23 September 2009

Dan Slater In Colorado Attorney General Race

Dan Slater is best known in the political world as a blogger writing from the perspective of a state level Democratic Party vice chairman. As of October 1, 2009, when he officially commences his campaign, he will be running for the post of Colorado attorney general. Slater's Wikipedia biography notes, in the part relevant to his legal background, that:

[He] attended the University of Oklahoma, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1994. He earned his law degree from Washington College of Law at American University. . . .

Slater resides in CaƱon City, Colorado, where he is an attorney in private practice, specializing in personal injury, employment, and small business law. He was named "Young Lawyer of the Year" in 2004 by the Colorado Trial Lawyer's Association and has served on the Board of Governors of the Colorado Bar Association and the Judicial Performance Commission for Colorado's 11th Judicial District.

Adams County District Attorney Don Quick, and Aurora State Senator Morgan Carroll (also a blogger and a vocal voice for the left in the Colorado General Assembly on a number of issues), were both widely rumors to have considered running for the post, but chose not to run.

He will be running against Republican incumbent John Suthers. Suthers was appointed to replace moderate Democrat Ken Salazar when he was elected to the U.S. Senate (Ken Salazar has subsequently become the Secretary of the Interior in the Obama Administration, and Governor Ritter replaced him with Michael Bennet, who now faces a primary challenge from former Speaker of the State House of Representatives Andrew Romanoff).

Slater is the underdog in this race. If I were putting odds on the Colorado Pol's Big Line, I'd probably start him at 14-1 odds, compared to 4-1 odds for Suthers (whose job security drops a little simply by having someone who will actually commit to being a serious challenger in the race), subject to amendment as the campaigns shape up and fundraising numbers develop.

Suthers has a strong resume, mostly in the area of criminal prosecutions, and all of the advantage that come with incumbency. He will have six years of experience as the Colorado Attorney General job when he completes his current term. He was appointed by George W. Bush to serve as United States District Attorney for the District of Colorado for four years, spent twelve years as a district attorney in the district that includes Colorado Springs (eight in the top elected position, and some of the rest leading the white collar crime division and a chief deputy), spent two years as executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections under Governor Bill Owens, and spent nine years in between his positions as a prosecutor as a litigation partner in a Colorado Springs law firm, part of that time as head of its litigation section.

Suthers is the biggest dog on the Republican bench and the most powerful elected Republican elected official in the state (the two Republican members of Congress are currently politically impotent as junior members of the U.S. House of Representatives minority during a Democratic Presidential administration). Perhaps the biggest question on the Republican side of the political world in Colorado is why he didn't run for Governor or Senator, races he is believed to have considered seriously.

Slater is a younger, but experienced small law firm trial lawyer with political experience (although he has not previously held elected office). He is running at a time when the general trend of the state towards the Democratic party is stalled by the historical trend of voters to reduce their support for the party of the incumbent President, and a Governor and U.S. Senate incumbent who both lack strong support from their political base. The enthusiasm for the top of the ticket drives base voter turnout and grass roots campaign intensity, and in 2010, base voter turnout for the Democratic party may be anemic.

Slater has to run on the strength of his ideas (as someone who "truly fights for ALL of the people of Colorado, and who isn't afraid to go out and root out those who would prey on our most vulnerable citizens") and his personal story as someone from outside the metro Denver echo chamber who has built up his career serving as a defender of the little guy.

The Nature of the Job

The state attorney general's office is traditionally a job that involves serving both as the lead player in bringing consumer protection litigation (civil and criminal), engages in civil litigation on behalf of state government (often enforcing debts owed to the state and regulatory violations), and acts as the corporate counsel for the State of Colorado, with a large role in interpreting state laws and regulations in official opinions that bind state employees and a persuasive when applied to others.

The cases the office is charged with prosecuting criminally and civilly look more like a trial lawyer's portfolio than they do like a typical district attorney's docket and often overlaps in subject matter with cases brought by private lawyers as class actions or on behalf of consumers, employees and small investors. While district attorneys primarily prosecute run of the mill state crimes, and U.S. Attorneys in the federal system do essentially the same thing at the federal level, the job of Colorado Attorney General does not exclusively or even primarily concern criminal prosecutions, although the office does do have twelve lawyers who handle select criminal prosecutions in the criminal division (many in areas like environmental violations, election fraud, securities fraud and insurance fraud).

Like most senior government officials, the Colorado Attorney General is more of senior government executive than someone who actually does the legal work of the state personally. Almost all the trial work is actually done by others with supervision from the top. The job of the Colorado Attorney General is to referee policy disputes within state government and his own office, to hire good people to carry out the actual work, to set priorities, and to keep those he appoints acting in an accountable fashion. Slater's experience in senior positions in the Fremont County and Colorado Democratic parties is probably at least as relevant to this work as his direct legal experience.

How Strong Will Governor Ritter's Support Be?

At this point, Dan Slater is the only person known to be planning on mounting a serious campaign to be the Democratic Party nominee for Colorado Attorney General. Timing of the nomination process and fundraising cycle in Colorado leaves only about three or four months from now in which it is possible to launch a serious campaign for statewide office. Those who enter the race early aren't shoe ins, but the later you start to run for office, the more impressive a candidate you have to be to have a viable chance of winning the nomination and the general election that follows.

Traditionally, the Governor wholehearted endorses and supports fellow members of the state party ticket. But, even an endorsement for Dan Slater that should be automatic is anything but in Colorado this year.

Will this happen this time?

Governor Ritter has made a point of staking out his credentials as a moderate, and Republican John Suthers was endorsed by his blue dog Democratic predecessor, Ken Salazar. Governor Ritter is from Suthers' generation, rather than Slater's, and shares a background with Suthers in criminal prosecutions.

Governor Ritter has to decide between his loyalty to his party, with a strong and early endorsement of Dan Slater, and his seemingly natural inclination to stake out a stance as a moderate, perhaps by refusing to endorse anyone in the race on the grounds that he has to maintain a working relationship with John Suthers until the election is over and possibly for another four years after that.

If Ritter chooses the independent course, however, he puts himself at grave risk of drawing a primary challenge (perhaps Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper could be drafted to run for the Democratic Party gubernatorial nomination), and being defeated in a Democratic primary, turning the general election into an open race.

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