Candidates for DA plead their cases

GOP contenders debate at Arapahoe GOP Men's Club
The Colorado Statesman

What best qualifies a candidate to run for district attorney in the 18th Judicial District?

At a breakfast debate held at the Arapahoe County Republican Men’s Club in Greenwood Village early Wednesday morning, the four GOP candidates pled their cases.

Matt Arnold, a judicial accountability activist and candidate in the CU Regent At-Large race, moderated the debate. He will not be endorsing a candidate in the primary.

All four Republican candidates plan to go through the assembly to earn the party’s nomination, but both Brauchler and Wareham have begun petitioning as a backstop measure in case they fail to receive the 30 percent threshold for delegates.

The district attorney for the 18th Judicial District oversees Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, and Lincoln counties. The seat has been held since 2005 by term-limited Republican incumbent Carol Chambers.

The race has attracted well-qualified candidates on both sides of the aisle. Ethan Feldman, who served as a judge in Arapahoe County for over 20 years, is the only Democrat currently in the race.

With just a few months until the June primary election, the Republican candidates tried to distinguish themselves from one another by comparing their careers.

The field of candidates is split in half by an insider-outsider divide. John Topolnicki and Leslie Hansen are both currently chief deputy district attorneys in the 18th Judicial District’s District Attorney’s Office, while George Brauchler and Robert Wareham proudly claim an outsider status.

Wareham, who has also worked as a mayor, police officer, and lawyer, placed his private sector business experience front and center. In his opening statement, he described the job of district attorney as one that should be about management and organization.

“With a $19 million budget, and 200 employees, this is a CEO job,” Wareham said. “This isn’t a trial lawyer job, nothing in the training and experience of a trial lawyer prepares you for that.”

Hansen, who served for seven years as assistant district attorney, said she is the “only candidate with relevant experience to the job” and the “only candidate in the race with a record of fiscal responsibility.”

“Every year that I’ve been in the District Attorney’s Office, we have returned money to the taxpayers,” Hansen said.

In his opening statement, Topolnicki emphasized that his qualifications outweigh those of all the other candidates combined, as well as those of the Democratic candidate.

“When it comes down to it, people start comparing credentials,” Topolnicki said. “I’m the only one who has credentials that exceed [Feldman’s]. Thirty-five of the 41 years that I’ve been in the District Attorney’s Office, I’ve been in a leadership position. I’ve been in almost every major division within the District Attorney’s Office.”

Brauchler highlighted his experience as a Jefferson County prosecutor and as a prosecutor in the military. He emphasized that the 18th Judicial District has not elected someone from outside of the district attorney “bureaucracy” since 1968.

“We have an opportunity in this election to really make an election matter and to say, ‘We’re going to return this important governmental office back to the people,’” Brauchler said.

The first question in the debate maintained the focus on the theme of job qualifications, offering the candidates a chance to dispute some of the talking points their opponents raised in their opening statements.

Hansen, who was given the first opportunity to respond, went directly after Wareham’s categorization of the job as one for a CEO, stating that the district attorney position is “not a sales job, it’s not a job for a politician, it is a job for an experienced prosecutor.”

“When you get a phone call in the middle of the night where a suspect has killed somebody, barricaded themselves in a house, and the police authorities want to know if they can do an emergency wire tap, you better have somebody on the other end of the line who has some experience with that,” Hansen said. “You can’t hang up and call a subordinate and then get back to the police agency.”

Topolnicki said his track record would be attractive when recruiting prosecutors to the office. He questioned the idea of electing a “rookie” and pointed to his experience watching and learning from the mistakes of the three previous district attorneys.

“I know what not to do, that’s just as important as knowing what to do,” Topolnicki said.

Shifting away from experience as a qualification for the position, both Brauchler and Wareham spoke about their leadership styles when answering the question.

Brauchler brought up the 18th Judicial District’s absence from the legislative process in the Capitol, including important groups such as the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and the Colorado District Attorney’s Council. He said that the District Attorney’s Office would rejoin both organizations under his leadership.

Wareham said that he would ask his deputy district attorneys to serve their communities through volunteerism in order to reconnect with the people of the 18th Judicial District. He also said he would streamline the technology utilized by the District Attorney’s Office.

In the “lightning round” of the debate, the subject of union endorsement came up. Hansen, Topolnicki, and Wareham all said they have not and will not accept money or endorsements from police departments and police unions, citing a conflict of interest as it is the district attorney’s job to prosecute police officers who are convicted of crimes.

Brauchler, who is described in Hansen’s campaign literature as the “union supported candidate,” defended his endorsements.

“We’re not talking about the SEIU or Teamsters,” Brauchler said. “We’re talking about cops, and the cops want a change in this district for a million different reasons.”

The issue of Rule 16 letters, which stipulate that a prosecutor must inform the defense if an officer involved in a conviction has had “credibility issues” in the past, was brought up in the next round of questions by Hansen. She said police representatives have asked her to change that policy.

Hansen asked the crowd, “Do you think that [the police representative] asked that same question to George [Brauchler] when George went and talked to them? What kind of an answer do you think he gave to receive their endorsement?”

She said she has seen a police officer that she personally convicted for obstruction of justice handing out campaign flyers for Brauchler at the Douglas County Republican Assembly and at previous candidate debates.

“There is a connection between taking union money and being obligated to them,” Hansen said. “We can’t have that kind of relationship in the District Attorney’s Office.”

After the debate was over, Brauchler leveled his own allegation of corruption against the current administration.

“Our current district attorney’s husband is a [Fraternal Order of Police] attorney, so he gets paid union money to defend these guys,” Brauchler said about Nathan Chambers. “Ostensibly, that money is used to pay the DA’s mortgage.”

While fielding questions from the audience at the end of the debate, the candidates were all asked whether they support the legalization of marijuana, civil unions, and gay marriage.

All four candidates said they do not support the legalization of marijuana and cited problems with the medical marijuana industry. The candidates unanimously defined marriage as between “one man and one woman,” as well.

However, both Hansen and Topolnicki said they support same-sex civil unions. Topolnicki drew off his experience teaching constitutional law at the college level.

“In America we believe in liberty, true liberty,” Topolnicki said. “True liberty means, ‘Government: butt out, let me make my own decision.’ I don’t think government has any involvement in civil unions, if two people want to make that choice for themselves, I think it should be their right.”

Ben@coloradostatesman.com