Brauchler: Taking a public stand against TriCounty is not “cowardice”

Colorado has plenty of examples of political cowardice lately, but Abe Laydon and his fellow Douglas County Commissioners are not among them.

This past Sunday, the Denver Post Editorial Board declared Laydon a “political coward” for putting his name, vote and political career on the line by publicly voting along with Commissioners Teal and Thomas to withdraw from the Tri-County Health Department. They did so only after the health department went back on its word to provide Douglas County with the ability to “opt-out” of any orders the unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy sought to impose on the community it exists to serve.

The Editorial Board may vehemently disagree with the decision, but it was a public decision, backed by strongly delivered public language, which will be judged by the electorate who may choose to recall them or vote against them at the next opportunity. That is not political cowardice. That is what Colorado expects and deserves from its elected officials.

True political cowardice is the failure to act or an attempt to avoid the political consequences for decisions that may be controversial with an official’s political supporters. Examples of weak, politics-first officials are everywhere. Political cowardice is not limited to any party, but only by the position of power and the desire to keep it. Coloradans can spot such “leaders” a mile-hi away.

Despite assuring the nation that Afghanistan would not quickly fall into the hands of the Taliban, nor after it did, that the U.S. would leave any Americans behind as it chaotically withdrew, President Joe Biden disavowed any responsibility for the decisions he made. Instead, a president who felt completely empowered to undo much of his predecessor’s policies and plans — including construction of the border wall and the XL pipeline — repeatedly told America he was powerless to change in any way Trump’s prior agreement with the Taliban. The message was clear: “it’s not my fault; look to Trump.”

After the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced it would prioritize vaccinations for incarcerated, violent felons over the most vulnerable Coloradans outside of prison, Gov. Jared Polis disavowed any responsibility for that inexplicable decision. Upon being questioned about prioritizing his partner’s vaccination ahead of those Coloradans most in need, Polis declared that his significant other was entitled to jump the vaccine line because of his “duties as First Gentleman.” Clear message: “I’m not responsible for these politically disastrous vaccination decisions.”

Political courage would have been to own the decision of the CDPHE with which he had intimately worked since the onset of the pandemic, and announce that he had changed his mind, or that he would hold accountable the employee who made a decision so outlandish Polis publicly scoffed at it and denounced it. He did neither.

The kind of courage Coloradans deserve would have been for Polis to admit that he placed his partner’s health ahead of vulnerable Coloradans because he could. “First Gentlemanly duties” is a joke and demeans the Coloradans he is supposed to serve ahead of his own interests.

Political guts is a prosecutor making a tough charging decision about a challenging case themselves, instead of fecklessly hiding behind a grand jury to make the decision for him. Only then, regardless of a future trial jury’s verdict, could a prosecutor — elected or appointed — be held accountable by the public. Even if you strongly disagree with the decision not to prosecute, District Attorney Dave Young stood directly behind his decision; Attorney General Phil Weiser stood well behind the grand jury’s. If things go poorly in court for this incredibly novel and difficult legal theory, expect a statement deflecting responsibility to include “we fulfilled the grand jury’s mandate.” Another clear message: “I am not the one who made this decision.”

The impossible-to-understand conduct of Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters in engaging in what appears to be outrageous — if not criminal conduct — is only compounded by her decision to flee her county and state. Yes, threats and risks of death for public officials are real — I have had them (law enforcement sat on my house for more than two weeks for one of them), as have many prosecutors. I have never seen a district attorney hide out as a result. Flight under these circumstances looks like a recognition of wrongdoing. It is not courageous. Come home and defend your conduct.

Whether you agree or disagree with Commissioner Laydon and the rest of the Douglas County board is irrelevant.  My family is fully vaccinated (except for the 11-year-old) and the kids wear masks at school. Nonetheless, when our elected commissioners take public steps using their lawful authority to ensure that Douglas County retains the ability to govern itself by means other than the unassailable will of unelected, unaccountable health bureaucrats, that decision cannot be accurately described as “political cowardice.”

Colorado would be better served if all elected officials were willing to stand up publicly for those things in which they believe — just like the Douglas County board did, as opposed to ducking or deflecting responsibility for their decisions.

George H. Brauchler is the former district attorney for the 18th Judicial District. Follow him @GeorgeBrauchler.

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