By Jimy Valenti & Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers sparked a partisan firestorm last month after he entered Colorado into a multistate lawsuit challenging recently passed health care reform legislation.
Now Democrats say they have a candidate to replace him.
Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett officially announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for Colorado Attorney General Thursday and will challenge Suthers, the Republican incumbent.
Garnett, 53, has been Boulder County’s DA for nearly 15 months and was a trial lawyer for Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP for 22 years before that.
“I will work tirelessly to support law enforcement, protect Colorado’s natural treasures and aggressively pursue unfair business practices that threaten hardworking Coloradans,” Garnett said in a statement. “The Colorado Attorney General’s office should be a dynamic and excellent group of attorneys who will take the lead to protect the environment, consumers and honest businesses. The authority of the Colorado Attorney General’s office should be used to further the interests of all Coloradans and never on behalf of factions or special interests.”
State Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak called Garnett the best attorney general candidate fielded by the Democrats since Ken Salazar.
“He’s worked tirelessly to support consumers and to make sure that sexual crimes have been prosecuted,” Waak said. “I think he understands the importance of Colorado natural resources and protecting (them) at a time when Suthers actually wanted to do away with the environmental division of the Attorney General’s office.”
Suthers welcomed Garnett as a worthy adversary. He regularly works with Garnett as the ad hoc member on the DA’s Council.
“I think Stan’s a good lawyer,” Suthers said. “When I read some of the things that he says are issues, a couple of them seem to me to stem from just not understanding the office.”
Garnett said Suthers’ decision to have Colorado join a multistate lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the health care reform bill, specifically the individual mandate to purchase health insurance, is partly why he decided to run.
“The wandering into factional issues and using the Attorney General’s office and tax payer’s money on behalf of particular political factions would not be tolerated if I’m attorney general,” he said.
Suthers disputes the notion that joining the lawsuit was a political maneuver.
“I don’t know how it plays politically, and I didn’t make the decision on that basis, and I’m not going to make any decisions about it on that basis going forward,” he said.
Suthers said the federal government’s use of the commerce clause mandating U.S. citizens to purchase health insurance is unprecedented and unconstitutional.
“If Stan (Garnett) thinks [the lawsuit] is a bad thing, he needs to explain to the people of Colorado why it’s ok for the federal government to be able to force individual citizens to buy a product or service it wants them to buy,” he said.
“Part of what AGs do is stand up against expansion of federal power. This is an unprecedented expansion of the commerce power to regulate your inactivity and force you into the market place.”
Waak said Colorado Democrats pushed to find a challenger to Suthers after he joined the health care suit.
“Once he signed onto that lawsuit, I was getting hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails, and even phone calls, from people who said, ‘find us a candidate,’ or, ‘is there a candidate out there?’” she said. “It’s not just Democrats — there are Democrats, Republicans, Unaffiliateds who want health care and think it’s inappropriate for Suthers to be supporting that lawsuit.”
Garnett said Suthers is basing the lawsuit on a dubious constitutional argument.
He used former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton as an example of when it’s appropriate for the state to enter a lawsuit in order to benefit citizens as a whole. Norton, a Republican, was one of 46 Attorney Generals to sign on to a lawsuit and win a large settlement to cover health care costs from four major tobacco companies in the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.
Garnett’s announcement came with two endorsements: Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle and former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Jean Dubofsky.
“Stan has been a hard-nosed prosecutor who has taken the time to build relationships with the Boulder law enforcement community,” Pelle said. “He will be a tough, honest Attorney General who will be on the side of the People of Colorado.”
“Stan is an excellent lawyer and a true leader,” Dubofsky said. “He has deep roots in the state and is committed to the safety of our communities.”
As a district attorney for the Twentieth Judicial District Garnett established a Business and Economic Crime unit and his office successfully prosecuted four murder cases securing a guilty verdict in each.
He will campaign on weekends and promises that the Boulder County district attorney’s office will continue to function normally.
“I probably won’t get much sleep and I probably won’t fly fish as much this summer as I normally do, but otherwise the [Boulder County DA] office is going to be in fine shape,” Garnett said.
Garnett is planning a four-city announcement tour this Saturday during the Democratic county assemblies.
He said he will run a lean campaign and is looking forward to debating Suthers.
“This will be about returning the Attorney General’s office to the tax payers, to consumers and to the seniors in Colorado and taking it away from special interests,” Garnett said.
Suthers also looks forward to hitting the campaign trail.
“I’ll be out there explaining why I think we’ve done a good job and if the voters want to do something different, I’ll do something different,” he said. “As I say, I make no apologies for the work we’ve done during the past five-and-a-half years. “
Garnett graduated from the University of Colorado in 1978 and received a law degree from CU in 1982. Garnett lives in Boulder County with his wife Brenda and their two children.
— Jimy@coloradostatesman.com & Anthony@coloradostatesman.com