Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
It’s the morning after Democratic state attorney general candidate Brian Colón delivered a blistering attack on his opponent during the first televised debate in the primary campaign.
Both candidates ended up trading insults and accusations over their experience and who was better fit to fight violent crime as the state’s top attorney.
Mild-mannered with a reputation for being highly personable, Colón told the Journal it was “unfortunate” the one-hour match with opponent 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez was so “contentious.”
“My mindset going into it,” Colón said, “and what people closest to me have said … that if I have a brand, it’s like, “This is Brian, he’s such a nice guy.'”
“And at the end of the day, I have to remind people that just because I’m a nice guy doesn’t mean that I can’t hold people accountable. It doesn’t mean that I can’t do the tough work.”
Colón, a former chair of the state Democratic Party, was named a top New Mexico “power broker” before he was 40 years old. He has cultivated relationships across New Mexico since his days growing up in Valencia County. But in the three years he’s been state auditor, Colón says he has not let friendships or alliances get in the way of rooting out corruption and holding people accountable.
For instance, he points out:
A March 2021 audit of Los Lunas Public Schools led by Colón’s office uncovered violations of procurement code, the state Governmental Conduct Act and open records and open meetings violations, leading to the state Public Education Department ousting the five-member school board.
“The Los Lunas schools, my alma mater, I knew almost everybody on that school board, a couple of them my whole life, but we still held them accountable.”
Colón cited the case of the former mayor of Las Vegas, New Mexico, Tonita Gurule-Giron, who was convicted last year of two felony counts after being accused of bid-rigging and abuse of office.
“She’s a convicted felon because of my work and she endorsed me when I ran for state auditor,” Colón said.
He said his reputation as a “people person” is a “huge benefit.”
“It’s getting people to sit down together who normally wouldn’t sit together and come up with solutions to difficult issues.”
Difficult issues, he said, such as reducing the state’s persistent crime rate.
He concedes the AG’s Office isn’t on the front lines of prosecuting criminals. But Colón said, “The AG has the capacity to set that table, bring stakeholders together and engage in meaningful dialogue and then work together with the Legislature to identify the path forward (to reducing crime).”
The AG’s Office typically handles public corruption cases, white collar prosecutions, crimes against children and consumer fraud investigations. Its attorneys are responsible for criminal appellate work, too.
He said that in many ways the AG’s office is the last line of defense against violent criminals.
“Families who can’t get local district attorneys to prosecute their cases go to the AG to review those cases. I want to make sure that those folks actually are received well,” said Colón.
Torrez has noted Colón has no background in public safety and has never been a criminal prosecutor.
Colón counters that he has been an effective watchdog against “price gouging, corporate greed and corruption.”
Colón, 52, said if elected he would put more emphasis on the AG’s consumer protection role. “I see the job of AG as being one of expanded opportunity to provide safer communities, to protect New Mexicans from fraud and from crime.”
He also intends to “have a more robust division that deals with holding government and ourselves accountable” to ensure New Mexicans have access to public information.
During his first year as auditor, Colón announced his office found that about $2.7 million in confidential legal settlements were negotiated during the administration of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. The settlements, involving former appointees, were an “abuse of power” and were awarded without proper protocols, he said at the time.
Settlements against the state were settled in a fraction of the time compared to others and appeared to be protecting the former Republican governor’s “political legacies” and her political agendas rather than taxpayers, he said.
Concerned about lack of ADA-compliance at state government buildings, Colón’s office last year undertook an audit that led the state General Services Department to begin correcting deficiencies and ensure accessibility, said an agency spokesman last week.
Earlier this year, Colón took on the Otero County Commission for spending nearly $50,000 to audit the 2020 presidential election results, and an inquiry by his office is underway.
Torrez has accused Colón of supporting the “Defund the Police” movement, as Torrez said is evidenced by a YouTube video in August 2020 of Colón’s podcast Cafecito con Colón, which has featured interviews with community leaders and others.
Colón denied he favors defunding the police and said Torrez took his comments out of context.
During the podcast, Colón didn’t say he was opposed to the principles of the movement, and lamented that its intent is misunderstood.
The purpose, he said during the podcast, “is reallocating resources that are better situated in the hands of different community-based models” such as health care and mental care. “It’s all those things we’ve been asking police officers to do which actually puts them in an impossible situation.”
“It’s a multi-faceted approach to public safety.”
Colón unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2010 and lost a bid to become Albuquerque mayor in 2017. Before winning the state auditor position a year later, he said he had his own caseload as an attorney practicing civil law. He was affiliated with the prominent Albuquerque law firm of Robles, Rael and Anaya of Albuquerque.
That firm has won millions of dollars in contracts from the AG’s Office since 2019, but Colón said his prior work relationship shouldn’t disqualify the law firm from continuing to represent the AG in litigation on behalf of the state. He said he has no plans to “fire any firms that are doing good work.”
He said the key is providing transparency to the process used to hire the firm and other outside counsel. “We are going to get the best subject matter experts to be fierce advocates and litigators for the people of New Mexico.”
The AG’s Office is engaged in a number of civil lawsuits such as water allocation to Texas, the Gold King Mine spill and litigation suing opioid manufacturers and distributors.
Colón is a friend of current Attorney General Hector Balderas, but said he would adopt a different leadership style.
“I’m a different kind of leader. For me, I’m more leading from a place that’s very in touch with the community, that’s very accessible to the community. I’ve never wanted to put distance between myself and the people I serve.”
A humble start
Midway through the Journal interview at an Albuquerque restaurant last week, a young woman clearing tables interrupted to thank Colón for his television commercial describing how he was forced to pawn his father’s wedding ring while putting himself through college in Las Cruces. She, too, had to make such sacrifices to make ends meet, she said.
“I’ve never seen her before,” Colón said later. “But that gives me energy for the rest of the day. Just one comment like that.”
Married to an educator, Aleli Colón, he and his wife live in Albuquerque. They have a 25-year-old son attending graduate school.
Colón often reflects on his humble start in life – the Section 8 housing, the government-supplied blocks of USDA cheese and powdered milk – sharing a life story that has galvanized his goal of giving back to the community.
Colón says he didn’t have a single blood relative in the state when at the age of 18 his family moved to Florida in the hope that his father’s rapidly deteriorating health would improve at a lower altitude. His father, who had muscular dystrophy, died at the age of 49.
“I stayed to pursue my dad’s dream, which was that I’d be the first in the family to go to college,” said Colón, who went on to get a degree in finance from New Mexico State University. He headed for the University of New Mexico law school after that. But life was far from easy.
“I had my car repossessed. I didn’t have a place to stay so friends let me stay on their couches. I know what it’s like to have my clothes in a bag going from place to place. But at the end of the day, I always knew it was the community that kind of filled the gap for me.”
Organizations such as the Elks Club, the Optimist Club and the Rotary Club invested in him, and Colón says he’s trying to repay the debt he owes to the community – as corny as he says it may sound – by practicing law and through public service.
“I think if you talk to people that have known me for 40 years, 30 years, people I went to school with, they’d always say that he was a nice guy who always wants to help everybody else.”