Last Thursday (June 7), I attended a debate that took place at Pueblo Community College between the two democratic candidates, Bill Thiebaut and Jeff Chostner, who are vying for the position of Pueblo's District Attorney. Both candidates are veteran politicians who have devoted the bulk of their lives to public service. I had hoped the debate would help me learn more about the candidates as individuals, their views on crime and justice, and, most importantly, would also help me decide which candidate would be better suited to serve as Pueblo's next District Attorney. I am pleased to report that the debate did not disappoint.
Since both candidates are Democrats one might assume that Bill Thiebaut and Jeff Chostner are interchangeable. Not so. Apart from the fact that they are both members of the same political party, each candidate emphasized throughout the debate that their views about criminal justice, the state of public security in Pueblo, and the manner in which the DA's office ought to be managed differ in practically every respect.
Bill Thiebaut is seeking his third term as Pueblo's District Attorney. During his two terms as DA, Thiebaut has implemented a "Smart Justice' program. According to Thiebaut, the best way to fight crime is to prevent it. Though over the years, DA Thiebaut has certainly prosecuted an enormous number of criminals, Thiebaut's Smart Justice program employs an innovative social intervention strategy that is intended to aggressively discourage criminality. Without doubt, this is a much smarter way to fight crime. Rather than passively standing by while criminals victimize the community, Thiebaut's Smart Justice program enhances community security by nipping crime in the bud. The logic of Thiebaut's Smart Justice program is simple. Fewer crimes = Fewer victims and a safer, happier community.
Jeff Chostner is running for DA because he says that crime is rampant in Pueblo. Not only did Chostner assert on multiple occasions during the June 7 debate that, in recent years, violent and property crimes have escalated in Pueblo anywhere from 20-30%, but Chostner also claimed that Pueblo has become "the crime capital of Colorado.' Indeed, at one point, Chostner even suggested that crime has become so rampant in Pueblo that, "when criminals in Colorado want to commit crimes, they come to Pueblo.' In short, Chostner painted a picture of Pueblo as a city where crime is utterly out of control. According to Chostner, busy thoroughfares, such as Fourth Street, have literally become unsafe for law-abiding citizens to traverse. Chostner even described his own experience as a driver on Fourth Street who, when required to stop at a traffic signal, fears to turn his head either to the left or right because of the criminal elements that he is convinced are hemming him in. From Chostner's perspective, criminals have taken control of Pueblo and they are breathing down the necks of law-abiding citizens.
In contrast to Bill Thiebaut, Jeff Chostner was of the opinion that the only way to fight crime in Pueblo is for the District Attorney to prosecute a higher number of criminals. In many municipalities, district attorneys measure their success by one single criteria: criminal convictions. During the debate, Bill Thiebaut pointed out that the easiest way for DAs to pad their conviction rates--and, thus, create the appearance of being "tough on crime"--is to pursue convictions against those who are least able to defend themselves: the poor. To his credit, Thiebaut insisted that he never had, nor would he ever, artificially inflate his conviction rates by disproportionately prosecuting the poor. On Bill Thiebaut's watch, the DA's office will remain dedicated to applying the law equally to everyone regardless of how large their bank accounts happen to be.
Time and again, Jeff Chostner dismissed DA Thiebaut's Smart Justice program as ineffective. As Chostner addressed the standing room-only audience at Pueblo Community College, he repeatedly prefaced his comments by stating that "everyone in the audience" had had the same experiences as he and would, therefore, share his perspective that "Pueblo is the crime capital of Colorado.'
On that score, I am afraid that I must emphatically disagree with Jeff Chostner. First of all, it is one thing to say that crime has increased, and it is quite another to prove it. Whereas Bill Thiebaut cited specific, authoritative sources for all of the key points in his argument, Jeff Chostner relied upon hyperbole. According to Jeff Chostner, crime has increased in Pueblo because he says it has. No further evidence required. Even more, Jeff Chostner insisted that every member of the debate audience shared his jaundiced view of justice in Pueblo. However, in making that claim, Jeff Chostner said something that was patently untrue.
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Whether Jeff Choster intentionally spoke untruthfully or not is for him alone to say. My point is that my experience with crime and justice in Pueblo is very different than Jeff Chostner's. I disagree strenuously with Jeff Chostner's statement that "Pueblo is the crime capital of Colorado.' Not only does that statement ring false with Colorado crime statistics, it also rings false with my experience as a proud citizen of Pueblo, Colorado. My wife and I chose to raise our daughters in Pueblo because we believe it is a safe and beautiful city. Further, I believe that Pueblo is safe and beautiful because I encounter abundant evidence of that fact every time that I walk, drive, or ride my bicycle across Pueblo.
My city is not the crime capital of Colorado, and Commissioner Jeff Chostner should be ashamed of himself for saying that it is. Indeed, I would like to take this opportunity to demand an apology from Commissioner Jeff Chostner on behalf of the city of Pueblo.
Frankly, I expect a two-term Pueblo County Commissioner to hold a more charitable view of Pueblo. Further, if as Commissioner Chostner suggests, Pueblo has gone to the dogs in recent years, then it has done so on his watch as a Pueblo County Commissioner. If, as Jeff Chostner implies, he has failed so miserably as a Pueblo County Commissioner, then why on earth should voters believe that he would be successful as Pueblo's DA? It only stands to reason that anyone who, by his own admission, has been such a monumental failure as a Pueblo County Commissioner would also be a monumental failure as a District Attorney.
Of course, the truth is that, far from being the crime capital of Colorado, Pueblo is fast-becoming one of the most visible garden spots in an exceptionally beautiful state. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Pueblo's emerging "creative community,' which is comprised of a groundbreaking collaboration of forward-thinking business owners, artists, and creative entrepreneurs, Pueblo is rapidly evolving into one of the most desirable destinations on the Front Range. I would expect a two-term Pueblo County Commissioner to be more in touch with that all-important reality. Instead, Jeff Chostner repeatedly denigrated Pueblo as an unhealthy, criminal cesspool.
The problem is that Jeff Chostner is a politician. As we all know, politicians will say anything, no matter how far removed from the truth, in order to get elected. Even more, Jeff Chostner is trying to unseat a highly successful and popular incumbent, Bill Thiebaut, from his position as District Attorney. Even though all of the verifiable evidence indicates that Bill Thiebaut has done a sterling job as Pueblo's DA, Jeff Chostner could not very well unseat Bill Thiebaut if he stuck to the truth, which would sound something like this, "Way to go, Bill. You are doing a great job! Keep up the good work!" So, instead of telling the truth, Jeff Chostner has cooked up an alternative vision of Pueblo as a dark, dirty, dangerous Gotham that can only be saved by Southern Colorado's one and only caped-crusader: Jeff Chostner.
During the debate, Bill Thiebaut urged Puebloans to be cautious of any politician who conjures images of a terror-filled, crime-ridden Pueblo, and then tries to assure panicked voters that he and he alone, the conjuror of that malevolent illusion, is uniquely-equipped to solve all of Pueblo's problems. Instead, Bill Thiebaut encouraged Puebloans to rely on their own judgement to evaluate the facts. Is Pueblo a crime-ridden nightmare of a community, or is it the hardest-working, fastest-changing metropolis on the Front Range? You decide.
Two politicians who hold two wildly different views of our community are currently vying for the office of Pueblo DA. Which candidate offers a truer, more optimistic depiction of Pueblo? Between now and Tuesday, June 26, 2012, I strongly encourage you to vote in the Democratic primary election for the DA candidate who is more in touch with reality--and who also embraces a more optimistic vision of the past, present, and future of this beautiful city .
Power to The People's Attorney, Bill Thiebaut.
Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at CSU-Pueblo. He and his family have been residents of Pueblo since August, 2000.