Attorney General Phil Weiser (left) and Republican District Attorney John Kellner (right) debate on 9News on Oct. 18, 2022. (Screenshot from livestream)
Attorney General Phil Weiser and his Republican opponent John Kellner disagreed during a debate Tuesday night on which entity is responsible for controlling and addressing crime in the state and the wider role of the attorney general’s office, as voters begin to make decisions over who should be Colorado’s top law enforcement officer.
“It’s important to distinguish between who is the chief law enforcement officer for the 18th Judicial District and who is for the state,” Weiser said, referring to Kellner’s current elected position as the district attorney for that district, during a debate hosted by 9News. “Everything in Arapahoe County — car thefts, drug dealing, violent crimes — is prosecuted by my opponent. I prosecute state crimes, like Medicare fraud and organized crime. That is a critical distinction.”
Weiser is running to retain his position amid a challenge from Kellner in the Nov. 8 election.
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Kellner said Weiser should take more accountability for the state’s rising crime rates, which Republican candidates across all races have focused on in their messaging this election cycle, frequently citing statistics about car thefts and fentanyl overdoses.
“Crime has certainly gone up not just in my district, but across the state. That’s really the problem. What you fail to hear from Mr. Weiser is any sort of acceptance of his responsibility as the state’s chief law enforcement official, as someone who should be standing up for the people and advocating for common sense, tougher on crime policies that would help us on the frontlines,” Kellner said.
Throughout the exchange, Kellner laid out a philosophy for the office centered on improving public safety and addressing criminal issues like car thefts and the increased presence of fentanyl.
Weiser, on the other hand, argued that the attorney general’s role includes public safety but is also to protect Coloradans’ rights, and he touted his record on defending consumer rights, facilitating a plan for an influx of opioid settlement money and being a “collaborative problem solver.”
On abortion, both candidates said they would defend the Reproductive Health Equity Act, which codifies reproductive health care rights into state law, including access to abortion. Weiser has said he is “pro-choice.” While Kellner has previously said that he personally supported the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, he would defend RHEA if elected attorney general. That includes suing any local jurisdiction that might try to enact its own abortion restrictions.
“We have the rule of law for a reason. I have pledged repeatedly that I would defend the Reproductive Health Equity Act. In fact, it’s really fear mongering on the part of my opponent to say that somehow that law is at issue in the attorney general’s race when both he and I have pledged, repeatedly, to defend that law,” Kellner said.
Weiser defended his silence on a 2019 law that reduced fentanyl possession to a misdemeanor, saying that he was against that bill but was instead focused at that time on getting a red flag law passed.
He said that since then, the office learned more information about fentanyl and witnessed the rise in fentanyl-related deaths, leading him to work to get the law changed this year.
“When you look back in hindsight, we didn’t have the information that we now have. As I got more information, I saw that we had to change course. I made sure we did change course,” he said.
Kellner criticized that approach.
“It’s so important to have an attorney general … who can be forward-thinking,” he said. “When I hear Phil say he didn’t see this crisis coming in 2019 — we had rising deaths in 2018. We had those mothers crying out about losing their children to fentanyl.”
Both Weiser and Kellner expressed concern over the merger between King Soopers and Safeway, two of the state’s largest grocery chains, and what it could mean for consumers, but did not offer specific steps they would take to mitigate damage due to reduced competition.
Kellner asked Weiser if he would support a special legislative session to “solve some of these public safety crises that we have in our state” having to do with car thefts, fentanyl and gun ownership.
Weiser rejected that proposal.
“We’re going to get to these things in the next session. We don’t need to play a political game with a special session,” he said.
The entire debate is available on 9News’ YouTube channel. Colorado voters should receive their mail in ballots this week ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
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