Jun 6, 2024 - Election

Denver's district attorney candidates offer competing visions

Denver district attorney candidates John Walsh, center, and Leora Joseph, right, attended a debate Thursday. Photo: John Frank/Axios

Denver district attorney candidates John Walsh, center, and Leora Joseph, right, attended a debate yesterday. Photo: John Frank/Axios

In the first major debate of the campaign, Leora Joseph and John Walsh offered competing visions for the role of the next district attorney in Denver, raising the stakes in a race that's splitting the Democratic Party.

Why it matters: The two candidates asserted in a debate Thursday — moderated by Axios Denver and hosted by civic group Better Together Denver — that the implications of the race are monumental.

  • Walsh said the city needs to get crime under control to preserve its reputation, while Joseph said the community needs to renew its belief in the criminal justice system.

State of play: Joseph, a career prosecutor who now works for the state's behavioral health agency, outlined a tougher-on-crime approach and pledged "to do everything differently," saying that she's "hearing a cry — a loud cry for massive change."

  • As the candidate endorsed by the Denver police union, she said prosecutors and law enforcement "need to be rowing in the same boat" and pledged to repair the current relationship, which she described as frayed.
  • At the same time, she pledged to hold police officers accountable through the creation of a new "director of police accountability" position.

What she's saying: "I think we need to enforce laws. I want to be very clear about that," Joseph said, before adding the caveat that every case is different.

The other side: Walsh, a former U.S. attorney appointed by President Obama, is endorsed by outgoing District Attorney Beth McCann and took issue with the suggestion that he represents incremental change.

  • He said the office needs to "double down" on violent crime, more aggressively target fentanyl drug dealers and create a task force to focus on auto and catalytic converter thefts.
  • At the same time, he wants to expand drug and mental health courts that are designed to divert defendants into treatment programs rather than sending them to jail.

What he's saying: "I think we do need change. I got into this race because I was concerned about the direction the city was going," he said.

Friction point: The debate — which comes as primary election ballots land in mailboxes — revealed a tense mood between the candidates that came to a head when Walsh asked Joseph why she didn't want to remain at the state to fix problems with the state's mental health system.

  • "I'm concerned about that question because for so many years men have been telling women what to do," she retorted.

The intrigue: Joseph said she is not in favor of sanctioned sites that allow for the use of illegal drugs in a supervised setting because it led to more overdoses, while Walsh said he was open to a pilot program to help address the fentanyl crisis and get people who are addicted help.

The big picture: In terms of vision, Joseph said her No. 1 priority is "making sure victims feel heard and supported," citing the difficult cases of sexual assault and human trafficking she has handled as a prosecutor.

  • "There are victims that need to be believed and they need our support," she said.

Walsh said his top priority is youth violent crime, citing guns in schools and recent school shootings at East High School, where his children previously attended.

  • He said intervention programs are needed, as well as "firmly [enforcing] the law by making sure we are identifying the people who are pulling the triggers … and getting them off the street."
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