In the 2018 election, Colorado Attorney General hopeful Phil Weiser faced arguably the longest odds of any Democrat running for a major state office. After all, his Republican opponent, 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler, is a charismatic speaker with a much higher profile than Weiser, best known as the dean at the University of Colorado Boulder law school.
But Weiser, who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Byron White, as well as serving in the Justice Department, before landing his CU Boulder gig, managed to best Brauchler anyhow, and while plenty of observers chalk up his win to the blue Democratic wave that swept over the state, he thinks the answer is more complicated than that.
"I would say it was several things," Weiser maintains. "One is that we worked really hard and got people involved all across our state. The theory that I operated under was that people win campaigns, and when you get people engaged and united around a clear message, that's how you win. Early on, we kept getting people involved through social media, field organizing and my own willingness to go to every county in the state to build support. The first time you go to Alamosa County, a number of people show up — but by the seventh time, you really are building your network. And when people talk to other people about candidates they support, that's incredibly powerful."
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Another factor was his platform, Weiser continues. "I'm not sure what message George Brauchler argued for. I know there were a lot of criticisms of me. But the attorney general's job is protecting the rights of the people of Colorado, and that's what we talked about. People are concerned about a federal government that treats dreamers and people at the border in ways that are unconstitutional. They're concerned about the opioid epidemic. They're concerned about protecting our air, water and land. Because I constantly emphasized that the job of the attorney general is to protect people and their rights, that was the message we got through. And that's how we won."
For his part, Brauchler regularly emphasized that he had much more experience than Weiser when it came to arguing cases in courtrooms, even though such prosecutions are a relatively minor part of an attorney general's duties. When asked if this tactic demonstrated a misunderstanding of the AG's role, or if it was an attempt to mislead or confuse the public, Weiser replies, "Those two are flip sides of the same coin."
In his view, "a lot of the public has only a general idea about what the attorney general does, and the idea was certainly put out there to voters that they were hiring a super-DA who was going to be a criminal prosecutor. That's what George Brauchler has done his whole career. What I needed to say about that was, 'This is about protecting civil rights. It's about protecting consumer rights. It's about protecting our environment.' There was a debate about what the office was, but the fact is that less than 10 percent of it is criminal prosecution. You're not hiring a super-DA. You're hiring a lawyer to protect the rights of the people of Colorado. And as attorney general, I want to make sure everyone knows what it means for me to be the people's lawyer."
What are the top priorities Weiser plans to tackle upon taking office early next year? "The opioid epidemic is crucially important," he begins. "I mentioned Alamosa County, and one person there — the sheriff, Robert Jackson — is running a jail where 92 percent of inmates are opioid users. We're putting opioid users in jail who need drug treatment. There's currently a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma that [outgoing Colorado Attorney General] Cynthia Coffman brought, and I'm committed to winning that action and quite possibly other related actions. And we need the money from those actions to support drug treatment, in order to help people rebuild their lives."
Additionally, Weiser feels that "other ways to address the opioid epidemic is allowing quicker licensing of drug treatment centers — and that's also going to relate to a more general conversation about criminal-justice reform. We need to look at how we're using our jails and prisons and how we can be smarter about it."
He's just as focused on preserving "the Affordable Care Act protection for pre-existing conditions." Reiterating a post-election comment he made to Colorado Public Radio, he says he expects to join a lawsuit against the State of Texas's latest effort to kill the ACA: "I've talked to people with pre-existing conditions, and they're scared. Coloradans want and need this important protection, and I will fight for it."
On the subject of water, Weiser notes that "before you know it, we're going to have to create a new framework for how we manage our obligations under the Colorado River Compact," a 1922 agreement between Colorado and six other Southwestern states regarding the allocation of water rights for this major waterway. "I need to get to work on that issue and help work with a range of stakeholders to develop new strategies to manage our water more effectively. We have less water in the era of climate change and more people, and I don't want there to be pressure on agricultural interests to give up their water rights because of that. This is going to require real innovation."
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Weiser acknowledges that prior to launching his campaign, he wasn't an expert on either water rights or the opioid epidemic, "but I've learned so much more since then about the issues that are important to people just by showing up and listening. In one of our election ads, we had this metaphor of a whiteboard that was about going out and listening to the public. But this is going to be more than a metaphor. It will be how I lead. I will make sure of that starting with forming a transition committee representative of the entire state of Colorado. But I'm also going to go out and listen to people and learn what's important to them. I need to learn from people what matters most to them and then work to address those issues."
He's optimistic that he'll be able to accomplish these goals.
"I'm inspired by the state of our democracy," he allows. "The numbers aren't final, but the Republican Attorneys General Association spent in the neighborhood of $6 million against me, mostly in attack ads. We spent far less than that and worked hard to build relationships and explain what I would do — and we won a people-powered campaign that was about addressing the issues of the state of Colorado. I view that as a victory for democracy and a sign of what the people of Colorado want. They don't want attacks. They want someone to roll up his sleeves and go to work for them."
During the campaign, Weiser recalls, "people would ask me, 'Why aren't you attacking more?' And my answer was, 'I believe in democracy — and if you want to lead, you need to tell people where you want to lead.' That set us up to govern on behalf of the people of Colorado."