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Colorado attorney general candidates debate public safety, role of office in first exchange

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Colorado attorney general candidates debate public safety, role of office in first exchange

Aug 03, 2022 | 5:42 pm ET
By Sara Wilson
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Colorado attorney general candidates debate public safety, role of office in first exchange
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District Attorney John Kellner, left, Attorney General Phil Weiser, right. (File photos)

Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser and his Republican opponent John Kellner faced off in their first debate of the general election campaign season Tuesday night, sparring over questions on civil rights, firearm control and public safety.

Kellner, the 18th Judicial District attorney, asserted that crime like car thefts, bank robberies and drug crime is “crushing Coloradans” and his real-life courtroom experience is a better alternative than a second Weiser term.

​​“What we truly need to get out of this crisis is somebody who has fought for victims in the courtroom, someone who truly understands how these policies are impacting people in our communities. Mr. Weiser has not had that opportunity,” Kellner said in his closing argument during the debate, which was held at the Community College of Aurora and hosted by Democratic state Sen. Rhonda Fields.

“This November, there is a question on the ballot. It is whether you feel safer now than four years ago when Mr. Weiser was elected,” he said.

Weiser, on the other hand, argued that the strong foundation he built during his first term will set him up to continue working on issues like settling with opioid companies, advocating for firearm restrictions and fighting for consumer protections. He emphasized the wide range of issues the attorney general’s office focuses on as the top law enforcement official in the state.

“Your voting rights, your civil rights, your reproductive rights, your consumer rights, your public safety, your steps against gun violence, your strategy to fight the opioid epidemic, protecting our land and water in the right way — it’s all on the ballot in this office. And the reason I want to continue is because we’ve got more work to do,” he said.

Faced with a question over whether they would enforce Colorado’s recently-passed Reproductive Health Equity Act, both men said they would. Kellner said that despite his support of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, he said that the rule of law acts as his “North Star.”

“It’s important to recognize that Colorado, through its Legislature, has spoken on this issue,” he said. “As the AG, I can commit to you that I will defend the law.”

Weiser, who spoke of his time clerking for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, committed to take action against any Colorado county that tries to pass an ordinance undermining RHEA, bring any state to court that tries to criminalize a doctor or patient seeking care in Colorado and fight against any movement to overturn the law.

Colorado attorney general candidates debate public safety, role of office in first exchange
Aurora police form a line at City Center Park in Aurora during a protest on June 27, 2020, in response to the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police. (Photo by John Moore)

Fields pushed the candidates at the end of the debate to answer a question specifically about police brutality and bias against Black and brown people, after the candidates gave surface-level answers to an earlier question on the topic.

Weiser spoke about the need to show up in every community as both a candidate and elected official, and to engage communities like the Black church in finding solutions. He said he wants to boost “emotional awareness” in police officer training and use his office’s power to investigate law enforcement agencies’ patterns and practices.

Kellner, who spoke about the existence a few “bad apples” in the police force, was clear in his support for law enforcement while also emphasizing that the attorney general needs to set clear expectations for officers in order to hold them accountable. He mentioned the establishment of a hate crime unit in his office.

Both candidates support Colorado’s red flag law, though Kellner said it can be refined.

As Weiser touted the money his office has secured for the state in various opioid settlements — about $400 million — Kellner pushed back and said it is not significant enough to address the harm caused by opioid addiction. Weiser stood firm in calling the money a success and said he wants more time to further remedy the crisis.

“As an attorney general, I have delivered on this and I want another term to see this work through: to build the treatment, education and recovery we need,” Weiser said.