Republican George Brauchler, the district attorney who prosecuted the Aurora theater shooter, officially launched his campaign for governor of Colorado on Wednesday.
Declaring that he will be the grassroots conservative in what could be a crowded GOP primary field, Brauchler said he intends to bring leadership to a state that has languished under what’s amounted to mere management by a succession of Democratic governors.
“I’ll be a governor who will be willing to expend political capitol to pursue the things I believe in,” the 47-year-old prosecutor and colonel in the Colorado Army National Guard told The Colorado Statesman on Tuesday.
“It’s pretty clear that I am the conservative in this race, and I bring those conservative values and thoughts to the role government should play in people’s lives at the state level to that office,” he said.
“And I bring leadership to the office,” he continued, “whether it’s as the district attorney of the biggest district attorney’s office in the state of Colorado that serves the largest population or as a colonel in the military, I bring leadership to this office at a time when, really, what we’ve had for the past 10 years or so has been management. I think that what we need is something more than management — we need leadership.”
Brauchler joins two declared Republican candidates — former state Rep. Victor Mitchell of Castle Rock and Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter III — in the race to take over from Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who faces term limits after next year’s election.
Long spoken of as one of the state GOP’s top potential statewide candidates — he considered challenging Hickenlooper in 2014 and decided against a run for the U.S. Senate last year — Brauchler has been considered a star since soon after winning the first of two terms as district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, encompassing Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, in 2012. He was elected last year to a second four-year term.
Brauchler said it’s been more of a process than a moment when he made the decision to run for governor.
“I was thinking it’s a step I could take where I think I could be a benefit to a state where I’ve spent almost my entire life, a state my family’s in, my future’s in,” Brauchler said. “It became apparent we need leadership at a bigger level, and I think I do bring that to the state. I want to make this state all that this state can be – not just for me but for my kids.”
Brauchler has lived in Colorado since he was 2 years old when his parents moved to Lakewood, where he grew up before attending the University of Colorado at Boulder on an Army ROTC scholarship for his undergraduate and law degrees. He lives in Parker with his wife and their four young children.
Brauchler, who shot to prominence as the lead prosecutor in what has been dubbed the trial of the century, secured the conviction of James Holmes in 2015 for the murder of a dozen people and the attempted murder of 70 more in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. He sought the death penalty against Holmes, but a jury disagree and sentenced Holmes to 12 life sentences without the possibility of parole and an additional 3,318 years in prison.
He told The Statesman he’ll be a very different kind of governor than Hickenlooper, the former geologist and brewpub pioneer Brauchler famously derided as a politician “no one elected … to be the state bartender.”
“For instance,” Brauchler said, “on transportation, I would have taken a much more hands-on approach to figuring out a way to resolve the transportation issue. We’re here on the precipice where we’re at because we really haven’t prioritized transportation. I would have taken a much stronger approach to education funding. I would have stood up to the federal government that sought to triple the size of Medicaid though Obamacare in our state. And I would have found a way to bring more liberty to more people in a way that would provide the opportunity for greater prosperity in this state.”
Vowing to be the “most accessible governor that we’ve ever had,” Brauchler said he’ll take a page from how he’s run things at the district attorney’s office and open things up to the public.
“I’d like to see increased transparency and accountability for conduct of an office like that, in terms of how the office is run, decisions are made,” he said. “I want the public to feel like they can ask me questions about the decisions I’ve made and hold me accountable for what I’ve done with that office when I take it over.”
Brauchler said Coloradans can expect to see some big changes once he becomes governor.
One of the first things he would do, Brauchler said, is put death row inmate Nathan Dunlap, convicted more than two decades ago for murdering four people and injuring another at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant, back on track toward execution.
In 2013, Hickenlooper granted Dunlap an indefinite reprieve just weeks after a judge had set a final execution date, something Brauchler, whose predecessor in the 18th Judicial District secured Dunlap’s conviction and death sentence, says he would undo.
“I would rescind that executive order and we would put in place the sentence that he earned back in 1996 from a jury of his peers, a jury his legal team help pick,” Brauchler said. “And that is an outcome that has been signed off on at every level of the appellate process, including, really, the U.S. Supreme Court. We would get that back on track.”
He vowed to stand up to the federal government to protect Colorado’s right to legalize recreational marijuana under a voter-approved constitutional amendment.
“I wasn’t a fan of legalized marijuana when it was put on the ballot, but it doesn’t matter what I think,” he said. “What matters is we had 55 percent of the state of Colorado that voted to say they approve of it. I am a firm believer in the rule of law, the spirit of those laws, and I’m also a believer in the 10th Amendment. I do not think that it is the business of the federal government to show up on that kind of an issue in our state and tell us that they disagree with us and override the will of the voters. I don’t believe that, I would resist that, I would strongly encourage the federal government to let us manage our own business within our borders.”
Brauchler plans to lobby Congress to give Colorado some leeway on spending federal health care money.
“The No. 1 thing that a strong governor of Colorado should do is advocate to Congress that they bring some flexibility to the states in how these Medicaid dollars are spent, how these Obamacare dollars are spent,” Brauchler said. “Right now, it’s just too rigid and lockstep to fit the needs of Colorado. Right now, we have 50 different governors with their 50 different legislatures trying to figure out the best way to manage those funds.”
He stressed that Medicaid — an entitlement program administered by the states that covers health care costs for residents meeting certain eligibility criteria — serves an important role in the state.
“I’m invested in the idea that there are those who Medicaid must be around for — the disabled, children, single parents — I’m not looking to take anybody in those categories off the rolls,” he said. “But the truth of it is, 44 percent of the people under Medicaid right now are able-bodied, working-age adults. And I think what we need to look at maybe so much isn’t how do we remove them from the rolls, but how do we figure out a way to make this system work fiscally by involving them and maybe getting some skin in the game — maybe asking some of those able-bodied, working-age adults to pay a small co-pay when they go to access some of the services; maybe a sliding scale. What I know is, right now, we don’t have the ability to even ask those kind of questions. I’m not wedded to a specific outcome; I’m wedded to flexibility that will allow us the most of those limited dollars.”
Without the flexibility, he added, Colorado’s state budget could fall further into a morass where state officials’ hands are tied when it comes to priorities.
“All of this Obamacare expansion is very tentative in the way it’s reimbursed. Right now it’s 90-10 — 90 percent from the federal government, 10 percent from the state — but there’s no guarantee it’s going to be like that next year or in four years or 10 years. The problem that creates is that is such a drain on our budget. If it were to drop to 80-20, 70-30, 60-40, it would make things incredibly difficult for this state. That expansion of Obamacare is pushing out the monies we could use for transportation or education, and those should be priorities.”
Brauchler says flexibility and autonomy are his watchwords when it comes to the state’s relationship with the federal government, particularly under the new Trump administration.
“What my hope is, as governor, is that we can have the kind of mutually respectful relationship that allows the state of Colorado to operate with more flexibility and more autonomy and less federal mandates from bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “And if that’s the most we can get out of this administration in the short term, I think that’s a huge win for the people of Colorado.”
While he was recently promoted to full colonel in the Colorado Army National Guard, Brauchler says that if he takes up residence in the governor’s mansion, he might be hanging up his uniform.
“The governor is the commander-in-chief of the National Guard. I don’t think I could be my own commander-in-chief,” he said. “So, if elected, I would either have to retire or go into the inactive ready reserve or go into the Army Reserve. I want to serve in uniform as long as our country is willing to have me, but as governor I couldn’t do it in our National Guard.”
As far as the campaign in what could be a bruising primary, Brauchler said there’s one thing that definitely sets him apart from nearly all the other Republicans who might get in the race.
“The other thing that make me different than the other whispered-about candidates, other than that I’m the conservative in that group, is the fact that I’m not rich,” he said with a chuckle. “There are going to be candidates out there able to self-fund their campaigns, they’re going to be able to do a lot because of the resources they just have, whether it’s that they have a political family name or money they’ve earned or inherited or whatever — I’m not that guy. I’m the guy that’s going to be the grassroots candidate. I’m the guy that’s going to get around the state and win people over in face-to-face conversations and in groups. I’m not going to win them over in the airwaves or in mailers.”
Circling in the wings are a number of additional potential Republican candidates, including State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, Davita Healthcare Partners Chairman and CEO Kent Thiry and former Colorado State University Athletic Director Jack Graham, who mounted a run in last year’s U.S. Senate primary.
Along with Mitchell, who said when he announced that he was writing his campaign a check for $3 million, Thiry and Graham are said to be willing to pour millions into their campaign coffers from their personal funds, and Stapleton has powerful family connections — former President George W. Bush is his first cousin — and a reputation as a stellar fundraiser.
“You run the way the system’s set up to run, and that is, you become the grassroots guy,” Brauchler said. “You become the guy that out-hustles the wealthier candidates to become the guy that gets around the state, presses a lot of flesh, hears their issues, talks to them about your platform, win ’em over that way.”
“Look, if money were the end-all, be-all to any campaign, Jeb Bush would have been the Republican nominee for president, and Darryl Glenn would not have been the Republican nominee for Senate,” Brauchler said. “What we know is that message, effort, the candidate — all those things matter more than the amount of money a candidate can bring. But I’m not going to lie to you, you can’t win a campaign on fifty bucks. I’m going to have to raise some. But I don’t think I’m going to have to put the same kind of money into the race as some of the candidates that will be in there.”
He acknowledged that it’ll be a challenge to win election in a state that’s only sent one Republican to the governor’s office in the last forty years — Bill Owens, who served two terms — while electing four Democrats who will have served nine terms by the end of Hickenlooper’s term.
Two Democrats — former state Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, and businessman Noel Ginsburg — are in the race so far. U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter and former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy have both said they are strongly considering getting in the race.
While he said he doesn’t know Kennedy, Brauchler noted that he’s spent some time with Johnston and Perlmutter and considers them potentially worthy opponents.
“They’re both smart guys, they’re both dedicated in their own way, but they’re also big-government Democrats, and I’m not sure that’s the way Colorado wants to go moving forward,” he said. “I like both those guys, but I’m not running against them so much as I’m running for Colorado.”
Taking stock on the eve of his official announcement, Brauchler, speaking slowly, as though he were savoring the words, said he was feeling a sort of nervous anticipation at the prospect of running for governor, and thought for a moment about how best to describe it.
“The other day,” he said, “I was at the pool with my two youngest boys, and I was trying to coax them to jump off the high dive — they’re at that age where I want them to get over their fears, something like that — and I started thinking of the first time I went off a high dive. You know, you climb up there, you’ve seen people do it, and it seems to have worked out one way or the other. But when you’re standing at the edge looking down, wondering what it’s going to be like before you hit the water — I sure have that feeling. I’m not entirely sure what a statewide campaign is going to be like.”