"The Importance of a Learning Mindset" SwatTalk
with Phil Weiser '90, Colorado Attorney General
Recorded on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019
Laura: Hi, I'm Laura McKee, class of '88, and a member of the Alumni Council Executive Committee. Tonight we have Phil Weiser, class of 1990. And Phil has a very interesting background, as a lot of Swatties do. He left Swarthmore and went back to his home state of New York and worked in the public sector for a year before going back to law school. And his law career has focused on the area of anti trust. And I was given a line that Phil said I could quote Jim [Saylor 00:01:13] on because it is very, very true, that the Phil Weiser that we know today is the Phil Weiser that we knew at Swarthmore.
And I remember Phil from being the upper classman, working with him in the august and illustrious budget committee. So for those Swarthmore alumni and graduates of later years, there's a salad bar in the room where we used to huddle around a table and shut that heavy door on the backs of the rest of the student body while people came and pleaded their case for how much of the student activities fund they could spend and what proportion of that would go to beer. With the sign prominently displayed, you must be 21 to drink alcohol. But with that kind of power at our disposal, I think Phil learned to wield it wisely and in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "Nearly all men can stand a diversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
So it's a great thrill to see someone who was such a pleasure to work with back when we were young. And it was a long time ago, back when we were still wearing our acid washed jeans and complaining about the food at Sharples, unlike students today. And really thrilled to have you here to talk about an interesting topic and to take questions as you've offered to take. So I think we'll turn it over to Phil for about 30 minutes talking about the learning mindset, and then we'll take questions from the assembled group here today. So I am going to give up sharing so that Phil can share. Wait, are you sharing already?
Phil Weiser: I think I pre-empted you like you taught me to do.
Laura: Got it, you're good to go.
Phil Weiser: I was thinking about what I would say, and I came up with some new material focused on the concept of a learning mindset. And for me it's pretty clear I learned this at Swarthmore, so let me walk you through some of my thoughts and then as [Laura 00:03:25] said, have a little bit of a conversation.
Three main themes. What I learned at Swarthmore, how I applied those lessons in my journey in politics. First, what I learned at Swarthmore. As people on this call probably all know, I didn't know this til I got to Swarthmore, every single class your Fall semester of your first year is pass fail. And I was thinking about whether I to take Calculus I, where I'd ... it had been suggested I was appropriately in Calculus II, because I took Calc I through not the best AP Calc, but decent and I had gotten I don't know, a three or something on the AP exam and then I thought well, what's the worst that could happen. And the short version is, the worst that can happen is you could actually fail the course as I did in my first semester. And what a gift that was because part of what happened was, I didn't want to define myself by my grades because for those of you who haven't tried it, I don't recommend it, getting an F is not the best thing for a GPA.
So instead I thought, let me define myself by the extent of the experiences I had, things like being on the budget committee and being willing to extend myself and not thinking that my goal is to get the best possible GPA. And also, if you do fail and you come back, if you're resilient, that in and of itself has its own lesson. And I tried to then say to myself when I take classes, I'm just not going to try to think about the grade, I'm going to think about what I'm learning, the experience. It turned out that was a great [inaudible 00:04:53] in law school. I did a lot better grade wise than I did at Swarthmore, but I think I would say I learned that at Swarthmore.
For those who are not familiar with Carol Dweck, I would recommend this book. People as parents hear about this a lot. I'd spent a lot of time teaching as a professor, I tried to figure out how to talk to students because I was dean of the law school at CU, where I was also a professor. And part of what I came to is, the best frame for a learning mindset is this concept of a growth mindset. And the idea here is there's two ways to look at yourself. Either I have certain things I'm good at and I'm fixed, I'm good at that, I'm not good at that, or I'm always thinking about how do I get better, working on getting better. And it turns out for people who are afraid to fail, they want to say they're good, they won't try to grow as much. And that will actually hinder their development.
So part of the lesson for parenting for example, is always focus on the effort your kids are putting in, not focusing on the output. So if you want to get As for example, you would take easier courses. But if you say I want to learn, you would stretch yourself and not worry as much. And unfortunately, a lot of times kids being raised are sheltered and protected so that they will "do better," but they won't have the experience of growing.
When I went to Swarthmore, I had two really extraordinary speakers. Some of the class of '99ers will remember this. One was Heywood Hale Broun, who is a sportscaster. And he captured this sentiment in our graduation speech, and he said not the quote I put up here which I really enjoyed, similar concept to a learning or a growth mindset, but he said, "At Swarthmore I learned the value of lifelong learning, and I've been paying the price ever since." And for me, I went into law and was very interested in public service, that brought me to law school, I didn't think I was averse to working at a corporate law firm for example, but my problem was as I got to a corporate law firm, it didn't have the same intellectual engagement, the same meaning that I felt in public sector work. And so my career's really been in the public sector.
The second speaker worth noting is Robert Putnam. He was another graduation speaker at the class of 1990. He hadn't yet written Bowling Alone, but he had written a lot of other really tremendous books. And he is someone really special because he talked about this concept of social capital. And this is an idea that in the world today, we are suffering from the fact that we don't have the same level of social capital we once did. People today, metaphorically when he was writing this book, were bowling alone and not in leagues. It's a really interesting conversation, what is the online world we're living in. Obviously, see this chat, it can be connective in creating community, but it also can be a disruptive and undermining community.
What I also realized looking back to when I was a law school dean, is how special Swarthmore was in building not just my learning mindset, but my sense of efficacy. These are what Gallup has called their "big six" experiences. And they survey how many people have these experiences. 64% of people say I had a professor who made me excited about learning. That's great. That's by the way, over four years you had a professor. How many people did a project that took a semester or more? 32. What about an internship or job experience that applied what they were learning? Only 30%. A lot of people I assume got jobs that weren't really related to what they were learning.
A professor who cared about me as a person. A mentor who encouraged my dreams. And I was extremely active in extracurricular activities. I actually can say at Swarthmore I had all six of these experiences, different kinds of experiences at Swarthmore. Multiple professors excited me about learning. I did a number of different projects, I also had a number of internships and had professors who cared about me. And absolutely, Richard Rubin who was a big mentor and now he's got a mentorship program in his name that I now support. And then as Laura noted, active in extracurricular activities. By the way, if you say how many people graduating college had all six of these experiences nationwide, Gallup's number is something like 4% or 5%.
What I didn't realize at the time because the word wasn't there, was at Swarthmore I learned not only a learning mindset, I also learned an entrepreneurial mindset. And it turns out, I believe this deeply, for today's world, strategic planning is an overrated concept. It used to be, think about software development 30 years ago, you would actually sketch out the entire software product and do what you might call waterfall development. Which today you hear the term of agile development, which is just test ... you built something, you test it, you keep modifying, you iterate it, and you go. This is an incredibly powerful way to approach the world, and I would actually say I did learn this at Swarthmore, which is being willing to try things, learn from them, and get better at it. So for example, in debate where I was very involved on the debate team, this was definitely a way in which we approached how we thought about our craft.
What I would say I also learned at Swarthmore in a small campus, which is critical, is not to think of the world as a hierarchy, but a network. And so for example, Laura mentioned the alcohol policy at Swarthmore. When I was the student council coordinator, I had the chance to talk to Janet Dickerson and the lawyer that we had helping advise us, and Swarthmore really had this network mindset. I think about some of the seminars I took where professors were really good about not thinking it was a classic sage on a stage model, but we were in this enterprise of learning together and people feeling like we all have something to contribute. And as I think about the world today, I think of what Bill Joy said, he founded Sun Microsystems. "The smartest person working on your problem isn't working for you," which means you can't just think about solving problems as a top down hierarchical [inaudible 00:11:20] you've got to think more broadly. How do we bring the right people together?
So how does all those lessons cache out in my life? I graduate law school and end up clerking for a couple judges, and then go to work at the Justice Department. And part of what was unique here is I got hired by Joel Klein, who was then the acting head of the anti trust division. He said to me, "We've got this important responsibility under the Telecommunications Act. How do we oversee Bell Company [inaudible 00:11:48] the long distance?" which a generation ago was a really big issue in telecommunications and technology. And he said, "Phil, can you help us figure out how to do this?" And because of the sense of efficacy, leadership, experimentation I built at Swarthmore, I wasn't afraid to try to take this on.
So here I was, 28 years old at the time, and I was the point person for general counsels of major companies. And I remember I would ask one of them a question. The next day someone I worked with as a law clerk called me up [inaudible 00:12:18] the firm and saying, okay, I'm doing this research project for you, how do I approach it. And that to me was an incredible opportunity to really develop and test my leadership and to learn. Because I hadn't learned a ton of anti trust before then, but after those two years I was really vaulted into a new world.
I then came to the University of Colorado. This was a pretty fateful move for me. I went to law school at NYU because I grew up in New York and that was where I got into, got a chance to clerk for a federal judge out here in Colorado. That was pretty random, I can tell that story if people are interested, thought wow, what a great place to live. And then two years with the anti trust division, I heard about this job as a law professor, so I applied figuring what's the worst that could happen. And again, I've been viewing, in many cases I still view my life as an experiment. So I thought, what's 2 1/2 years? I can try this and see what happens. So for 20 something years I did keep trying it, and one of the things I did to make this experience more meaningful for me was start a center on law technology and entrepreneurship called the Silicon Flatirons Center.
And part of this was born because I didn't want to be in the ivory tower. I really enjoyed my time with the justice department and I thought, how do I stack different policy, and created this center that had the premise of you bring people from the policy and government world together with up and coming academics and practitioners, and you can have really interesting conversations. You can test ideas with practitioners, really with policy makers as an audience, and get students engaged. So I ended up with three goals for Silicon Flatirons. One is to raise policy thought leadership, second was prepare students for opportunities in this area and third, this kind of came later, support and engage the entrepreneurial community in Colorado, which is truly special. And so for 20 years I was executive director of this program.
This did lead me to Washington for a second time, where I was able to serve first in the U.S. Department of Antitrust Division as a deputy assistant attorney general, and then the White House, where I got to go on Air Force One with President Obama. And for Swarthmore grads you may remember Carl Levin of Michigan, who's a Swattie. Chris Kenning is there as well as Austin Goolsbee who I also knew from college today. And I'm not sure what Carl Levin was talking about in this picture but it was needless to say, a real highlight. I'd worked on the State of the Union policy that was going to be rolled out in Michigan and the way these things worked is Air Force One flew out there, you invited the senator to come, and Carl Levin came.
When I got back from my time in the White House, one of the things I had done is helped work on Startup America, which was a partnership to support entrepreneurship. And the word was, we need someone in Colorado to lead Startup Colorado because it was going to be a 50 state deal. So a friend of mine who's a venture capitalist and I raised our hands, and this was a great leadership opportunity because it was a total experiment. This didn't exist.
The first challenge was, how do we connect these major so-called front range cities here in Colorado, Denver, Boulder, Ft. Collins, Colorado Springs, and they each have these different burgeoning entrepreneur communities. Boulder's was really the leader. Boulder had done things like create a Boulder Startup Week. So then Denver thought based on this partnership, maybe we should try that, and I was helping do that. And now Denver's got the largest startup week of any in the U.S. Boulder also was a great hub to do things, like we did at a startup summer program where we support internships over the summer. We still do that. And this became a really powerful way to connect these communities together.
Version Two of Startup Colorado is in a way a much more ambitious vision, which is how do we support entrepreneurship across Colorado. So we've got a bunch of more rural communities, so think Montrose to the west, or Alamosa in the south, or Sterling in the northeast, all of which are great places to live, and we believe that Startup Colorado can help provide mentorship and support to both those [inaudible 00:16:12] communities and then connect those communities to one another and to mentors. And that's a ongoing project that I remain involved with.
Whether people here or not believe in the multiverse, I think we are living in a moment that suggests it is at least a useful device. For those unfamiliar with the concept, you can imagine multiple universes side by side. Each of us are in all of them making different decisions and different things happen. I'd like to think in the normal world, the election of 2016 would have gone differently. There was too much irregular, crazy, hard to believe things that happened. And we're not in that normal world. In the world that we're in, my ability to go back to Washington for a third time was nonexistent. The world that we're in, the rule of law absolutely feels like it's at stake, and I had to look hard and long at what I was going to do.
One of the great blessings in my life was the person I married who I had said to as we were dating, that I'm really committed to public service. And I've always believed that you can't just wait to be appointed as I had been before to both state and federal opportunities, you need to be one to run yourself. Now that had never actually happened for me, but I had been open to the thought and when my wife Heidi would say, "Phil, what would you run for?" I'd say, "Well as a lawyer who loves the law, the best elected job is a state attorney general." But whether the stars would be in an alignment that would make sense for me to do that was another question.
Well 2016, my kids are at the right age. And I spent the first five months of 2017 kicking the tires on this and decided it was worth starting this. And let me tell you how I thought about doing this. First, I had a set of core values. I was committed to being myself because I thought at the end of the day, I don't care if I lose, this is back to Swarthmore, like what's the worst that can happen? I lose. If people think yes, the Phil I saw on the campaign trail's the Phil I know, then I still have my reputation and integrity. And so that was really important to me.
Second I thought, this is a learning opportunity. We will get our family out of our bubble. And we went to every county in Colorado and we were able to listen and learn from people. We also weren't going to do this just me separated from family, my family really went with me for these experiences. And then finally, I wanted to approach this in a way that I was raising the level of discourse. This is kind of the same thought I had behind Silicon Flatirons. I had many discussions with smart, political types and there was a lot of debate whether you can actually ever educate people in the course of political activity. What I would say is whether or not you can educate, you can at least elevate. And that is certainly what I've tried to do.
So we started with my first speech in Pueblo, Colorado with about 10 people there. And I had a great position, which is I was a former law school dean on the law school faculty with a somewhat reduced load, and I took on what is an unusual extracurricular activity for a professor. But for me and given where I was and where the nation was, it felt like it was the right thing to do. And this is my son, who actually asked a question of me in my second speech that was a fabulous question and then introduced me very well and I think both kids did get a lot of experience.
When I worked on creating ads, I had the good fortune of knowing someone, Mark Putnam who I met after my first year at Swarthmore, that summer I worked in Washington. I was working at the National Clean Air Coalition, and I also worked on the Joe Biden campaign. Mark Putnam was a recent grad, and he and I stayed in touch. And when I thought about running, he went ahead and was willing to support me. I don't know if I can click the link and show you the ad here [inaudible 00:20:01] so I'm not going to try, but I will say part of the ads that Mark did were, how do we capture me.
Laura: I think you can, Phil. I think you should. It's really a great ad.
Phil Weiser: Let's see, I'm going to try it and see what this does.
Video: I'm Phil Weiser. And this was the night I decided to run for attorney general.
Laura: You do have to share your other screen. [crosstalk 00:20:29]
Phil Weiser: Oh, sorry.
Video: [inaudible 00:20:29] of the ways I can protect Colorado from Donald Trump. Some-
Phil Weiser: All right. Hold on a sec, guys. All right. So I have to then do a different share, let me do that. So stop share, new share, let's see. All right, tell me ...
Video: I'm Phil Weiser. And this was the night I decided to run for attorney general.
Donald Trump wins the presidency.
Ever since, I've been writing down all the ways I can protect Colorado from Donald Trump. Some ideas came from working at the Justice Department for Presidents Clinton and Obama, at the Supreme Court with Ruth Bader Ginsberg and as dean of the CU Law School. And some come from being a dad, although my kids will tell you I've been a little preoccupied. I'm not sure why this is, actually. I just have some work to do.
Laura: Thanks for sharing that, Phil. I think it really does reflect your character, and it's really cute.
Phil Weiser: That's what people were able to say is, that's the Phil I know. And so some of the work [inaudible 00:21:51] ... oh, what is ... do you hear that? Hold on a second here. I think I've got to ...
Laura: You turning the Halloween videos on?
Phil Weiser: I'm turning that off, yes.
Laura: Oh, sorry.
Phil Weiser: I'm not sure how that ... I guess I kept that there. So people said, "Oh, yeah, that's the Phil I recognize," and someone said, "Yeah, I remember you writing notes for me all the time." And one of the lessons that I took on board really seriously the first part of the campaign is, I had a group of friends got together, the friends said to me, "Phil, you're not going to win because you're smart, but you might win because of your warmth and your energy." And that was a lesson I think Mark understood for purposes of the ad. A lot of people aren't going to absorb all the policies, but they can absorb that you care, that you're hard working and that you're a real person. And so that was part of what came through.
The next thing we tried to do is we did try to be a little quirky, sharing a little bit about the journey so that everyone could understand it. And I was so fortunate because I had people I had worked with at different parts of my life who wanted to help out particularly at a time when people were like, what do we do. So Jim [Saylor 00:22:59] who was on this, did an incredible job. We had a couple fundraisers in New York, and people stepped forward like you wouldn't believe in Washington. And it was neat because people from all parts of my life said, "How do I help?" And we had people come back into my life in different ways to help whether they lived in Colorado or anywhere else.
What I would say as a lesson of the campaign and I'm definitely thinking about this a lot running an office of 500 people, is if you can approach it as a team. And part of what I did that was unconventional was I just kept trying to break up tasks, like with way we did fundraising was not like most people had done it before. We'd break up tasks and we had different people who would run different events and we built a large finance committee, and we ended up raising $2.9 million in the campaign with a limit of $1,250 per person which really put a premium on as many people as possible. And we did a lot on the field side and the marketing and communication side and it was an incredible team. In fact, we're having 50 people over to my house Friday night to thank them a year later for what we were able to accomplish.
The actual victory was a amazing experience. I had won both the primary and obviously the general election. The primary I won by 5,000 votes. I ran against someone named Joe Salazar who started with a 33 point advantage. He is not actually related to Ken Salazar, the senator. Ken had endorsed me. But I think it's fair to say that names matter in politics, and Joe started with both having been an elected official himself and what is kind of a brand name in Colorado that I was able to overcome in the primary and then in the general. The Republican Attorney General's Association which is a group that's a national group, they spent $5.9 million in what mostly were attack ads. I will spare showing you some of those, but the first line of attack was vote for the prosecutor and not the professor. And then their second line of attack was going after me for my pro bono work on behalf of prisoners that I was appointed to serve by the Federal Court of Appeals here in Denver. And we really worked hard to keep it elevated, and election night was quite a amazing feeling.
I've got lots I can talk about, what I am doing as attorney general. I do want to make this as interactive as possible, so let me stop here because we're about halfway through and give people a chance to ask questions, and then I can touch on whatever themes people are interested in hearing more about.
Laura: Fantastic, thanks so much, Phil, that was great. And while we're letting people gather themselves and raise their hands, maybe you could just share what your priorities are right now in your current role, and how you're viewing the upcoming election in 2020.
Phil Weiser: So let me answer the question in two ways. First in my current role, I believe I've got three jobs. I have to oversee, prioritize and make legal decisions, which can range from defending the rule of law, I can go really deep on that one, there's a lot we're doing on that. I am really committed to addressing the opioid epidemic, a big issue here in Colorado. I am committed to protecting our land, air and water. Obviously that means addressing climate change but in Colorado we've got major water challenges we've got to work on. Protecting consumers, and then finally, how do we improve criminal justice, for example, reforming cash bail. So those are five overall priorities of the office, and I am working hard to develop the right policies, bring the right cases to advance those goals.
Second is, we have 500 people. And my job is a leadership job, so in one sense it's super important that I recruit, encourage, and help develop a talented team that works together as a team. And this is a different thing in a campaign than in an office because the campaign, it's more like a startup, where the office is an established organization. So they're very different kind of cultural entities.
And then third, I'm now an elected statewide official. And part of what I am moved to do here is to overcome the dysfunction and polarization. So I've been committed to showing up all across our state even in areas that might not have voted for me, and by showing up to really send the message that I'm committed to working together to solve problems. And I think that ethos is very Colorado and it's what our nation needs.
Laura: Fantastic. So what do you know, Jim Saylor, class of '90 has a question for you. You ran a really positive campaign. Were you ever tempted to go negative?
Phil Weiser: No, actually. Back to my reputation, and there's an interesting article in the New York Times that was talking about the Nationals game where Trump was booed and how that felt like a sugar high, which is the person said they felt bad afterwards. So the going negative in a campaign is a really painful I think experience because you're making a bet you can win just by demonizing an opponent. And I think maybe I should show the second ad to answer Jim's question because after I was attacked most viciously, I was facing a question. Do I want to basically descend to the level of saying that am I just going to attack my opponent for doing bad things, or was I going to try to do something a little different, and I really wanted to elevate. And so we had to come up with this other ad, and this was in a way the, I think highlight of the campaign, which is that I was able to turn it around. And let me see if I can ... I think I can show this one here.
Laura: Okay. While you're doing that, it looks like [Lauren Knitz 00:29:22] has a question. Lauren, do you want to raise your hand and ask it yourself, or would you like us to read it? Oh, her microphone's not working. So did you find the ad?
Phil Weiser: Let me ... I found it. Let me go ahead and show it, okay?
Phil Weiser: Okay, here we go.
Laura: And you do have to share your screen again, Phil. Yep, you got it.
Phil Weiser: Okay. So-
Laura: Well, you got a screen.
Phil Weiser: So, all right. Let me get you the screen here.
Laura: There you go.
Phil Weiser: Okay.
Video: I'm Phil Weiser, and I'm running for attorney general. My opponent George Brauchler wants you to believe this is an attack ad. The truth is, I was answering a judge's request to defend a prisoner's constitutional rights. I didn't choose the case. George Brauchler has defended people who have committed disturbing crimes. He knows how our justice system works. I'm running to protect their rights including civil, consumer and women's rights, and our right to a fair trial. Please vote as if your rights depend on it because they do.
Laura: Nice. And you also closed that with your slogan, which is such a good one. Can you tell us the story of how that came about?
Phil Weiser: I sure can. The first phone call I had with Mark Putnam, he said, "Weiser, you've got a good last name. Gosh, we should figure out some way to use it." And in the course of the phone call he said, "How about stronger, fairer, wiser?" He kept writing ER, so the question was, if Weiser's the last one, what are the first two? And I thought okay, can we do better than stronger, fairer, wiser? And we really couldn't.
And I embraced it even more in the general election campaign although we adopted it earlier, it was on our yard signs. And we'd have all my speeches organized around we need a strong attorney general who will stand up for our rights and protect us. We need a fair attorney general who will address the opioid epidemic and improve criminal justice. And we need someone who can bring people together to solve problems. We need a wise attorney general. In short, we need a stronger, fairer and wiser attorney general. And people really liked it and it ultimately worked for me, even though initially when it came up on the spot I was like, oh, I don't know if it's right.
Do we have Lauren?
Laura: So she was saying her computer might not be working. So I don't know-
Speaker 5: [inaudible 00:32:04] her.
Phil Weiser: I see it.
Laura: I think she may not have her microphone, so let me read her question for you while we're admiring her name. Okay, this is from Lauren Knitz in class of 2019. Swarthmore is an environment that really encourages intrinsic motivation for learning. How do you keep that intrinsic motivation in environments that seem to value extrinsic motivation? I just started law school, and I'm trying to keep my love for learning alive.
Phil Weiser: I mean, that in a way is what has guided me, is you got to tune out that extrinsic noise. So for example, when I went to law school, what you were supposed to do was go to a large New York corporate law firm. And 90% or 80% of probably people graduating law school, that's what they did. But because I had had this background really shaped by Swarthmore, I thought, I don't want to just follow the path, I want to blaze my own trail. And so I'll try things, and if you're not afraid that failure ... this is back to the entrepreneurial thing. Entrepreneurs would say failure, it's just data. You try something, it doesn't quite work, you try something else. And unfortunately, if you believe the hype that if you don't graduate and go to a high powered big corporate law firm then you're a failure, then that belief becomes a cage. Instead if you think you get to try different things, find your own path and there's no one right path.
And so when I became dean of the law school, I just preached this point again and again and again. And the career development people didn't necessarily love me, but I would call the early interview week the devil because it was preying on this idea that if you didn't get a job with one of these major law firms [inaudible 00:33:53] then you were toast. And I didn't want to send that message. And the one in the Colorado law school was, we didn't have a ton of people get their jobs that way, so the culture wasn't the way it was at NYU where it was so dominant that that's what you're supposed to do.
So I would say just trust yourself, tune out the noise, and don't believe all the hype. And in law school it's a tough environment because there are all these pressures and norms, and I would just say, try to keep finding your own journey. And I think my focus more on learning in law school and not believing the hype, I was more relaxed and I think I did better than people who all they did was psych themselves out that this was felt, all this pressure.
Laura: 100%, that's great advice, Phil. Jonathan, go ahead.
Jonathan: Hey, can you hear me?
Phil Weiser: I sure can.
Jonathan: This is Jonathan [Shakes 00:34:42]. Phil, as someone who's deep into politics obviously, I'd love to hear what you think about the Republicans, specifically the civically minded, smart Republicans that you know, and how they think about what their long game is. Where's this all going to end up with their allegiance to Trump? How does that work, how does it create a better world?
Phil Weiser: So Michelle Goldberg has a great piece in the New York Times I think yesterday, basically saying that we shouldn't underestimate how courageous Jeff Flake and Mitt Romney are. I absolutely, absolutely want to believe that I will stand on constitutional principle, and if that costs me my next election in a Democratic primary, that's fine because I've got other things I can do with my life. It's easier to believe that in the abstract, and I hope that my pre-commitment to do that and saying it in times like now will help strengthen my willingness to do it.
But what Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake represent is a willingness to walk away from a political career, a culture and a community. And I am a more glass is half full person, so I try to focus on them, where in the AG world we've got this case involving the Affordable Care Act where the justice department is bringing this crazy lawsuit saying the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional in its entirety and their theory is crazy. There are two state AGs who are Republicans who are saying yeah, their theory is crazy. It would call for overturning this basic doctrine call the Severability Doctrine that says just because one part of a law is unconstitutional, you don't strike down the whole thing.
That's something that I take solace from, that two people are courageous. One of those individuals, Tim Fox of Montana, may well lose the Republican primary for governor of Montana because of his principle. As for others, they are in a terrible box. So there's three categories. There's people who are doing what Tim Fox is doing in Montana, or Mitt Romney's doing. There are people who are saying nothing because they recognize the challenge to the rule of law and they just want to do what good they can while not sacrificing their political careers, and there are others who are actually actively aiding and abetting a dangerous mindset which is a mindset that basically says we can't trust our institutions.
But the problem is, if we de-legitimize and undermine institutions including the judiciary, the free press, we have undone much of the fabric and underpinning of our great constitutional Republic. And the fact that that could happen is a reality, and it scares me. And so I'm focused on doing everything I can to represent what government should look like.
Laura: Thank you. Bob, do you want to go ahead?
Bob: Sure. Can you hear me?
Bob: Okay. Hi, yes. This is Bob [Cushman 00:37:37], class of '71. I live here in the very red state of Tennessee, and wondering about the sanctuary city issue. Here in Tennessee we have a very conservative state government, both the legislature and the governor, but there are some very less conservative localities. In some cases, cities are pitted against their own counties in terms of enforcement and allocation of resources and so on. I was wondering what's the situation in Colorado, and how involved has your office been in that issue?
Phil Weiser: First off, I don't love the term, so I won't use it in addressing your question. The term that I appreciate more at the state level is commandeering, and tenth amendment values. By this I mean, I have always believed in federalism. And when I was writing as an early academic, it was really on federalism and the importance of the tenth amendment.
The challenge right now in Colorado, and we are assuming the federal government on this issue, is money that we have been promised by Congress for law enforcement grants called the Byrne JAG Program is being withheld because state and local entities are not willing to be commandeered by ICE to do immigration enforcement. In my view, and I actually got some applause in the western part of our state for this view, I don't want Washington to tell us what to do on immigration enforcement or on marijuana or on automobile standards. I believe in federalism. We have our autonomy and that's important.
Now you've asked a different question, which is what about local governments versus the state government. And this is actually more delicate because local governments don't have constitutional protection the way state governments do. Our local governments are creatures of state government, and in Colorado this issue has come up as to measures to address gun violence. We have passed what's called an extreme risk protection order law here, and some local counties have passed a resolution saying that they don't want their sheriffs enforcing unconstitutional gun law.
And my first answer is, this Extreme Risk Protection law, often called the Red Flag law which can take a weapon away from someone who's a significant risk to themselves or others, these laws are I believe legal, constitutional, and so there's no threat to the rule of law and I don't believe that local sheriffs for example, have the option to say I'm not going to enforce the rule of law. That's their job and lives are on the line. Now whether it's a good idea in Tennessee to have the state government tell local governments to enforce immigration enforcement, I wouldn't recommend it. The challenge right now is more and more immigrants are feeling afraid, and so if they're afraid to testify in a case because they think they could be deported, that hurts our public safety.
So I think the local governments can try to do what they can to address policies whether it's climate change or humane treatment of immigrants or gun safety, but I will tell you from a legal standpoint, local governments don't have the same protection against state governments that the state does against the feds.
Laura: Got it. Tim, if I unmute you, maybe I can't unmute you. Let me ask Tim [Harrison 00:41:04], class of '87's question. Can you ... what are your thoughts on the recent criminal justice reforms being pushed by Republicans and Democrats alike?
Phil Weiser: It's worth noting that there are issues out there, how we manage our water in Colorado for example, criminal justice reform another example, that don't divide along traditional partisan lines and instead, allow creative problem solving to just ask, what's the best solution? The movement around criminal justice can be described as the following. Over a 30 to 40 year period, so call it the Rockefeller Drug Laws til the 2010s, we began to incarcerate more and more people. And there's now enough research to say it didn't necessarily say it made us safer.
So take marijuana. We put people in jail for selling and using marijuana. In Colorado, we were the first state to say we're not doing that anymore. And I believe we are not less safe because we're not putting people in jail who sell or who use marijuana. Unfortunately, we're still putting people in jail in Colorado because they're addicted to opioids. And part of that is because we don't have enough alternatives to incarceration. So one of the biggest challenges of criminal justice improvement efforts is, alternatives to incarceration are really valuable, but you have to be able to provide them, and sometimes they cost more money. So we have this very painful challenge right now which is, we could take people out of the jails, put them in drug treatment, help them rebuild their lives, but that in the first instance costs more money. It will save you money down the road, but unfortunately it takes an investment.
Other measures like bail reform also take investments. So one of my top legislative priorities is how do we reform cash bail, which reflects I think a fundamentally unfair system which is if you don't have the money you sit in jail, whereas if you have money, you get out. What should instead be the case is, you get out if you're not a risk to re-offend or to flee regardless of what money you have. But changing from that one system to the other is not easy. So I am a real fan of efforts to make our system smarter, in other words to protect public safety, while actually being fairer and more humane to defendants and to helping promote better lives for people who otherwise could have the criminal justice system derail their lives.
There's a good book by Rachel [Bark 00:43:32] out called I think, Politics ... I forget what it's called exactly. But it discusses the challenges around criminal justice.
Laura: Chip, do you want to go ahead with your question?
Chip: Sure. Can you hear me?
Phil Weiser: Hi, Chip.
Chip: Hey, Phil. How you doing?
Phil Weiser: Doing great.
Chip: Good, good. Hey, what I wanted to speak to is the fact that we are struggling here in Colorado with the educational issues, particularly in terms of funding, and also in terms of curriculum. We're moving school districts to what is termed as culturally responsible education, but we have culturally unresponsive curriculum, which obviously gives the folks who are teaching it a easy fallback, comfortable position to move back to because it's what we are teaching to "the standards," if you will. And I think in Colorado in particular, we are in a real delicate situation. What are your thoughts on how we can start advancing this because it's going to take more than just a repeal of TABOR and a couple other things to really get us into a place where the curriculum reflects what in fact our history is, and everything that goes along with that.
Phil Weiser: So for those who don't know Chip, he's a real engaged citizen leader out here and was really supportive to me. So it's great to hear from you, Chip. I have not focused on this. This is not something that as attorney general I've got a lot of authority or responsibility in, so I'm not a good person to ask about this. I actually would rather learn more from you and others, Chip, about what this challenge is. But I do know a little bit about the funding issue, and one of the more painful realities in Colorado right now is having this straight jacket, Chip mentioned it, called TABOR Tax Bill or Bill of Rights, which has led us to become something like 48th in the nation in how much money we spend on K through 12 and something like 49th on higher education, and also pretty pathetic on transportation.
What we are threatening to do is to really bankrupt our future because if you don't invest in education, you will pay a price. And the way Colorado has avoided that price in part is, we've imported a lot of people from other states, but haven't done as good a job building our own, which from an economic development standpoint, not investing in higher ed, K through 12 and transportation is a really short termed and flawed strategy, and I worry about the price we're going to pay.
We have to get better teachers, we have to give them better tools, and we have to really excite students for a world where I think, what I learned at Swarthmore, lifelong learning. We've got to set people up to learn, to be citizens who are in a very diverse world, and be able to keep building skills because many people who graduated from college or high school are going to have 11 or so careers, not just jobs. And if we don't invest in education in a 21st century way, we're going to pay a price.
Laura: Thanks for that great question. John [Bow 00:47:06], class of '83 says, his AG in Massachusetts Maura Healey, seems to be in the news often in the past two years collaborating with other states' AGs. Example, suing Exxon or Purdue Pharma. How do you decide when to collaborate like that? How do you and your AG peers learn from each other at that level?
Phil Weiser: So I'm still learning how all this works. There are different forms for collaboration on different matters. So obviously I'm into the opioid epidemic. It's fair to say that every single state has been hit by this epidemic, every state is working together to address really what is a crisis. Purdue Pharma for those who haven't followed it, is a company that made a whole bunch of money on Oxycontin, engaged in deceptive marketing that really hurt many people. And the stories that I continue to hear are heartbreaking. What they've done is gone to bankruptcy, and Maura and I and others have been working on this and trying to not only just say we're going to turn over all our assets to those who have been hurt by the epidemic, they said we want to protect the Sackler family, because it's a privately held company, who have been taking billions of dollars out of the company over the last several years. And where we're working together is to make sure that they don't get away with essentially not paying their fair share, and so we're now in litigation together on that.
The short answer to your question is, it's a case by case matter. And there are a whole bunch of different networks for collaboration, and you end up on some matters like whether or not we're suing to prevent an illegal border wall that is built through a violation of separation of powers, those are a certain set of people, if it's investigating Google or Facebook that's others, or if it's dealing with Purdue Pharma, that's others.
Laura: We've got time for one last question. And we have one from [Amy Held 00:49:05], too. I can't seem to unmute, so I'm going to read it to you. Many people in the middle class suffer with economic insecurity. Government hasn't provided ... hasn't worked to protect their ability to provide for their families for decades. While all believe in the value of love, some are conservative socially for religious beliefs. How can we bring people in the cities and people in the rural areas together to trust each other, to work together for the common good?
Phil Weiser: I love this question. And when I started looking at the campaign, one of my painful discoveries was Trinidad, Colorado hadn't voted for a Republican for president since 1924. For those who don't remember, the Democrat who lost, John W. Davis, who was also famous for arguing the Brown versus Board of Education case on the wrong side.
Hilary Clinton lost Trinidad, Colorado. And Trinidad is a hard working community, people who are suffering, the opioid epidemic, blighted housing, and one of the critical answers to your question and there's a great op ed by Steve Bullock now running for president called How Democrats Can Win in the West, we have to show up in these small towns. And we have to listen to people. We have to work to solve the issues that they face. Education, healthcare, housing, the opioid epidemic. There is no substitute for showing up and for being willing to work to solve problems.
And what I found in the campaign and this was incredibly inspiring, not only did people in Trinidad or in Grand Junction or in Sterling care that I was showing up there, but people in Denver and Boulder cared that I was showing up there. Because people in Colorado, we want to be one state. We want to live our national model which is E pluribus unum, from many come one, and we need leaders who live that ethos and who are in it with that spirit.
I don't think it's that hard. And there have been many people I've been working with on a range of issues, including the housing issue I mentioned, opioids, including how to improve our criminal justice system, and part of what we have to do is not demonize each other. And I will say probably the most painful part of the 2016 campaign was Hilary Clinton saying that you have the basket of deplorables, but not even that, but that she then said, "And these people are irredeemable." So let me say something about redemption.
John Lewis, a great congressman, civil rights icon, tells the story of being in his office and someone shows up who's like 22 years old with his grandfather. And the grandfather says to John Lewis, "I want to apologize. I was with you at Selma on the bridge beating you, and it was wrong, and I'm sorry." So he wasn't irredeemable. People who are hard working, conservative maybe socially in small towns, frustrated and angry, they might have voted for Trump. Don't call them irredeemable. Listen, learn, and try to work together to solve problems.
Laura: Wow. What a great note to end on. And what a great question, thank you, Amy. Absolutely, showing up. Thank you for all the folks who showed up tonight, we really appreciate your participating so actively, and thank you Phil, for sharing your perspectives on such a broad range of questions. And it's great to hear someone who shares our community values, picking up the torch in a place of leadership. And I know, I'd love to support you any way I can and I hope the rest of the Swarthmore Alumni community will too as you go forward, because you are sitting around tables where having stronger, fairer, wiser perspectives is really, really important. So thank you very much for all that you do.
And we hope to see more folks on the next SwatTalks, and with that I guess we'll wrap it up. Do you have any closing thoughts, Phil?
Phil Weiser: I appreciate everyone joining. And I often say democracy is a team sport. The religious version of this is, there's a great line in scripture that says, "You don't have the responsibility yourself of repairing the world, you're not free to desist from doing your part." Or the Swarthmore version might be "guilt is good," which is something I remember people saying when we were there.
This sense of social obligation and social compact is something that I know we all learned at Swarthmore and how we use our heart and our minds to bring that good into the world is something that everyone here on this call I know is doing in their own ways. And if I can ever work with any of you back the network concept, just reach out to me, I'm easy to find. And I'm happy to support all of you as well.
Laura: Brilliant. All right. Well, thanks a lot. Goodnight everybody, and see you next time