COVER STORY | Energy, environment at forefront of Colo. AG’s race
Author: David O. Williams - September 5, 2018 - Updated: September 18, 2018
From standing up to President Donald Trump to gun control, there are a lot of issues where George Brauchler and Phil Weiser diverge dramatically.
But there’s no starker distinction between the two candidates for Colorado attorney general than on the twin topics of energy and the environment.
And it’s over those issues that Brauchler and Weiser differ sharply on the legacy of their predecessor, Cynthia Coffman.
The fall election pits Republican Brauchler, the 18th Judicial District attorney since 2013 and the man who prosecuted Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, against Democrat Weiser, a former dean of the University of Colorado Law School and Justice Department official in the Clinton and Obama administrations.
In lengthy interviews with Colorado Politics, the two men often returned to their differences over energy and environmental issues — and their views of outgoing AG Coffman.
From former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, to prioritizing public health and the environment in oil and gas drilling, to federal methane emissions rules that were based on Colorado law, Republican Coffman often butted heads with term-limited Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. Coffman is leaving office after failing to gain her party’s nomination for governor.
“Cynthia Coffman is a very political attorney general,” said Weiser, a former clerk to U.S. Supreme Court justices Byron R. White and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “We cannot allow our institutions here in Colorado to be corrupted by someone who operates with a political agenda. We need to build trust in our government and in our legal institutions.”
Weiser slammed Coffman for going against Hickenlooper to sue the Environmental Protection Agency to block the Clean Power Plan — which former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt moved to dismantle anyway. He also criticized her for appealing a March 2017 court decision in the Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission case giving the nod to public health in drilling operations, and for failing to back the governor in his bid to compel federal oversight of methane emissions.
“We need an attorney general who’s elected for the people of Colorado, who works on the issues that matter for Colorado, and Colorado cares about clean air, clean water and public lands,” Weiser said. “I’ve talked to people in Colorado, and that’s what Coloradans want.”
But Brauchler said that Coffman made the right call on both the appeal of the Martinez case and the Clean Power Plan lawsuit.
The Trump administration on Aug. 21 announced a less-restrictive alternative to the Obama plan called the “Affordable Clean Energy Rule”.
“The Clean Power Plan was a significant federal overreach,” Brauchler said. “Remember, this wasn’t something that Congress passed or that the state legislature weighed in on. This was one bureaucratic agency 1,500 miles from here deciding how we were going to govern ourselves.”
The Martinez case centered on young environmental activists suing the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to prioritize public health and the environment in the approval and regulation of drilling operations. A district judge ruled for the state, but an appeals court overturned that decision, and the case is now being weighed by the state supreme court.
“We have a series of laws that are administered really through the COGCC, and that structure is in place not by edict or by an executive order,” Brauchler said. “That structure is in place by a legislative design. That means we, through our representatives, had a chance to weigh in on that.
“And frankly, we have one of the most rigorous regulatory structures in the United States of America for oil and gas exploration and development.”
‘Dark money’ vs. out-of-state fundraising
Weiser contends Brauchler’s pro-industry approach to energy extraction in Colorado stems from the same group that helped put Coffman in office with an injection of nearly $2.6 million in campaign spending in 2014: The Republican Attorneys General Association.
“To put a finer point on this, (it’s) dark money,” Weiser said. “The Republican Attorneys General Association — at that point led by Scott Pruitt — with a lawsuit led by Scott Pruitt (against the EPA) that (Coffman) agreed to join.”
Now, Weiser contends, RAGA is ready to spend much more to help get Brauchler elected.
Colorado Freedom, an independent expenditure committee funded by RAGA, spent $512,000 in July in support of the Brauchler campaign, most of it on advertising. And “RAGA has threatened to spend up to $5 million.” Weiser said.
“Dark money. We can say with a high level of confidence that it’s mostly out-of-state corporations, and from past investigative work we can also say that we know the NRA is there, and that the Koch brothers are there, pharmaceutical companies have been there,” Weiser said of RAGA’s funders.
Brauchler fires back that Weiser raised huge amounts of out-of-state cash in his primary victory over state Rep. Joe Salazar – a race in which Weiser outraised Salazar by more than $1 million but only won by a few thousand votes.
“This is a guy who raised more money from outside of the state of Colorado for his primary than any AG candidate in the history of the state of Colorado,” Brauchler said of Weiser. “In fact, he raised out of state three times the money than Joe Salazar raised for his entire campaign. This is a guy who spent more money to win his primary — $1.4 million – than the entire AG’s race from 2014, both sides, (and) than the entire AG’s race from 2010, both sides.”
(Brauchler ran unopposed in the GOP primary.)
Weiser says there’s a good explanation for his out-of-state fundraising for the primary. He grew up on the East Coast, the son of a Holocaust survivor mother who was born at Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany the day before it was liberated by the U.S. Army during World War II. He moved to Colorado after law school at New York University.
“At my out-of-state fundraiser, you’ll see my dad beaming in the first row, and the honest-to-God truth is I went to New York for my daughter’s debate camp, to visit my parents and a professor of mine from law school, and my parents said, ‘We want to have a fundraiser and raise some money,’” Weiser said. “All of those donors who gave me money are disclosed on my reports. That is not comparable to out-of-state companies who we don’t even know who they are who are giving unlimited amounts. “
Brauchler again discounted Weiser’s shot at RAGA spending in Colorado.
“To suggest that, ‘Hey, I’m really scared of the money that’s coming into this race and where it’s coming from,’ one, I can’t control any third-party efforts, and my guess is the Democratic Attorneys General Association — that has called Colorado one of their key pick-up states — they’re going to invest heavily in this race, too,” Brauchler said.
As for post-primary fundraising, according to campaign finance reports filed Aug. 1 and covering July, Braucher raised just over $30,000 on his own that month, while Weiser raised $252,710. Weiser had $267,346 on hand heading into August; Brauchler trailed slightly, at $232,718.
An independent expenditure committee that supports Weiser, Justice Colorado, had raised $89,370 as of the Aug. 1 report but cited no donations in July.
Weiser says outside spending by 501(c)3 groups has corrupted the political process and is doing lasting damage to our democracy. He wants to help pass a law similar to Montana’s Disclose Act, which mandates transparency. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, many of the donors to RAGA and its Democratic equivalent can maintain anonymity, he adds.
“It is one of my top agenda (items). Right up there with (dealing with) the opioid epidemic, getting rid of dark money in our politics is at the top of my list, and we have to win the state Senate, too, or we have to find people who hold principle above party,” Weiser said. “Dark money is about democracy; it’s not about party politics. We should win or lose elections fair and square without dark money, without gerrymandering, without voter suppression, without cyberattacks.”
Brauchler, a CU Law School grad who grew up in Lakewood, says he’s trying to raise the bulk of his campaign cash from inside the state and that, again, he can’t control outside, third-party expenditures.
“That’s how a candidate should raise money — not on the East Coast, not on the West Coast,” Brauchler said.
On the contentious issue of gun control, the candidates agree on one key approach and differ on another.
Brauchler and Weiser both favor another try at passing a “red flag” bill — one allowing firearms to be seized from a person deemed an imminent risk under a court order — after an attempt failed in this year’s state legislative session. Brauchler had testified in favor of the bill.
But Brauchler opposes the 2013 state law limiting firearm magazine capacity to 15 rounds; Weiser disagrees.
In the wake of President Trump’s pivotal and still hotly debated July 16 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, both Brauchler and Weiser expressed varying degrees of concern about Trump’s behavior. But the two candidates differed substantially on whether a state AG can or should even try to do anything about it.
“As Americans, we have to fight for our democracy and we have to condemn an attack on our democracy, which is what Russia did,” Weiser said. “They want to undermine our democracy, and to have the United States president stand with Putin and say, ‘I believe him’, and fail to condemn this conduct is shocking.”
Weiser, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Obama administration’s Justice Department, pointed to the July 14 indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller of 12 Russian intelligence officers in the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton presidential campaign.
“Where are our leaders – George Brauchler, (Sen.) Cory Gardner, others – condemning Trump’s actions? Because this is a moment like Watergate when the rule of law and democracy are challenged,” he said.
Gardner, a Republican, has strongly condemned Russia without directly criticizing Trump.
“When the president acts as if the president’s above the rule of law, when the president acts in a way that is accepting threats to our democracy, others step up and fill the breach,” Weiser added. “A state AG can fill that breach in a few ways. First, moral authority matters here. We’ve got to call out unacceptable conduct and we can’t normalize it.”
Weiser added that the state AG can guard against more election meddling at the state level, while Brauchler argued that it’s not the state AG’s role to take on Trump.
“Phil wants to use the state AG’s office as a soapbox to comment on the president’s international diplomacy,” Brauchler said. “I don’t think the state attorney general has a single role to play in international diplomacy.”
But Brauchler, a colonel in the Colorado Army National Guard who’s twice been mobilized for active duty – including a tour in Iraq – said he is greatly troubled by what he saw from Trump in Helsinki.
“As somebody who’s in the military and as just a citizen, yeah, I am concerned about some of the things that appear to be developing in terms of our relationship with our historic allies and some of the things that went on at … this summit that took place with Putin,” Brauchler said.
“It concerns me greatly when any member of the executive branch seems to take issue with our own country’s intelligence versus the position of someone who has been an historic opponent or adversary of us, especially one where the issue is meddling in our elections,” Brauchler added. “That troubles me greatly.”
However, Brauchler said Weiser is grandstanding.
“It is a matter of political expedience and hyper-partisanship to suggest that as state AG I’m going to go out there and talk a bunch of smack about the president because that’s what the AG does,” Brauchler said. “The state AG exists to protect the state of Colorado and Coloradans by enforcing their laws and their constitution. That’s what the state AG does.”
It was revealed in September 2017 that Colorado was one of 21 “purple states” with fairly even numbers of Republicans and Democrats that were targeted by social media influence campaigns run by Russian troll farms. In February, Mueller indicted several Russians in connection with those efforts, which were apparently unsuccessful in Colorado.
“We have to make sure that elections operate with integrity, so resist cyberattacks and resist other attacks like dark money,” Weiser said. “There are apparently still questions about how much money the Russians were trying to put into our elections in different ways, shapes and forms. This was a sophisticated campaign.
“I will be fully looking into that. It’s an effort where you need both the (Colorado) secretary of state and an attorney general working together on this issue,” Weiser added. “It is foundational.”
Brauchler concurs that protecting state elections is a key function of the state AG’s office.
“If the question is, does the state AG have a role in trying to defend our own election process by enforcing our own laws, absolutely — against foreign and domestic, I get that,” Brauchler said, adding that’s the extent of the AG’s involvement in foreign policy. He pointed out that one of Weiser’s primary campaign ads focused on Trump’s election and how to counter his policies.
“(Weiser) is a guy who’s defined his candidacy by the election of a president,” Brauchler said. “It sounds like he’s going to define his time in office, if he’s elected, by this same president. I think Colorado deserves better than that. I think Colorado deserves somebody who’s invested in protecting Colorado regardless of who’s in the White House.”