In GOP speech, Arapahoe DA Brauchler attacks Hickenlooper

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Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, a Republican, speaking to the Lincoln Club in Denver earlier this summer.

DENVER — Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler sounded every bit a gubernatorial candidate during a speech Wednesday before a group of Republicans, spending more than 40 minutes harshly criticizing Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper mostly over his decision earlier this year to grant a reprieve to convicted murderer Nathan Dunlap.

“He’s made himself the guardian angel of the worst mass murderer in recent Colorado history,” Brauchler told the Lincoln Club over lunch at the Denver Athletic Club.

“Think about it: the person this next election matters most to is a mass murderer sitting in a prison cell.”

He added, cryptically: “We’ll have to wait and see what the ramifications of that are.”

Brauchler, who is being recruited by some prominent Republicans to enter the GOP gubernatorial primary field, has yet to decide if he’ll challenge Hickenlooper next year — mostly because doing so would force him to step away from the prosecution of the high profile death penalty case against Aurora theater shooter James Holmes.

But his speech, a combination of legal argument, sharp one-liners and PowerPoint slides — all building a case against the governor — and his audience, a group of influential Republicans used to being courted by conservatives seeking elected office, made it seem like his campaign is already underway.

The speech was, ostensibly, about the death penalty, which Brauchler strongly supports.

After telling the group that he’s not legally able to discuss the Holmes case, he gave a quick overview of capital punishment in Colorado, touching on the cases of two of the state’s current death row inmates, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray.

But it’s the subject of the third of those death row inmates, Nathan Dunlap, and Hickenlooper’s decision in May to grant him an indefinite reprieve, that transofrmed Brauchler from a run-of-the-mill politician running through a PowerPoint presentation into a compelling, forceful orator.

“It was a cold, winter’s night,” he said, beginning to re-tell the story of Dunlap’s murder, describing the scene, humanizing the victims, one who was a “single mother of two”, painting a picture of Dunlap “psyching himself up in the bathroom” and even verbally reenacting an old interview Dunlap did with former KUSA reporter Paula Woodward in which the killer admitted the cold-blooded killings and showed no remorse for what he’d done.

“That isn’t bipolar,” Brauchler concluded after paraphrasing Dunlap’s comments. “That is evil. Evil.”

Brauchler spun the narrative to its familiar climax, describing his May meeting with Hickenlooper and the phone call he got from the governor’s lawyer 20 minutes before the reprieve was announced and, finally, the announcement itself in vivid detail.

“He takes to the podium and he’s got these props — a priest, a rabbi, Stan Garnett from Boulder — people to make everyone else think what he’s doing is normal,” Brauchler said, as he rebutted Hickenlooper’s explanation for the reprieve almost point by point.

Repeatedly, he used several metaphors — unable, seemingly, to pick just one — to describe the decision: “this punt, shoulder shrug, timeout, whatever you want to call it.”

Incidentally, it was Brauchler’s strong criticism of Hickenlooper that day on the Capitol’s west steps that sparked the first suggestions that he challenge the governor himself.

Wednesday, as he finished his remarks and took a handful of questions, a final slide filled the projector screen with a single word: leadership.

Should Brauchler enter the race, that broad attack on Hickenlooper — that he’s a nice guy or, as Brauchler has tweeted, a fine “state bartender”, who can’t make tough decisions — will be the overarching theme of his campaign, just as Colorado’s new gun laws are the primary ammunition source for state Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, who entered the race this month.

Interestingly, Brauchler applauded the lawsuit by a majority of Colorado sheriffs challenging those new gun laws, but said the lawmen should enforce the law as long as it’s on the books.

“This isn’t as simple as saying ‘I disagree so I won’t enforce it’,” he said, arguing that “democratically-enacted laws must be uniformly enforced”, whether the law in question is capital punishment or one that limits the size of magazines.

Former congressman and anti-illegal immigration crusader Tom Tancredo, who challenged Hickenlooper as a third-party candidate in 2010, is also in the race; and Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who has formed an exploratory committee, is likely to fully declare himself a candidate in the coming weeks or months.

But Brauchler is the wild card — the intriguing fresh face, the guy with little political baggage in the way of partisan votes and many think he’s the right guy to carry the right message — who better than a former military prosecutor to hit Hickenlooper on leadership?

That said, running for governor less than a year after being elected district attorney and having to walk away from the case he was essentially elected to prosecute carries serious political risk, never mind the tall order of beating a strong incumbent, no matter how increasingly partisan he may appear, in a state with a long history of returning incumbents to office.

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