AURORA | Democrat incumbent Phil Weiser and Republican attorney general candidate John Kellner went head to head on everything from police reform to abortion access at a sprawling forum this week.
Sen. Rhonda Fields billed the Tuesday night event at the Community College of Aurora, which was sponsored in part by Sentinel Colorado and 9News, not as a debate but as an opportunity for each candidate to answer questions posed by journalists and the public.
That didn’t stop Kellner from repeatedly challenging Weiser’s commitment to justice for crime victims, and the two candidates jabbed at each other throughout the night.
Weiser framed his understanding of justice in the context of his grandparents’ decision to immigrate to America after they were freed from a Nazi concentration camp, and named as an inspiration former U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who he once clerked for.
Priorities for Weiser in what would be his second term include defending the state’s gun control laws against legal challenges and promoting stricter regulations, specifically around gun storage, along with protecting children from social media companies and the vaping industry, and standing up for voting rights.
While Kellner accused Weiser of taking a “lax approach to crime and public safety,” Weiser bragged about recent courtroom victories, such as the successful prosecution of a burglary ring that targeted Asian-American business owners and a $1.85 billion concession from student loan company Navient to borrowers in dozens of states for alleged predatory lending.
“Our democracy is not a spectator sport. It’s a team sport,” Weiser said. “The reason I want to continue is because we’ve got more work to do. We’ve made extraordinary progress. We’ve built a great team I’m proud of, and I want to see that work through.”
Kellner grew up in a military family but said the Sept. 11 attacks were ultimately what steered him toward a career serving his country — for five years, he served active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a deployment to Afghanistan as a deputy judge advocate, before returning to Colorado to work as a prosecutor.
Voters narrowly picked Kellner for the job of 18th Judicial District attorney in 2020. The district encompasses most of Aurora. He said he was motivated to run for state office by what he described as Weiser’s office’s failure to address a statewide spike in crime.
Data maintained by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that, between 2018 and 2021, the state’s murder rate increased from about 0.39 for every 10,000 residents to 0.63, while the motor vehicle theft rate climbed from 40.25 to 72.35.
Kellner specifically denounced Weiser’s support of certain general assembly bills, including proposals on bail reform and car theft, which he said impacted the state’s ability to control crime.
“Crime is crushing Coloradans,” Kellner said. “It is soft-on-crime policies and laws that have been signed into law by Gov. (Jared) Polis and many times championed by people like Phil Weiser that have led us to where we are when it comes to crime.”
Kellner and other Colorado Republicans have on several occasions made the charge against recent reforms. Democratic opponents repeatedly push back, saying Republicans have not provided any vetted data showing that sentencing changes and bail reform are fueling the spike in crime.
Colorado’s top attorney is largely removed from the prosecution of street crime but is empowered to pursue a handful of more complex and white-collar crimes, including fraud, human trafficking, multi-jurisdictional organized crime and homicides related to the drug trade.
The attorney’s office also litigates consumer protection cases, oversees the certification of police officers in the state and represents state agencies in court, among other duties.
When asked what he would do as attorney general to tackle the state’s auto theft problem, Kellner said he wanted to create an auto task force and advocate for harsher penalties for thefts regardless of vehicle value — right now, state law defines theft of a car worth less than $2,000 as a misdemeanor, while stealing more expensive cars is a felony.
Weiser spoke about his office’s work to tackle organized crime through Operation Vicious Cycle and other efforts, and support district attorneys in local prosecutions. He also said he worked with legislators on proposals to curb catalytic converter theft.
“The bottom line is we’re going to need collaboration — learning from what works, seeing what doesn’t work and working together to hold people accountable who are stealing these cars,” Weiser said.
“In fact, last week, someone tried to steal our car, and so, this is clearly a widespread challenge that we have to work on together, and we’re going to solve it by looking at data, not by baseless attacks.”
Locally, Aurora’s City Council has tried to address the problem of motor vehicle thefts with a mandatory minimum sentencing ordinance advanced by the conservative majority.
Some of the questions asked Tuesday had to do with police reform and how aggressive Weiser and Kellner were willing to be in their pursuit of accountability for law enforcement.
The attorney general’s office has a unique relationship with the Aurora Police Department in particular because of the consent decree agreement reached between Aurora police, firefighters and the state last year.
The consent decree establishes mandatory police and fire reforms for Aurora to implement, based on the results of an investigation by Weiser’s office which found that, prior to and after the death of Elijah McClain, police were using force disproportionately against people of color and paramedics administered sedatives inappropriately.
Weiser mentioned the decree as a specific example of how representatives of the criminal justice system were being held accountable for misbehavior.
He also pointed to his office’s recent investigation into victims’ rights violations by the DA’s office serving the San Luis Valley, which led to that DA’s resignation last month. Weiser also said his office is also redesigning police training to prioritize de-escalation.
Kellner said he, too, believed it is incumbent on the state’s POST board to develop clear training standards for police. He said he was already holding police accountable as district attorney, mentioning the case of John Haubert, a former Aurora cop charged with felony assault and menacing for pistol-whipping and choking a man last year.
The DA said he is prosecuting Haubert’s case “to the fullest extent of the law.” While after the forum Kellner said he recognized the ongoing need for reform at APD, he told the audience at the forum that “writ large, I think police in Colorado do a dangerous and difficult job, and they do it to the best of their abilities.”
The consent decree leaves open the possibility that it can be modified if both the city and the state attorney general’s office sign off on the changes, but Kellner also said after the forum that he did not have plans to change the terms of the agreement.
On the topic of opioids and addiction, virtually plaguing Colorado currently, Weiser described his efforts along with other attorneys general across the country to finalize settlements that could net Colorado more than $500 million from companies involved in the sale of prescription painkillers.
Weiser said the settlement dollars are being used to open up the San Luis Valley’s first opioid treatment center. He also described his office’s involvement in enforcement actions against drug traffickers and said he would advocate for more resources for interdiction.
“But that’s not going to be enough. We can’t arrest our way out of this crisis. We also need to give people pathways to recovery, to treatment, and I’ve done that,” Weiser said.
Weiser and Kellner had a brief back-and-forth after Kellner said the settlement money was insufficient and accused Weiser of settling for less due to the influence of pharmaceutical industry lobbyists, which Weiser called a “baseless attack.”
Kellner also described indictments and other efforts to curb drug trafficking in the 18th Judicial District, which led to the seizure of hundreds of thousands of illegal opioid pills along with firearms and explosives.
He said he would use “every tool in my toolbox as a prosecutor and as a crimefighter” to punish traffickers, including the state’s grand jury system. He also mentioned that his office opened a new diversion office in Aurora last year that in part serves adults dealing with drug addiction.
“We’ve got folks who are struggling with addiction that need help … but then we also need to be realistic about where this poison is coming from, and how it’s getting here, and then we need a crimefighter, somebody like me, to actually tackle it on a statewide basis,” he said.
When asked whether they supported the state’s so-called “red flag law” — which allows family members, roommates and law enforcement to petition a court to order a person who they believe poses a threat to turn over their firearms — Weiser and Kellner both said they did.
Kellner said he has told other Republicans that declaring a county to be a “Second Amendment sanctuary” where the red flag law will not be enforced is contrary to the rule of law.
“We just passed 10 years since the Aurora theater massacre. I’m often asked that question, ‘What would you do?’ And I have to say this truthfully: Look, if I knew that there was a man with orange hair who was threatening to kill a crowd full of people in my community, and I had some way to prevent that from happening, you’re darn right I’d use that tool,” Kellner said, adding that the law was an effective public safety tool, even though he thought it could be “improved.”
The two also fielded questions on abortion access in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and the Colorado General Assembly’s passage of the Reproductive Health Equity Act earlier this year.
Weiser said he would uphold RHEA and sue any county trying to block abortion access, and would also defend any person sued by another state for providing or receiving an abortion in Colorado.
“I was trained by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the concept of equal protection under the law and reproductive healthcare, whose decisions should be made by women, is something that is deeply in my commitment, and I will continue to fight hard to protect reproductive rights,” he said.
Kellner said he supported the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe and that he and his wife had decided they would not abort a child, but he said he was committed to upholding the legislature’s guarantee of abortion access.
“As somebody who supports the Dobbs decision returning this back to the states to make a decision, it’s also important to recognize that Colorado, through its legislature, has spoken on the issue,” he said. “And frankly the people have spoken on the issue multiple times at the ballot box, as well.”
Besides Kellner and Weiser, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s website, Robert Barbrady of the American Constitution Party, libertarian William Robinson and independent Carter Rogers are also running for state attorney general.
Colorado’s general election will take place Nov. 8.