In his state of the state speech earlier this year, Polis said he wants to make Colorado one of the 10 safest states in the nation. He often cited fentanyl as one of the biggest threats to Coloradans, and told CPR News he would support criminalizing possession of any amount of the drug — a departure from others in his party who believe criminalizing drug possession only punishes addicts.
Then, in September, Polis wrote a letter to the bipartisan Colorado Criminal and Juvenile Justice Commission saying he wanted to increase penalties for auto theft.
In his proposed budget, more money will go to local law enforcement agencies than in previous years and an overall 26 percent increase for public safety.
A political priority or a cynical position for political gain?
Despite all that, many Democrats say the GOP mantra in 2022 that Colorado is crime-ridden was a cynical position for political purposes.
“The public safety issue addressed in this campaign was basically a fear tactic,” said Maureen Cain, legislative and policy director for the Colorado State Public Defender. “It did not work. I think the voters rejected their scare tactics. But has there been a fear-based response to this political message in the Democratic Party? Yes I think so.”
Cain said language on the campaign trail — from Republican candidate for the 8th congressional district Barbara Kirkmeyer falsely accusing her Democratic opponent of “legalizing” fentanyl to attacks on a bipartisan-backed misdemeanor reform bill that that Republicans blame on rising auto theft rates — it didn’t actually promote public safety.
“I don’t think it helps the public understand,” she said. “One side is scaremongering, let’s say: Too bad, so sad, we don’t talk about it?”
For outgoing Colorado House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Democrat, the high-profile talks about public safety and who created them are something of a chicken-and-egg question.
“The governor has said he wants to make Colorado one of the safest states in the country. It’s not because Republicans raised the issue on the campaign trail, it’s because communities want crime to go down,” said Garnett, who is on the verge of becoming Polis’ chief of staff. “Republicans are scrambling to find a silver lining on a historically bad night.”
On the campaign trail across the state, Kellner said he’s heard from people concerned about the rise in crime rates — not just violent crime, but catalytic converter thefts and business burglaries. He believes the attention that has been given to it, including the attention garnered by some media reports, has been effective in raising the political issue for Republicans.
“It is long-lasting and will stick with people in the next legislature. It’s really not a Democrat or Republican thing,” he said. “It cuts across party lines and I’m really proud that we were able to move this conversation forward … and get it on the media radar, the stats in our state.”
What’s Next for John Kellner and Other Colorado Politicians?
Heading into the legislature where Democrats have large majorities in both houses, Kellner said he hopes to keep the importance of crime relevant — even as he adds to his day-to-day work as the county attorney-elect for Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert counties and Lincoln returns.
He plans to urge lawmakers to increase penalties for additional possession of illegal drugs, not just fentanyl, and to scrap the system that imposes different penalties for auto theft based on the value of the car. Kellner also wants to strengthen laws for criminals who own firearms.
“We recognize that lawmakers are not subject matter experts,” said Kellner. “We’ve had more feedback that there’s more engagement.”
Kellner said even Democratic lawmakers have reached out to him.
In a statement by Polis spokesman Conor Cahill, he said the governor’s overwhelming victory last week showed that “the people of Colorado, regardless of their political party, support the governor’s work to improve public safety in Colorado.” .
“It’s clear that the governor’s sensible approach to helping improve public safety resonated with Coloradans across the spectrum,” Cahill said.