Democrat Phil Weiser won a hard-fought primary against state Rep. Joe Salazar to secure his party’s nomination for Colorado attorney general, spending roughly $1 million to secure the chance to be on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The former University of Colorado Law School dean and first-time candidate is now fending off attacks from his Republican opponent, 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, over courtroom experience.
Weiser has vowed, if elected the state’s top law enforcement officer, to be a check on President Donald Trump. But conservatives say he sounds more like an activist than someone who is supposed to be the state’s top lawyer.
The 50-year-old candidate, who lives in Denver with his wife and two children, grew up in New York state and moved to Colorado as a young lawyer to clerk for a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. He went on to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and work in the Justice Department under Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Weiser, a New York University Law School graduate, still teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he specializes in legal issues surrounding technology and telecommunications.
The Colorado Sun spoke with the candidate to get more insight into his background and how he, if elected, would handle being the state’s top law enforcement officer.
Here’s a look at his bio:
Weiser shocked a lot of people in Colorado’s political circles by coming out of the gate so strong on fundraising. He raked in about $1 million heading into the June 28 primary contest, far outpacing Joe Salazar’s campaign.
Still, Weiser — lacking in name recognition — only eked out a victory over the state lawmaker. The margin was about 5,000 votes.
That race centered on the two factions of the Democratic party: Weiser represents the more moderate approach to policy, while Salazar aligned himself with the U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders wing. For example, Weiser and Salazar both oppose the death penalty, but Weiser vowed to defend the state’s capital-punishment law, and Salazar said he might not.
Weiser won after a late endorsement from Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and with the help of a roughly $500,000 television-ad buy spreading his message about keeping the Trump administration on its toes, tightening gun laws and protecting the environment.
That primary ad began with a scene showing Weiser watching Trump win the presidency in November 2016 and his own voice overlayed, saying: “This was the night I decided to run for attorney general.”
Weiser’s background, experience
There has been a lot of discussion about Weiser’s background and experience, so here’s what the candidate has done:
Weiser first came to Colorado in 1994 to clerk for Judge David Ebel on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. From 1995 to 1996, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Ginsburg.
After those clerkships, Weiser worked in Clinton’s Justice Department, where he helped on antitrust policy in the telecommunications industry. He returned to the Justice Department under Obama in 2009, overseeing the antitrust division’s appellate program.
In 2010, he became Obama’s principal White House adviser on technology and innovation policy.
Weiser served as dean for CU’s law school from 2011 to 2016.
Also, Weiser founded Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship, an CU-linked organization that aimed to help build the state’s workforce in technology and innovation.
Weiser also has argued pro-bono cases before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Colorado’s largest legal issues
“I’m going to have to pick three,” Weiser said.
The first, in his mind, is protecting democracy “at a time when our democratic and legal system is really vulnerable and threatened.”
The second, Weiser said, is the opioid epidemic. He has vowed, if elected, to sue pharmaceutical companies over their role in the national crisis. (Current Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has sued Purdue Pharma on this topic, a decision that Weiser applauded.)
The third-biggest legal issue, in Weiser’s opinion, is protecting the state’s environment.
“Managing our water in the wake of climate change is a major challenge for us,” he said. “We need need an attorney general who can bring true innovative leadership on this important issue.”
Biggest challenge as dean for CU’s law school
Weiser says it was tough leading CU’s law school from 2011 to 2016, when enrollment was struggling in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
“There was a decline in applications by 40 percent during the time I was dean at CU Law School,” he said. “We managed to meet that challenge and they went up by 10 percent.”
Recent graduates, some struggling with heavy student-loan debt, also were having trouble finding work. Weiser said that under his leadership, programs were developed that allow students graduating from the law school emerge with about an average $60,000 less debt.
“I didn’t know how hard it was”
“I’ve never run for office before,” Weiser said. “I started against someone who had a huge name-recognition advantage over me and won a hard-fought primary. I’m now running against someone — depending on how you count — (who’s running for) the fifth time, if you count governor. And it’s my first race.”
Weiser says he was urged to jump into the race by Colorado’s former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, who also served as secretary of the Interior Department. (Ken Salazar and Joe Salazar are not related.)
“When I got into this, I didn’t know how hard it was,” he said. “There are so many demands on you as a candidate. So there’s just a challenge to be able to run an effective campaign.”
Weiser’s general-election campaign came under fire in its first weeks when Weiser tweeted a photo of a man tracking his campaign and wrote: “The Republican AG Association is desperate to find attack lines and has so much dark money, they’re paying him to tape me so they can later misrepresent my words.”
His campaign then appeared to mock the operative’s weight: “It is Pat’s right to attend Phil’s public events. We do like the idea of having a walking event to help Pat’s health,” the campaign account wrote Aug. 15. The tweet has been deleted.
Weiser quickly apologized for the tweet from his campaign and has said his campaign has taken steps to ensure something similar doesn’t happen again.
“It was a mistake,” he told The Sun this summer. “I’m learning from it. And I’m also learning how hard it is to communicate to people about dark money because it is, by definition, undisclosed and hard to actually pin down.”
In part, Weiser blamed Twitter’s “toxic” culture for fueling the controversy. He said the tracker “can be intimidating and really off-putting to people” he speaks with at campaign events.
“I try to tell people, ‘This is the reality of our politics today. I want to change it,’ ” Weiser said in the interview. “I made a mistake by trying to put sunlight on this by posting a picture of the tracker. The mistake was rooted in not understanding how toxic Twitter can be. I was calling attention to dark money and how corrosive it is.”
Path to victory
Weiser still faces a name-recognition battle in his run against Brauchler, who has been making headlines for years.
Weiser has two advantages, though.
The first is his ability to raise funds. And the other is the national blowback that the Republican party is facing this election year.
The Republican Attorneys General Association is pouring money into the race in support of Brauchler, so Weiser will need help from outside groups in the final weeks of the campaign to win the messaging war.
Weiser also has to sell his talking point that Colorado needs a defender as attorney general to protect the state from the Trump administration. If he can tap into what’s driving the shaky sentiment toward Republicans and Trump, Weiser can build momentum and push toward victory.
Colorado hasn’t elected a Democratic attorney general since Ken Salazar, who served as such from 1999 to 2005, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
More reading on Weiser
— Five things to know about Phil Weiser, one of two Democratic candidates for Colorado attorney general — The Denver Post, May 30, 2018
— Colorado colleges develop curriculum for budding startup superstars — 5280, August 2015
— CU Law School Dean Weiser stepping down — Denver Business Journal, August 24, 2015