Oct 25, 2022 - News

Public safety dominates Colorado attorney general race

Photo illustration of Incumbent Phil Weiser and John Kellner

Phil Weiser and John Kellner. Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photos: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post via Getty Images

Rising crime is playing a central role in Colorado's attorney general race between incumbent Democrat Phil Weiser and Republican John Kellner.

Why it matters: The two candidates have starkly competing visions for the future of public safety, forcing voters to make a clear call on what they want in the state's chief law enforcement officer.

The big picture: Law enforcement reform has been a key focus for Weiser, who has backed efforts to improve officer recruitment and training, as well as advocated for the state's Red Flag law to curb gun violence.

  • Kellner — the district attorney of the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties — is campaigning on "a return to some of the common sense safety policies" that crack down harder on crime.

Zoom in: Kellner disagrees with several pieces of state legislation supported by Weiser, including a 2020 law that eliminates qualified immunity for police officers.

  • "There are a couple of bad apples out there, and we weed them out," Kellner said during a debate this year. "But, writ large, I think the police in Colorado do a dangerous and difficult job … to the very best of their abilities."
  • Kellner also argues that Weiser has been too soft when it comes to fentanyl drug dealers and auto thefts.

What they're saying: "Do you feel safer today than you did four years ago when my opponent was elected to be the chief law enforcement officer? All across the state, I've heard that resounding answer being 'no.' And they are ready for a change," Kellner said last week during a 9News debate.

The other side: Weiser's latest TV ad looks to shift the conversation and criticizes Kellner for standing "against gun safety laws" — a nod to the National Rifle Association endorsing him — and attacks Kellner for calling him "soft on crime."

  • "Phil has been a partner with law enforcement. He's tackled the opioid crisis, cracked down on drug cartels, defended our gun safety laws, and led on officer recruitment, retention and training," Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle says in the commercial.

Reality check: The ability of the Colorado attorney general's office to prosecute crime is limited. Most cases taken up by the AG must encompass several counties or affect the entire state, like organized crime rings — leaving most criminal jurisdiction to local district attorneys.

By the numbers: Kellner's judicial district saw a 12% increase in crime against persons between 2020 and 2021, compared to an 8% increase statewide, the Denver Post reports.

  • Kellner's judicial district also saw higher increases in property crime and sex offenses.

What to watch: Many pundits expect Democrats to retain most of their seats this election — but they believe the races could be close.

  • From rising crime to the economy and inflation, "there's a lot of things leaning in favor of Republicans in Colorado," Paul Teske, CU Denver dean of the School of Public Affairs, told the Denver Post.

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