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Phil Weiser, Democrat running for AG, talks the issues


  • Courtesy Phil Weiser campaign
  • Phil Weiser
If you keep up with state politics, or high-profile crime for that matter, you’ve probably heard of the Republican nominee for attorney general, George Brauchler.

He ran briefly for governor before shifting his ambitions — likely a smart choice given that the then-crowded gubernatorial field included Republican Cynthia Coffman, the current attorney general.

Brauchler was previously in the news as the prosecutor of 2012 Aurora theater shooter James Holmes. He failed to convince a jury that Holmes — who killed 12 people — deserved the death penalty, but nevertheless solidified his reputation as tough on crime.

Meanwhile, Phil Weiser, the Democratic nominee for the office, didn’t grab many headlines in Colorado until he narrowly beat state Rep. Joe Salazar in the closest race of the 2018 Colorado primary. But he doesn’t view himself as an underdog.

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Weiser served as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Ruth Bader Ginsburg after graduating from law school. Later, he served in President Bill Clinton’s Department of Justice Antitrust Division; on President Barack Obama’s Transition Team, overseeing the Federal Trade Commission; as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice; and was Senior Advisor for Technology and Innovation at the National Economic Council in the Obama White House. But the bulk of his career has been as a professor, and then a dean, at University of Colorado Law School.
While it’s no Holmes trial, Weiser says his legal background is the type that actually applies in the attorney general’s office: consumer protection and antitrust law; oil and gas law; technology law; health care law; constitutional law; water and environmental law.

He also has a strong start: endorsements from Obama, Gov. John Hickenlooper, and former Colorado Attorney General, U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Weiser has raised over $1.7 million to Brauchler’s $400,000-plus — though those numbers don’t include political action committee spending.

We thought it would be worth getting to know him better.

Indy: Let’s begin with the appointment of a new acting head of the Consumer Protection Bureau.

Weiser: The idea that you have someone leading an agency like Mick Mulvaney, who fundamentally does not believe in its mission, is painful to behold. The others in the federal government who fall into this category include Betsy DeVos, who doesn’t believe in public education.

We have a constitutional system that separates powers, both legislative from executive, but also the federal government from the state government. During this moment, the legislative branch is not acting as a check on the executive branch, but states can and are. Particularly a state attorney general can say to Mick Mulvaney or Betsy DeVos, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not following the law, you’re not doing your job. I’m going to hold you accountable to do that.’

So let’s take Betsy DeVos, for example. There’s an important consumer protection that the education department adopted that says if a for-profit college advertises certain skills, promises people will get a job, doesn’t deliver the skills, leaves them without a job, that company is responsible for the student debt, not the student. Betsy DeVos is trying to get rid of that rule. [Since this interview, DeVos formally moved to scrap the regulation.] And she’s doing it without a lot of justification. And we have a system wherein regulatory agencies can’t just act willy-nilly. They’ve got to act in a way that’s consistent with the law, and if they don’t have a justification for their actions, their actions can be overturned. And I would join state AGs in challenging that decision...

We can’t allow people to fend for themselves against irresponsible companies who would lie to them, take advantage of them. What happened at Wells Fargo was a perfect example... That was discovered and ended by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Under Mick Mulvaney they’re [the bureau] closed for business. But a state AG can pick up the baton, and I would do that.

Communities to the south of us had their water supplies contaminated by toxic perfluorinated compounds from Peterson Air Force Base’s firefighting foam. What could you, as an AG, do to help those communities?

... We need an attorney general committed to protecting clean air, clean water, and that when companies act irresponsibly, we need to come down on them. Cynthia Coffman has shut down the environmental crimes unit of the AG’s office. I will restart that. And when businesses are polluting I will hold them accountable and work hard to remediate the situation.

You pick a hard example, because a federal government entity has unique protections. I can’t sue them in Colorado state court. I have to go to court of claims, which is a harder deal and you may also have to use political pressure to get them to act.

We had a recent story about CBD, a compound in marijuana and hemp. We are on the verge of legal hemp, but there’s a chance that CBD may be restricted by the Federal Drug Administration to only certain drugs. Where do you stand on that issue?

... I want to be an advocate for Colorado. When it comes to both marijuana and hemp, we have a real interest in innovating and creating new opportunities. And that the federal government could be in a position to hold us back on either front, is something that I would take on as an advocate for our state to work to address, whether it’s the banking issues with marijuana, the tax deduction issues with marijuana, or the FDA issues with hemp. This is an important role of the attorney general.

I guess I should ask you about immigration.

You should. The issue of immigration is personal to me. My mom was an immigrant, came here in 1951, she and my grandparents survived the Holocaust. She was actually born in a concentration camp.

And they were welcomed.

What’s happening at the border right now is unconscionable. And a number of state AGs — not ours — have filed lawsuits to stop the separating of families. I would join that litigation.

The treatment of the Dreamers... that bait-and-switch is wrong. I would join other state AGs to fight for the Dreamers.

And finally, I do believe Congress, at some point, will need to [pass] comprehensive reform on our immigration laws.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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