Phil Weiser wins a second term as Colorado attorney general

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser arrives at a party for fellow Democrats in Boulder on Monday evening, Nov. 7, 2022, the day before Election Day.

Democratic State Attorney General Phil Weiser has won a second term beating Republican Arapahoe County District Attorney John Kellner in a race that was defined by the state’s divisions about public safety and abortion rights. 

Weiser said he felt good about the campaign he ran -- which he said he tried to keep positive.

“We worked hard to communicate what this office is about and what it means to be the people’s lawyer,” he said. “I know there is a lot of negativity out there and there is a lot of people scared about the state of our union. Colorado is going to be a national leader that shows what it looks like when people come together really in goodwill.”

Kellner conceded the race on Tuesday, saying in a speech that he made “inroads in this state that may be easy to overlook.”

“We changed a lot of hearts and minds,” he told supporters.

The Associated Press has not yet called the race, but as of 10 p.m. Tuesday, Weiser led Kellner by more than 10 percentage points with 54.4 percent of the total votes cast. 

The themes in the bid for attorney general were largely about the state’s escalating crime rates and abortion rights -- even though the office of the state attorney general defends the Colorado River Compact, represents state employees in court, files consumer protection civil lawsuits and controls the statewide grand jury.

Weiser said, depending on where he went in the state, he heard a different concern.

“When I was on the western slope, the number one question is are you gonna protect our water?  When I was in the San Luis Valley, the number one issue is the opioid epidemic,” Weiser said. “There are a lot of consumers who are feeling squeezed, who said, how are you helping to protect me from companies who are ripping me off? And there are people worried about public safety and people worried about reproductive health. This office covers a lot of ground.”

Kellner, who was the elected district attorney for the Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties two years ago, tried to highlight the state’s escalated crime rate as a referendum on Weiser’s leadership in the last four years. 

He especially pointed out Weiser’s positions in various state legislative proposals as reasons crime went up, particularly the state’s motor vehicle theft rate and high number of fentanyl overdose deaths. The bully pulpit of the attorney general’s office carries weight, he said.

“We need to turn the tide on this crime wave in Colorado,” Kellner said. “Make it safe, again.”

Weiser called many of the attacks deceptive and misleading.

“When people make deceptive attacks, you explain why there is nothing about any work I’ve done that has to do with car theft. There is nothing about anything I’ve done that explains why we are number one in bank robberies,” he said. “I’m a problem solver and that’s what Colorado wants.”

On the campaign trail and in speeches, Weiser also highlighted his support for abortion rights -- particularly since the Supreme Court overturned Roe versus wade. Kellner said he personally supported the Hobbs decision, even though he said he would enforce the state’s most recent law guaranteeing the right to an abortion in Colorado. 

“I will enforce this law and if any county, as one is already threatened, tries to pass an ordinance prohibiting access to abortion care, I've told any county I will take them on in court to enforce this law,” Weiser said. “If any other state tries to criminalize a patient or a doctor here in Colorado, I will be fighting to protect Colorado's law and patients and doctors who are here in our state. And if there's a movement to overturn this law, I'm committed to fighting against that.”

On fentanyl, Weiser supported the Fentanyl Accountability Act. This bill added back in the felony charge for possessing a small amount of fentanyl and gives easier access to naloxone, an opioid reversal drug. The bill also pumps money to prosecutors to focus more resources on fentanyl prosecutions. 

Weiser’s mother was born in a concentration camp and was freed by the U.S. Army when she was seven days old. After law school, he clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsberg and worked for the U.S. Department of Justice during the Obama administration. He was the dean of the University of Colorado law school before being elected in 2018. He and his wife live in Denver and have two kids.

In the last four years, Weiser has focused on consumer protection. That includes lawsuits against Wells Fargo, DirecTV, CenturyLink, and Navient that have brought more than $200 million in settlements back to Coloradans.

Weiser also joined a handful of lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies and distributors for their role in the opioid epidemic. Colorado will receive more than $500 million in settlement dollars — an amount mutually agreed upon in advance of the agreements made. 

Weiser has added empathy and emotional intelligence training to the state’s law enforcement curriculum under the Peace Officers Standards and Training board. He’s been outspoken in preserving Colorado’s rights in the Colorado River Compact and he has joined a handful of high-profile national lawsuits to protect Colorado’s air quality and water quality — particularly during the Trump administration.

Since the Roe vs. Wade decision was overturned, Weiser has made abortion rights a prominent piece of his re-election, saying he will defend Colorado’s newly passed abortion law even when counties may try and ban it

“If there's a movement to overturn this law, I'm committed to fighting against that,” Weiser said, in a recent debate in Aurora. “I was trained by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the concept of equal protection of the laws and reproductive healthcare whose decision should be made by women is something that is deeply in my commitment.” 

The state AG job has sweeping, and, sometimes contradicting, responsibilities. 

It includes defending state employees in civil court while also controlling the statewide grand jury and prosecuting consumer protection cases and fraud. The attorney general is head of the Peace Officer Standards and Training board, which certifies police officers and crafts resources for training peace officers across the state. And the attorney general defends Colorado’s position in the Colorado River Compact, a century-old, multi-state agreement on how to split up and develop water use from the Colorado River. Sometimes, the attorney general is appointed by the governor to investigate local governments for wrongdoing. The attorney general also has the power to open up investigations into local police departments that may have problematic patterns and practices that impinge on citizens’ civil rights.

Lastly, the attorney general has a bully pulpit. From the state’s highest law enforcement and legal perch, the AG can advocate for, or speak out against, proposals and bills in the legislature pertaining to criminal justice, drug reform, access to firearms or sentencing reform.