In the race to be the Democratic candidate for attorney general, a self-described progressive faces off against a former Obama Administration member who doesn’t care for the establishment candidate tag. It’s the kind of primary fight we’re seeing frequently in Colorado this cycle (see the CD1 and CD6 primary candidates), featuring progressive voices versus establishments ones.
And just like those other races, we won’t really know how much support either candidate has until next Tuesday’s election.
In one corner, you have Rep. Joe Salazar, a born-and-raised Denverite with roots in the San Luis Valley. In the other, there’s former University of Colorado Law School Dean Phil Weiser, a New York native who has called Colorado home since the early 1990s and has worked for two federal branches in his career. Both see their roles as having a significant impact on protecting local laws and regulations, and if need be, fend off policies enacted by President Trump’s administration.
Weiser picked up a giant endorsement this week from the party’s top figure when Gov. John Hickenlooper made the rare decision to publicly support Weiser in the primary. In a video announcing the endorsement, Hickenlooper lauds Weiser for something he’s quick to point out distinguishes him from his opponent: His commitment to running a clean campaign.
“To have him say that I’m the person to be attorney general is a very meaningful endorsement of what my campaign’s been about,” Weiser said. “I’m qualified to be attorney general. He knows how important this office is and his voice can help me explain that to people of Colorado.”
Salazar’s got a heavy-hitter on his side, too. Former presidential candidate and progressive poster boy U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed Salazar in April. It’s the kind of move that boosts his progressive cred and clearly illustrates the divide between him and Weiser. Sanders won Colorado’s Democratic caucus in 2016, which Salazar said proves the state is headed in a new direction.
“Moderate doesn’t win Colorado anymore, it’s the progressive left that wins Colorado,” Salazar said. “The idea that you have to be moderate to win the state of Colorado, those are the archaic ideas of Ken Salazar and John Hickenlooper of yesteryear.”
Salazar, whose campaign manager says he’s a distant cousin of former Colorado AG and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar (who endorsed Weiser), has been vocal about why he thinks he’s a better fit than Weiser — because Weiser’s not from here. Salazar believes being a native son gives him an advantage among voters. (Update: During an interview this week and first references in this story, Salazar initially suggested he was related to Ken Salazar because the Salazar’s from the San Luis Valley are related. However, when his campaign was pressed Thursday on whether or not they’re related, Salazar’s campaign said he’s unclear what the relation is, but they’re not not close relatives at all.)
“They’re caring about it, because they’re saying, ‘What does Phil know about Colorado?’” Salazar said. “He’s never been anywhere outside his academic bubble. So even if he was here a decade, no one has ever seen him ever.”
Weiser said he moved from the East Coast to Colorado in 1994 to clerk for a federal judge. He admits he’s had a few “detours” from the state, leaving the state to work for the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1990s and then taking a job in Justice Department under President Clinton. He returned to Colorado to work as a professor before leaving for Washington again in 2009 to work in the Obama Administration’s Justice Department’s antitrust division.
Weiser has never run for public office before, which he said, “means I’m an outsider.” He’s currently a professor at the CU Law School, teaching technology and constitutional law.
“I am committed to running a clean campaign,” Weiser said. “You won’t hear me criticize Joe Salazar’s record, you won’t hear me take any attacks on him. He’s an important voice in our party. I like him, respect him. I believe I’m the better choice to be attorney general and the principal reason is I’ve got proven leadership experiences.”
Weiser said among the biggest challenges in his campaign is many people don’t really know what the attorney general does. During general elections, the AG slot is sometimes overlooked: During the 2014 election, about 92,000 fewer votes were cast for attorney general than for governor. That’s about 4.5 percent out of the 2 million or so votes for governor.
“The attorney general needs to be the lawyer for the people of Colorado and the lawyer for the state of Colorado,” Weiser said. “Right now, our current attorney general has been an ambitious politician who has played political games with the office.”
The candidates vow to fight for Colorado’s recreational and medicinal marijuana laws, among other state policies.
The two candidates namechecked the Tenth Amendment and states’ rights. Weiser said he will work to defend against any federal government overreach, which will include not allowing the feds to use state or local law enforcement to enforce federal laws.
This will apply to both enforcing federal policies on weed (where it’s still illegal) and immigration, meaning Weiser won’t request departments collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
Salazar’s plan is similar, but he would take things a step further into some territory that will make Republicans groan really, really loudly. He wants to follow the blueprint created by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
“He’s already issued letters to the local governments as well as the to the state government saying that if you engage, if you use any of California’s taxpayers’ resources to assist ICE, and immigration enforcement, I will sue you,” Salazar said. “That’s what I’m going to do here in the state of Colorado. We’re not in the business of immigration enforcement.”
Salazar wants to develop a good working relationship with Colorado’s U.S. Attorney General office, “to once again re-emphasize with the federal government that the people of the state of Colorado voted, quite overwhelmingly, in favor of both medical and recreational cannabis.” He said he wants to ensure the marijuana industry continues to thrive in the state.
Other areas Weiser said he will work to support: net neutrality, defending the Affordable Care Act and pushing for rules protecting the state’s air, land and water. Salazar also said he wants to protect the state’s natural resources, work on criminal justice reform and develop stronger ties with the American Indian tribal governments in southern Colorado (Salazar said his great-grandmothers were both Apache).
Speaking on his motivation for running, Weiser said it was the combination of Trump’s election to the presidency and the “urgency” of the moment.
“The very concept of the rule of law and our democracy, I believe, is in the balance,” Weiser said. He continued: “The attorney general’s office position matters. I’ve looked at this position and thought, ‘Do I need to step-up and run for this job?’ And my conclusion is yes, I do.”
Salazar believes he is more qualified for the office based on his track record, which he said extends decades. “Phil is just showing up … he’s just showing up because Trump got elected,” Salazar said.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, fighting for people, for 25 or plus years now. So that’s what makes me markedly different than Phil Weiser,” Salazar said.
Oddly enough, Salazar graduated from CU a year before Weiser moved to Colorado. Salazar said he cut his progressive teeth in college, where he led protest marches and joined community activism. His first job out college was working as an investigator for the Colorado civil rights division, which he did until 1999. He switched to criminal investigations for the state’s insurance division before attending the Sturm College of Law at DU.
He’s still got the activist spirit in him: He was at the Capitol this week, demanding Hickenlooper take action against the much-criticized family separation policy practiced by the Trump Administration. Salazar was critical of the executive order later signed by Hick.
“It’s a lot more bark than there is any bite to it,” Salazar said. “Before Trump got elected, and I anticipated that he would, I started working on the Ralph Carr Freedom Defense Act. That bill actually had teeth in it to prohibit the state and local governments from assisting immigration authorities anywhere in the state of Colorado.”
Salazar said he “practically begged” Hickenlooper’s office to help pass the bill, but it didn’t work.
Weiser — the child of Polish immigrants who survived the Holocaust — supported Hickenlooper’s executive order.
“Hick and I, and this his point about why he believes an attorney general needs to be with the right values and leadership, immigration, marijuana, the methane rule, the Dreamers, the Affordable Care Act, all of these issues depend on an Attorney General’s willingness and ability to fight for Colorado,” Weisier said.
This story has been updated to clarify Joe Salazar’s stated relationship to Ken Salazar.