My mail ballot arrived on Wednesday as it always has, safe and sound and free from roving gangs out to commit voter fraud. That left me to ponder the primary races and for whom to cast my vote. And one race in particular jumped off the paper.

The Democratic primary for First Judicial District Attorney.

While Republicans don’t have a single primary in my area – either a sign of party unity or apathy – and the Democratic top of the ticket contenders seem hellbent on boosting the chances of underdog incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner, the district attorney campaign provides compelling storylines.

Mario Nicolais

The race pits Alexis King, a former  member of the JeffCo DA’s Office (Jefferson County accounts for more than 99% of the district) and current attorney for the Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center, against Jake Lilly, a former federal prosecutor and current attorney with the 5th Judicial District.

It probably helped pique my interest when flyers from the two campaigns arrived in my mailbox alongside my ballot. An avowed political mail enthusiast, I obviously began picking both apart.

King’s seemed to be a standard-fair introductory piece. Highlighting her experience leading the district’s Human Trafficking Unit and subsequent work advocating for crime victims, King hit hard on the historic nature of her campaign. She would be the first female district attorney from Jefferson County.

The endorsements listed by King underscore that point: three female state legislators, including JeffCo state Sens. Jessie Danielson and Brittany Pettersen. Similarly, she made sure to promote her endorsement by the Working Families Party, a progressive group that helped win several Denver City Council races last year, including for progressive darling Candi CdeBaca.

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In contrast, Lilly’s mailer appeared to go out of its way to cast him as the progressive candidate. Beyond the obvious “progressive prosecutor” in bold print, it lists a host of hot-button issues including racial justice, mental health treatment and “red flag” gun laws. 

Not to be outdone on the endorsement front, Lilly listed Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse and Jefferson County state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger.

If it had ended there, I would have called the mailers a wash.

But at the bottom of his flyer, Lilly chose to attack King. Specifically, he accused her of “covering up her Republican past.” It is an ugly attack based on an ugly history.

Four years ago, Lilly ran for the same position against King’s then boss, Pete Weir. She gave Weir $100 toward his re-election campaign in May 2016. She then added another $100 after Weir endured one of the nastiest hitjobs I have seen in more than two decades working in politics.

George Soros funded a $100,000 blitz that effectively called Weir soft on sex offenders and child predators. The campaign was so egregious that at the time I said it constituted “not just lies, but damn lies.” Considering that King headed the Human Trafficking Unit in the DA’s Office at the time, it seems pretty understandable if she took it a bit personally and made a second contribution.

Importantly, as the beneficiary of those awful attacks, Lilly never condemned Soros’ actions. While he couldn’t control the efforts of an outside group, he could have spoken out against them. But he didn’t.

Without Soros to submarine his opponent now, it appears he is willing to do it himself. While recent campaign finance reports show the two candidates have raised roughly equal war chests, Lilly has self-funded his to the tune of $100,000; or roughly equivalent to a Soros-sized hole.

This may work for Lilly. Certainly negative “contrasts” like his are a part of American politics and his strategy may be particularly effective during a Democratic primary. But it’s a risk when unaffiliated voters like me – who can now vote in either primary – come across them. It is also a risk among Democratic primary voters tired of dirty tricks.

District attorney races are even more important today, in a post-George Floyd world, than they seemed a month ago. A candidate willing to resort to underhanded smears to “win” seems counterproductive to the moment. I guess I know who I’ll be marking on my ballot.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq

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