AG Phil Weiser and challenger John Kellner debate in Denver
BY FREDA MIKLIN
The Eisenhower Chapel at 293 Roslyn Street in Denver was the setting of a debate between outgoing Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and the challenger 18e Judicial District Attorney John Kellner on Sept. 20. Journalist and author Todd Neff served as moderator.
Weiser was elected Colorado’s attorney general in 2018 and is seeking a second term. He holds a law degree from New York University and clerked for United States Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. He has also worked at the United States Department of Justice, the National Economic Council, and served as Dean of CU Law School.
Kellner was elected 18e Judicial District Attorney in 2020. He holds a law degree from the University of Colorado and spent five years as an active-duty United States Navy, where he served as an attorney and prosecutor. He served in Afghanistan, where he worked with local governments and elections. He is currently a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves.
The Colorado Attorney General has primary responsibility for consumer protection, antitrust, and the prosecution of complex white-collar crimes, as well as natural resources and environmental matters. The AG also serves as counsel for all departments of state government, administers the state grand jury, and serves as legal counsel and counsel to the governor. The office employs 480 people and has a budget of $70 million.
To the question “What will be your top three priorities for reducing crime?” Kellner said, “We’re number one in Colorado in auto theft, bank robbery, and cocaine use. We have the second highest rate of fentanyl overdose deaths in the country… One of the things that appalled me was seeing Phil advocate for a bill that would have essentially tied the hands of law enforcement order. It was nearly impossible for them to resort to arrest, rather than just issuing a ticket and a summons to someone for things like motor vehicle theft. I was appalled that he didn’t show up in 2019… when the legislator was talking about decriminalization (fentanyl and other drugs). So this bill passed, and now we find ourselves with over 900 Colorado residents having lost their lives to fentanyl. In my district, we have attacked the drug trafficking organizations that import this product, peddle this poison. We seized hundreds of thousands of fentanyl pills; It is estimated that 40% of these pills have a potentially lethal dose…”
Weiser’s answer to the question was, “The three strategies I use as Attorney General to advance the public good are, first, to work with the Legislature…I was the first Attorney General of the United States to testify for a bill dealing with online retail theft. . We pushed for a catalytic converter theft bill – in both cases, to shut down the middlemen, to prosecute these crimes. In the last session, we worked hard on a fentanyl bill, to get money for law enforcement and better tools. We will continue to work on this legislation intelligently and efficiently. He pointed out: “A very important fentanyl case (in which) we have dismantled an entire organization. Human trafficking – these are complex crimes… Auto theft – these crimes are prosecuted by district attorneys. If someone wants to pursue these cases, it is better that they stay where they are because that is not what the Attorney General does. He continued, “We also worked very hard on law enforcement… We don’t have enough law enforcement on the streets of our state. Twice I went to the Legislature to get more funding to help more people get into this important profession. I work to elevate and improve law enforcement training for the first time in 40 years, and to provide mental health support and emotional awareness to police officers who are in this traumatic line of work.
A question about a 2022 Colorado law that changed how those who distribute fentanyl are held accountable drew differing responses from candidates.
Weiser, who responded first, pointed to the fact that he worked with the legislature and “got any amount of pure fentanyl made illegal,” noting that when the drug is mixed with other drugs, it is more complicated to write laws that specifically specify how different amounts should be treated. He said his office had done everything in its power to convince lawmakers to toughen the sentences and that he wanted to see them toughened further. He pointed to a new offense in the legislation he called for that specifically punishes the distribution of fentanyl resulting in death. He also noted other tools contained in the bill that has been passed and signed into law, including funding for public awareness and prevention, the provision of Narcan, and drug treatment.
Kellner said: “I have been a strong believer that any amount of fentanyl, due to its lethal nature, should be a crime. I did not support the decriminalization of fentanyl and other hard drugs like methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine in 2019.” He said the idea of the law that punishes the distribution of fentanyl resulting in death is came from his office.
On the larger drug issue, Kellner faulted the federal government for not stopping drugs from crossing the southern border into the United States. Weiser said the drug problem is complex because it includes young people who are not drug addicts but take a pill they buy from a friend to help them sleep that turns out to contain a lethal dose of fentanyl. Weiser said he had heard criticism but no solution, adding: “We need smart, effective leadership. Last session, I worked intensely in the Legislative Assembly, literally until the last minute, to get this law passed…The work we did gained bipartisan support for our leadership in public safety. He noted that he was endorsed in this election by Cynthia Coffman, his predecessor as Colorado attorney general, who is a Republican.
Weiser also noted that his office held a San Luis Valley district attorney responsible for violating the Victims Rights Act, resulting in that district attorney’s resignation. (According to recent reports, that DA, Alonzo Payne, has since been disbarred from practicing law anywhere in Colorado).
When members of the public were allowed to ask questions, one person said to the candidates, “It looks like you agree on a lot of things, but Mr. Kellner…the things you disagree on agreement appear to be rooted in criminal prosecution; 90% of the Attorney General’s work is not a criminal prosecution. But that’s what you talk about almost exclusively on your site… That’s what you talked about tonight. That’s important, but what are the top three priorities other than criminal prosecution that would land you in this position? »
Kellner replied, “That’s right. I talk about public safety wherever I go because wherever I go it’s the thing that people are most concerned about and I think it’s something that Phil has failed to lead. I think he advocated for offender-friendly legislation that has caused, in large part, the mess we find ourselves in right now…He advocated for a bill that now allows convicted criminals like traffickers to drugs and car thieves to have guns again. When the questioner pressed Kellner on his initial question about his priorities in other areas, he named water issues, including the Colorado River Compact, consumer fraud protection and government failure. federal government to secure the country’s southern border as priorities.
Weiser described his top three priorities that are not specifically related to criminal behavior as follows: “First, to defend our civil rights, including our reproductive rights; second, to defend aggrieved consumers; number three, protect our land, air and water, and a bonus, the opioid epidemic. He also responded to Kellner’s statements, denying that he had advocated for less severe penalties for car thieves, explaining that the law that was passed “passed unanimously in the Senate and supported by every DA “. Kellner chimed in, “It wasn’t supported by me.”
Weiser also pushed back on another of Kellner’s accusations, saying, “I don’t want car thieves to have guns. It was a consensus bill that was introduced and that was all that was votable. Let’s work on a new bill. That’s what I’m doing right now.” Turning to the audience, he said, “You deserve answers. We deserve an honest campaign.
When it was all over, the contestants politely shook hands and the 125 people who came to hear them showed their appreciation with hearty applause. Ballots for the November 8 election will start arriving in mailboxes on October 17.