Energy, environment at forefront of Colorado’s attorney general race

Friday, Sept. 7, 2018 5:20 PM

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 is 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 Attorney General 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 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 fundraisingWeiser 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.

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 says.

“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.