he connects to Obamacare); how prominent the death penalty will be in his campaign; statements he made during a 2007 radio show that the Colorado Democratic Party has resurrected in an effort to undermine him; and his belief that Colorado is more of a red state than is generally acknowledged.
Following the transcript is Brauchler's campaign-announcement video.
Westword: There have been a number of times over the years when your name has been floated for either the U.S. Senate or the governor's office. Why was this the right time for you?
George Brauchler: To go backwards and talk about why the other two didn't work is, I think, a good place to start. The first time [in June 2013] was right after I took to the west steps of the Capitol and was very vocal in my criticism of the governor's decision to punt on the sentence that convicted mass murderer Nathan Dunlap had the month before....
At the end of the day, though, I decided "no" [not to run for governor in 2014]. I had just made a big decision [to seek the death penalty against James Holmes for the 2012 Aurora theater shooting], and it set the office on a certain path. This was my duty. I had to do it. It didn't make sense for me to put political ambition above that. So I said "no" and moved on to that.
Then we got to right after the trial, and my phone started blowing up with people saying, "You should think about running against Bennet. You should think about running for the U.S. Senate." So I did due diligence. I talked to smart people who've run big campaigns, I sat down and talked with Cory Gardner, my wife talked to his wife. We got pretty far down the field. And then at the end of the day, you sit alone driving and start thinking to yourself, "Do I want to get up early every Monday morning and drive to the airport and fly to Washington, D.C., spend the week there away from my family, come back and then spend the weekends moving around the state fundraising?"
I also started saying to people around me who were pushing me to do it, "Okay, tell me the last, bestest thing the U.S. Senate did for the United States." And people struggled. They were, like, "Well...." Most of the things they came up with were things the Senate had blocked from President Obama. Now, I'm not saying those things don't have value. But I thought, I'm going to give up all this stuff about Colorado and my family to have been, at the end of the day, a delaying tactic? No, thank you. It didn't make any sense, because I wanted to stay here.
Fast-forward to now, and we're in a place where the timing is different. This is a job that would leave me here, in this state. I would live at home. I would be able to do the business of the job while still living at home, while living in Parker. I would be able to play at least a decently active role in my kids' lives. I think I would be able to do great things for the State of Colorado, and we're at a place where I think that matters as much as it ever has.
Was the relatively open field this time around — no incumbent and Senator Ken Salazar choosing not to run — a factor in the decision?
The Salazar piece had absolutely no impact whatsoever. In fact, I'd been putting myself in a position to make this decision thinking that I'd end up running against Ken or Ed [Perlmutter] or someone else on that side. So that had no impact. Was there some impact to this being an open seat? Yes, but honestly, if Hickenlooper had been entitled to run for a third term, I think you'd be seeing me make this same decision.
So this is more about where you're at in your life and what you think you can do for the citizens of Colorado than any kind of political considerations?
It wasn't about political considerations, although those factor in. But it's not just about me and where I'm at in my life. It's where I think Colorado needs to go moving forward. This 2018 election is important for a lot of reasons, and one that the political pundits like to focus on most is redistricting. That's obviously a big factor, because the battle of 2018 is largely going to set up the battle we're going to have in 2020 and into the future. It's going to dictate what direction and path the state stays on. I also think that even though we self-describe as purple, and even though a lot of pundits out there say we're purple, candidly, if we don't pull off this gubernatorial election, I don't think we can say with a straight face that we're half and half, or even close. I think we're going to be called blue in much the same way that I think people can argue that Wisconsin has turned red. Republicans control everything in Wisconsin. The Dems would control virtually everything in Colorado except courts. So I really think at this point in time that Colorado needs my ability, my skills and my interest in doing things to make the state better.
On the topic of redistricting, what do you think needs to be done in that area? What's off-kilter about it now, and in what direction would you like to go?
Just based on the maps we've looked at, it's hard to argue that these are districts that try to embrace the idea of similar communities and constituencies for the purposes of adequate representation. You take a look at the 7th Congressional District. What a tortured drawing that was to get the 7th CD in that place. And then the 6th. I grew up in the 6th Congressional District in Lakewood, and it has morphed over these last couple decades into something it clearly isn't. I don't know how you say Aurora and Highlands Ranch are communities of similar interests, yet they're both in the 6th CD.
I'm not telling you we scrap the whole plan. But I'm also not a person who subscribes to the idea that we make every single district competitive. It needs to be competitive if that truly is a reflection of the community. But given what we've seen in the past because of who's been the governor — and he [Hickenlooper] has picked all of our Supreme Court justices, other than a few that Owens had — there are districts that are designed to tilt away from the Republican Party.
I think it would be extremely difficult to envision a scenario where the Republicans would have the ability to recapture the Statehouse without trying to draw these seats to make more sense.
What are the other major issues for you going into the 2018 campaign?
I'll give you more detailed stuff on the issues. But taking the 30,000-foot view, leadership matters in 2018. And I think really what we've had over the last six-plus years out of the governor's office is affability. And affability is not a substitute for leadership. I think a lot of the problems we're dealing with right now are a product of a lack of vision, a lack of leadership by the governor's office.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Transportation and education are two big ones for me. And transportation is selfishly a big issue for me because I drive these roads every day. My family does. My quality of life is impacted, just like yours, when you're stuck in traffic and you're asking yourself, "Can I drive to Denver between three and six, or should I wait?" When you have to start making decisions like that, you need to look at what we're doing transportation-wise.
We don't prioritize transportation in our budget. Heck, we don't even really budget any money for transportation out of the general fund. That's got to change, but it can't, because we've signed on to that addictive elixir of Obamacare. It has expanded Medicaid two or three times — and I'm talking in terms of dollars. In terms of people involved, one out of four Coloradans are on Medicaid. One out of four. That's incredible, because one out of four Coloradans aren't poor. One out of four Coloradans aren't below the poverty line. One out of four Coloradans aren't disabled or children. But we've expanded this thing so much.
What's the connection to transportation?
Remember, when they expanded Obamacare, they got states to sign up because they said, "We'll cover 100 percent of the expansion. Don't you worry about it, Colorado. The federal government has your back." Well, where are we at now? We're at a 90-10 split, with no guarantee that the number won't shift toward the 50-50 split we've traditionally had with Medicaid. So let's say right now that the amount of money that Obamacare expansion causes the budget to have to give up changes — that the federal government comes to us and says, "Next year, we're going to go to an 80-20 split, or a 70-30 split." The amount of money that would suck out of the budget because it would have to go to maintaining that expanded Obamacare patient populace would strangle our ability to do almost anything else, especially with all the priorities we have.
So we don't have the ability to budget for transportation out of our budget. And it also affects our ability to budget for education. And I get it: Most education funding comes from the locals, but the state has a small role to play there, too — and we're not allowed to do that.
Again, selfishly, the roads that my family drives on suck, and I want to do something about that. And with education, that's another piece. Again, selfishly, my four kids are in public schools. I'm not the candidate whose kids have all graduated and moved on to have their own kids. I'm not the candidate who puts his kids in private schools. I'm the candidate who has four kids consuming public education every day, right now. We've even been through charter schools. Two of my kids are still in charter schools in the area, so I get school choice — and I embrace school choice. But at the end of the day, 70 percent of our kids are going to be coming out of our regular public schools, and we're obligated to figuring out a way to make those things work.
When I'm talking about why leadership matters when it comes to education, one of the things I think we have made a mistake about is in embracing the bureaucrat model with what we should be doing when we educate our kids. That's Common Core. And we don't have a governor right now — and certainly we won't have one on the other side — who'll be willing to stand up to Washington, D.C., and say, "End this. Colorado knows best how to educate its sons and daughters, and we know best how to set the standards for us." But we don't have that.
I also think, by and large, the federal government plays too big a role in our daily lives. And do you know when you feel that? Depending on who's in the White House, how much you bristle at it. The people that were just adamantly opposed to President Obama, one of the big questions they had was, "Why does D.C. have to play such a big role in our daily lives?" If you don't like President Trump, same thing. Let's diminish the impact and influence D.C. has on the decisions that we make here in Colorado.
Another example going back to transportation: If you look at places like Larimer County and Weld County, they have figured out a way to fund through private-public partnerships and other means of transportation improvements in their counties for pennies on the dollar compared to what [the Colorado Department of Transportation] does. Well, CDOT would say, "Hang on. We can't do it as cheaply as they can because we are burdened by all the strings that come with the federal tax dollars that make up the bulk of what we spend on the roads." I think that's a fair criticism. But the answer isn't to roll over and play dead, or to come back to Colorado's voters and say, "You need to give us a higher sales tax." The answer we have is to capitalize on the administration we have now, which seems far more invested in state discretion over federal discretion. A governor should go to them and say, "We want waivers. We want waivers from all of these federal obligations like Davis-Bacon and all this other stuff, to be able to build these roads and stretch our dollars, even if they're federal dollars, to the point where we're able to get done what we need to get done."
About Obamacare: Obviously, we know what happened with the first repeal-and-replace attempt. And even though there have been discussions about reviving those efforts, what can you do as governor of Colorado? Can you opt out of Obamacare? What avenues are open for you in terms of freeing up the dollars you mentioned earlier?
That's a really good question. I think there are two things. One, I think we absolutely have to resist any further expansion of Medicaid through the Obamacare law. But more than that, I think while D.C. dithers over the way to try to fix what they've done to us, we need a governor who continues to encourage our congressional delegation in D.C. to give us flexibility in how we spend those Medicaid dollars.
Right now, a huge number of the people who are on there through this Obamacare expansion are able-bodied, working-age adults. That's incredible. I think all of us want to take care of the disabled, and we want to take care of children, and in many cases, we want to take care of single parents who are dealing with some of that. I get it. But that's not everybody. The question is, can we go to the federal government and say, "We want to stretch these Medicaid dollars. We want to stretch these Obamacare dollars." A $2 copay that gets billed out as a $54 office visit is too little to impact behavior. People who have a runny nose are running off to the doctor, because the cost to them is nothing. And we see this in the private sector. Should we have the ability to go to them and say, "We want you to have the ability to have more skin in the game. We want to increase your copay as a means of not only helping us save dollars for those who truly need it, but also to change behavior, so you don't treat this in a way that's more gratuitously used. But here's the problem: Every state in the country, including ours, has to abide by the same rules in spending those dollars. That means we can't increase those copays or even have a conversation about it. So I think we need fifty state legislatures, fifty different governors, fifty different states trying to figure out how to make those Medicaid dollars, those Obamacare dollars, work best for their specific population.
You're best known in many circles for seeking the death penalty in the James Holmes case. How big a part of your campaign is capital punishment going to be? Or is it secondary to some of the other things that you've been talking about?
I think it's tertiary or more. The death penalty is not the biggest issue facing Coloradans today or down the road. I think if anything, I think a discussion of the death penalty and the position I've taken is one that I think people can turn to and say, "Is this a guy who would stand up for what he believes in, even in the case of adversity? Even when it's an uphill battle?" And I think I've demonstrated that. This is a guy who's willing to have a conversation about a topic that not everybody agrees upon. In fact, some people have a very, very strong disagreement about it. But I've gone out there and met with folks and had the conversation.
Now, you remember when Dunlap's life was spared by Hickenlooper, he said, "Colorado should have a discussion about this. I'm not sure this is what Colorado wants." Can you remember a single time the governor has had a quote-unquote discussion about that? But since he said that, I have gone to places all over this community, and not just in my jurisdiction. I've gone across the state to talk about this case and the death penalty. And that includes environments that aren't welcoming to me. There was a musical, an opera, of Dead Man Walking that was done at the Central City Opera [in 2014]. And I got invited to be on a panel on this stage to talk about the death penalty. I'm the only guy there who was there in support of the death penalty. They had Sister Helen Prejean, they had the playwright, they had public defenders in the back, and a whole crowd that was against the death penalty. I think I was the only guy there for it. But I'm willing to sit there and have the conversation. So if people can reference that case in the context of, "What do we know about George Brauchler as a leader?," I think they can use that as an example, perhaps. But in terms of a topic or an issue that's going to impact Colorado on the level of transportation or education, I don't think it's even a close call. It's a measure of justice; it's a tool I want elected prosecutors to have in their tool kit. But we're not Texas or Georgia. We don't use this thing every month. We don't even use it every decade.
You mentioned Dunlap. It's my understanding that the next governor could reverse Governor Hickenlooper's decision related to that case or any other on Colorado's death row. Is that something you would do if you're elected?
Yes, but I want to take issue with one word you used — his "decision." It really wasn't a decision. This is a guy who could have ended this by saying, "I've given a lot of thought to this. I no longer think the death penalty is appropriate in any circumstance. I'm going to commute his sentence to life." He could have done that, but he didn't. And he also could have said, "I'm going to put some force behind this verdict of twelve people this guy's attorney helped pick and let this verdict move forward as a measure of justice — not because I think it is, but because they did." But nope, that didn't happen, either. He kind of just called time-out. It's sort of a statewide moratorium that looked like it was just for Dunlap, but it really is a statewide moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty in terms of executions. And, yes, I would undo that. We have laws on the books. Those laws need to be enforced, amended or repealed. They cannot be ignored.
The Colorado Democratic Party put out a statement after you announced your run for governor. It has a number of references to things you said on a radio show in 2007 related to the Navy being the "light-in-the-loafers" service and opposition to allowing LGBTQ individuals to serve openly in the military. What are your positions on those issues now? And what do you think of the Colorado Democratic Party reaching back to issues that aren't directly related to the governorship and using them to hit you after you announced?
I think it's predictable, and I think it's kind of lame. If you have to go back ten years to an issue that's now settled law, I think it tells you how desperate they are to come up with some way to try and divide the populace over issues like that.
I'm not going to defend that statement as something I would repeat today. At the time, I think I was trying to be funny. It was an inter-service-rivalry comment, not so much disparaging of any demographic group. But I get it. People were offended, and I regret that. I wouldn't talk like that now in any other context. But in the context of that conversation, here's what was going on. This was before the change in the law, and the debate was about this particular guy [Jason Knight] who claimed he'd been kicked out of the Navy because he was homosexual. I was filling in, I think, for Caplis, and Darren McKee, who's now a sports guy, was filling in for Silverman. He said, "Let's have this guy on, let's have this conversation," and I said, "Great. It's a great conversation to have."
Now, what this guy's story came down to was, he wasn't kicked out because he was gay. He had used something called the SIPRNet, which is our secret Internet protocol network, our ability to communicate with soldiers down-range in war. And he was communicating about his love life over SIPRNet. It wouldn't matter if you were gay or anything else; that kind of communication over SIPRNet would get you disciplined. You would lose your security clearance, which he did. And they didn't kick him out in the middle of his career. He had already dropped his papers to get out of the military, to terminate his service. They removed him from the military the day before he was going to leave anyhow.
So we had this conversation, and right before the break, I made this offhand comment. And that's how we got there. But the broader discussion of open homosexuals in the military, you can go back and find anything I've ever said or anything that's been written about it, and my concern was never from a morality, right-or-wrong standpoint. It was always from a logistics standpoint. What I said was, "Right now, we physically separate men and women in barracks because we know what happens when they get together and they're sexually attracted to each other. If that's the case, what would we do with open homosexuals? Would we put them all together? Would we disperse them?" For me, the conversation for me was, "I don't want to go down a road or call into question military's ability to accomplish its mission." That was the conversation we had.
I get that Democrats want to turn this into something it's not. But this is not an issue in this campaign, at least for me.
Democrats are also trying to suggest that your angle on the issues doesn't fit Colorado. But going back to your comments about whether Colorado is a red state, a blue state or a purple state, do you think Colorado is more red than perhaps recent statewide votes indicate and your positions are actually more in line with how the average Coloradan feels?
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That's a good question, too. What I think is true is that we don't subscribe to the national definitions of Republican or Democrat or anything else. We're Colorado Republicans, and because of that, we take a more liberty-minded approach, a more stay-out-of-our-way-government kind of approach. We want to regulate ourselves.
I know I'm not out of touch. And this is the same approach the Dems have taken with every Republican they fear — to say, "Too extreme for Colorado." How many election cycles are we going to hear that same nonsense go out?
I've lived my whole life here. I don't know any other home. Everything that's important to me is within these borders. My own life and my family's life — and I want their future to be here, just like mine. I am not someone who is different from Colorado. I am part of Colorado. I am like my neighbors and my community.