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2 career prosecutors square off in Denver District Attorney race

Colorado GOP party chairman status, abortion on the November ballot, RTD
Left, Right, Center: Colorado GOP party chairman status, abortion on the November ballot, RTD 17:16

One of the primary elections that may not be on your radar, but maybe should be, is the race for Denver District Attorney.

Even if you live outside the city, Denver has a large representation in the state legislature, so statewide criminal justice policy is often in response to what's happening in Denver.

Leora Joseph, who worked as a prosecutor in Massachusetts for 25 years, served as chief of staff for the Colorado Attorney General's Office and led Colorado's Behavioral Health Agency, is facing off against John Walsh, former assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles and former U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado.

Beth McCann, Denver's current DA, said last year that she won't seek another term.

Both have racked up endorsements from big-name Democrats. Joseph and Walsh agree on a lot, but where they split is on the issue of so-called safe injection sites -- locations where drug users have access to clean needles and health services.

Proponents say the sites help reduce the spread of infectious diseases, help wean people off addictions and often have staff or volunteers on site who can address overdoses. Opponents say they encourage illegal drug use and make it easier for people with addictions to access drugs.

Both candidates have generally expressed opposition to the sites, but Walsh said he'd be open to a pilot program with one site if approved by the city council.

Sara Donegan, the mother of Carter Higdon, and her husband, Jim Donegan, join prosecutors and District Attorney George Brauchler as they discuss the 18-year sentence for Almeda Sullivan who gave Carter Higdon the drugs that killed him.
Sara Donegan, center, and her husband Jim leave the Arapahoe County Courthouse with prosecuting attorney Leora Joseph on May 1, 2015. Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Political analysts Dick Wadhams, a Republican, and Mike Dino, a Democrat, joined CBS News Colorado political specialist Shaun Boyd to discuss the district attorney's race in last week's installment of Left, Right, Center.

Dino doesn't think the race will hinge on the issue of safe injection sites but has more to do with representation.

"You're right, I think they do agree on a lot of things or have a similar stance on issues," he told Boyd. "I actually think we do have a woman DA, I do think Denver voters are bent on looking for getting more women into elected office in Denver and I think that would probably favor Leora Joseph."

Wadhams says McCann's endorsement of Walsh will likely weigh heavily in the race, but not as much as the candidates' stances on issues such as the safe injection sites.

Metro Gang Task Force
John Walsh, U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, talks during a press conference on June 25, 2015. Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

"It wouldn't be a very strong endorsement from my standpoint. But I think she's held in high regard by Democrats in Denver. So I think probably does help," he said. "But I'll tell you what; I do agree with Joseph on the safe injection. I think she's dead right about that. That would influence my vote if I were a Democrat and if I lived in Denver, which I don't."

As the lead prosecutor for whatever judicial district they serve, district attorneys are tasked with overseeing criminal prosecutions and are often blamed when crime goes up and credited with reductions in crime rates when they go down.

"We've seen the car thefts go down significantly in Denver, so that's been good, and violent crime has also seen a reduction," Dino said. "They haven't really been running on, you know, being the toughest crimefighter. That's not their style. And, again, safe injection sites. I do think, by and large, Denver voters aren't against them."

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