The race to be the Pikes Peak region’s next top prosecutor is heating up amid claims of cronyism and “backroom dealings,” dividing key players in law enforcement and promising a gloves-off Republican primary.
On one side is Michael Allen, a senior deputy prosecutor and political newcomer favored by his boss, the term-limited Dan May, and endorsed by former top prosecutors John Suthers, now Colorado Springs mayor, and Jeannie Smith.
On the other is El Paso County commissioner and former state legislator Mark Waller, who touts support from El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder and former Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey, now Elder’s undersheriff.
After being the first to publicly declare his candidacy last month, Waller fired off an early salvo, complaining he wasn’t given a chance to compete for May’s and his predecessors’ support and accusing them of “backroom dealings.”
“I get it: They want to work to handpick a successor,” Waller said.
Waller blasted the Colorado Springs Police Protective Association, an advocacy organization representing more than 900 officers and civilian employees, for endorsing Allen without first interviewing Waller, saying its board failed to do its homework in a “huge disservice” to its membership.
“I think if they had interviewed me, they would have learned that I was the right person for the job,” Waller said.
Allen and his supporters largely brushed off the criticism, with Suthers in particular accusing Waller of playing politics and saying it shows he’s the wrong man for the job.
“Mark Waller has some real political skills, but political skills are not what you need in the District Attorney’s Office, and I don’t see the DA’s office as a good fit for Mark,” he said.
Suthers said Allen, a local prosecutor since 2010, has shown a commitment to the District Attorney’s Office rather than viewing it as “just a political stepping stone.”
Sherryl Dillon, executive director of the Colorado Springs Police Protective Association, said that Waller didn’t ask the union for its support. Allen twice approached the board seeking a nomination, in April and last month.
Elder and Carey were out of town this past week and unavailable for comment, sheriff’s spokeswoman Jacqueline Kirby said.
May, nearing the end of his third and final term, will step down after 12 years as DA. The Republican candidate to succeed him will be chosen in the primary election in June.
How the debate plays out among party loyalists remains to be seen, but the stakes are clear: In the politically conservative 4th Judicial District, comprising El Paso and Teller counties, the GOP nominee likely would have no trouble defeating a Democrat in the November 2020 general election.
“It’s the only election that matters, unless you manage to self-destruct after the primary,” said Josh Dunn, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs political science professor.
The last time a Democrat was elected DA was in 1985, when Barney Iuppa toppled five-term Republican incumbent Bob Russel amid Russel’s public battle with alcoholism.
Endorsements and “political rhetoric” could influence some voters, but the contest will come down to who runs the best campaign, Dunn said.
“You still have to turn people out on Election Day,” he added.
Allen, 47, and Waller, 50, touted their conservative bona fides in separate interviews. Each vowed to take a tough line on crime — singling out illegal marijuana cultivation — and signaled their support for the death penalty and intention to pursue it “when appropriate.”
Both spoke of advocating for higher salaries for the office’s deputy prosecutors — May has blamed poor pay for high turnover — and said they will assist young prosecutors in seeking federal loan forgiveness in exchange for their public service.
Waller, who as a commissioner voted to approve a $30,000 raise for El Paso County’s DA in December 2016, raising the salary to $215,000, said he stands by his vote and had no intention to run for DA at the time.
Waller and Allen also clashed over the value of their experience.
Waller, who served three terms in the Colorado House, from 2008 to 2014, called himself a proven leader and pledged to harness his relationships and political savvy to strengthen laws and reduce crime in Colorado Springs.
A fellow lawmaker, state Sen. Bob Gardner, praised his contributions as a public servant.
“He has shown the independence, leadership and courage to make the difficult policy decisions that we need in a DA,” Gardner said.
He served as a military prosecutor in Iraq, pursuing charges against insurgents in the Iraqi courts, and was a deputy district attorney in the 10th District Attorney’s Office in Pueblo for two years, beginning in 2005.
He has not brought a murder case to trial but said that shouldn’t matter in a position he called largely administrative.
“I think that you’re going to spend a little bit of time in the courtroom, but it’s like 2%,” he said.
“It takes global experience to do this job well,” Waller added. “You’ve got to have leadership. I’ve got that. You’ve got to have prosecutorial experience. I’ve got that. You’ve got to have an understanding of how to make law in Colorado, and I’ve got that.”
Allen, an enlisted Navy veteran who worked on aircraft radar systems, became a lawyer in 2005, first practicing in Kansas, and has taken 22 cases to trial in Colorado, including eight murders that ended in convictions, according to his resume.
Waller, he said, doesn’t know how to operate a District Attorney’s Office and “hasn’t been in prosecution long enough to even know how to handle a big-time homicide case.”
“This job is not about being an administrator,” Allen said. “This job is about public safety. This job is knowing what you can and can’t prove in front of a jury.”