Race for 18th Judicial District Attorney hits boiling point

Allegations of racism, lies and political ambushes swirl amid election

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Tensions in the hotly contested race for 18th Judicial District Attorney have hit a boiling point amid allegations of racism, lies and political ambushes.

A heated confrontation unfolded Oct. 5 during a candidate debate held by the Public Safety Advisory Committee, a nonpartisan citizen group that advises the Douglas County sheriff, at the Corner Bakery in Highlands Ranch.

Republican John Kellner and Democrat Amy Padden are running to succeed term-limited George Brauchler. Kellner attended the event, which was changed to a Q&A interview with him. Padden said she had a scheduling conflict and did not attend.

Padden's campaign manager, Kat Traylor, posted a tear-stricken video to her Facebook profile following the debate saying she was kicked out by organizers. The post was reacted to more than 500 times, shared more than 600 times and received more than 600 comments as of Oct. 8.

The video shows Traylor speaking from her vehicle in a dark parking lot outside the venue. She said she arrived at the restaurant before closing and ordered a meal while waiting for the debate event, which was closed to the general public and held after 7 p.m., when the restaurant closed to patrons.

Traylor said she was still eating shortly after closing time, as the event's 7:30 p.m. start approached. That's when Traylor said Kory Nelson, chairman of the Public Safety Advisory Committee, confronted her and “demanded that I leave right away.”

In her video, Traylor recalled saying, “I'm a paying customer, I'm going to finish my food that I paid for.”

Traylor, who is Black, said another committee member then told her to sit in the back of the restaurant to eat her food if she would not take it to go.

“I was being told to take my food and sit in the back of the (expletive) restaurant like some dog,” she said in the video as she broke into tears. “I've never been so humiliated in my life. I've never been asked to sit in the back of a restaurant ever.”

Nelson said the committee's secretary, Jeri Lockwood, had joined his conversation with Traylor in an attempt to be helpful.

Lockwood offered the compromise of allowing Traylor to finish her meal away from where committee members were setting up the debate area and then being escorted out the back of the restaurant when finished, Nelson said.

“I said, 'Are you seriously telling a Black woman to go in the back of the restaurant to finish her meal?'” Traylor said. “And she doubled down and said, 'Yes.' I didn't know how to respond.”

Lockwood could not be reached for comment for this article.

Traylor found the incident eerily reminiscent of systemic racism from the 1940s and 1950s — when Jim Crow laws and segregation ruled daily life.

“There was a time where Black people were asked to sit in the back of the restaurant and get their food to go in the back of a restaurant because we weren't good enough to be inside the restaurant,” Traylor said in the video. “I can't really articulate what this feels like right now.”

Traylor said in an Oct. 6 interview with Colorado Community Media that the moment felt like an out-of-body experience. She and her husband felt powerless to protect themselves, she said.

Traylor's husband, vice president of the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education Kevin Cox, attended the event with her in hopes of serving as a surrogate for Padden.

Cox had already introduced the couple as Padden's representatives to Nelson before the confrontation, both Traylor and Nelson confirmed.

Nelson said he told Cox that surrogates were against debate rules and had later asked the couple to leave because of COVID-19 attendance restrictions. Traylor disputed that debate attendees were closely following pandemic precuations and did not believe that was the true reason she was asked to leave.

Instructions sent to each candidate said campaign staff would not be allowed inside, only the candidates and committee members, although Kellner's campaign manager was present with him throughout the event, Kellner said.

Kellner said he arrived to the debate expecting Padden to be there and did not know Padden's campaign declined the invitation.

“If she had said, 'I am the campaign manager,' maybe we could have had a different conversation,” Nelson said. “I know we are talking about nuances.”

Deputy arrives

Cox eventually suggested that he and Traylor leave, and the couple joined five friends standing outside the building. The group waited there discussing what to do next, Traylor said.

That's when a Douglas County Sheriff's Office deputy arrived.

Dispatch records show a caller asked for increased patrol for the debate at approximately 7:50 p.m., saying there was a group of protesters outside the building.

The caller's identity is redacted and their voice was removed from a recording of the call provided to Colorado Community Media through a public records request, and a verbatim transcript does not exist, a records custodian said.

The deputy's body camera footage shows him walking up to a group of four people and speaking with Cox. Traylor is not present and does not interact with the deputy.

The deputy spends several minutes talking to the group, including asking a woman why she is recording the interaction and if she planned to post the video on YouTube. The deputy said he was “very media averse. I don't want to be on anything. I just want to do my job.”

“I'm always going to give you a hard time holding up a camera,” he said.

The deputy spoke briefly with two other people as he left and checked on a neighboring business before leaving the area, finding no criminal activity.

Nelson said he did not ask anyone to call law enforcement and he did not have firsthand knowledge of who did.

“I'm sorry that (Traylor) perceived the offer of a compromise as somehow being insensitive,” Nelson said. “Her race had nothing to do with this as far as we are concerned, as far as the objective facts are concerned.”

He called the incident with Traylor a setup and politically motivated.

“Amy Padden should be embarrassed and fire her as far as I'm concerned,” Nelson said.

Nelson said he had not watched all of Traylor's video posted to Facebook and called her allegations “a sideshow,” urging people to watch the debate video instead.

“I don't really care,” he said. “I don't particularly care to empower her or give her any credence whatsoever.”

Debating the debate

Traylor said she spoke to Nelson by phone in September, informing him Padden's campaign was declining to participate in the debate. The committee then proceeded to promote the debate, she said, forcing the Padden campaign's hand.

“We did not agree to this debate, and they kept advertising it as if we had because they wanted to pull this political stunt,” Padden said.

Padden said she was “outraged at the way (Traylor) was treated.”

She originally declined to participate for several reasons, but also because Nelson has expressed support for her opponent and has openly criticized her on social media, she said.

Traylor said she feared a political ambush when declining the invitation and made unsuccessful attempts at getting the committee to stop promoting the event.

Padden, a prosecutor in the 11th Judicial District, declined to come for the final time the day of the debate because of a court scheduling conflict, she said.

“Because they wouldn't take (the social media posts) down, I didn't want them to say, 'Amy didn't show up,' so I sent surrogates,” Padden said.

Nelson told a different story.

Traylor left their conversation open-ended, he said, telling him she would talk to Padden about attending and get back to him. Nelson said he did not hear from the campaign from that point.

“Never would have done that. We would have converted it to an interview,” he said. “This Kat person is lying, and I think Amy should be embarrassed as (expletive) as to how she's acting.”

Padden and Traylor said they were disappointed the restaurant owner allowed a customer to be treated the way Traylor was; they hope the sheriff will address the committee's conduct; and they criticized Kellner for remaining silent during the incident. The restaurant owner Jamey Cutter declined to comment.

“You watched this happen and you said nothing,” Traylor said of Kellner.

Political season

Kellner said committee members also asked him to wait near the rear of the restaurant while they set up for the event. He sat away from the debate area looking at his notes when committee members asked Traylor to leave.

“I don't know what was said to Amy's campaign manager by the folks at PSAC because from where I was sitting, I couldn't hear any of that,” he said. “I know I had been asked to kind of sit in the back.”

Kellner said he felt bad about the incident and that discriminatory behavior is “not consistent with who I have been as a prosecutor.”

“If I'm asked to go sit in the back,” Kellner said, “I recognize that for me that doesn't make me feel like I'm being discriminated against in any way, and what I don't know is, I don't know her campaign manager. I don't know Kat's life experience and I don't know if being asked that, you know, how that makes her feel.”

Kellner said he hopes the committee and Padden's campaign can communicate better in the future. Nelson said the committee is willing to hold an interview with Padden in the same format as Kellner's at a later date.

In Padden's absence, the debate moderator, KNUS radio station host Deborah Flora, conducted a Q&A conversation with Kellner. Both Flora and Kellner expressed disappointment that Padden did not attend.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock did not attend the debate and emphasized that the committee is a separate organization, saying the sheriff's office has no authority over the group and vice versa.

“They do advise me, but I don't have any control over them,” he said. “It is an independent group of citizens.”

The committee began under a different name as a group of citizens advising the sheriff's office on a tax initiative but formally formed as the Public Safety Advisory Committee in 2007.

The committee has since advised sheriffs on myriad issues. The group is not funded by the sheriff's office, Spurlock said.

Regarding the debate incident, Spurlock said most of the information he knew came from Facebook, and he had no comment on Traylor's account of the evening. He did review body camera footage from the deputy who responded.

Spurlock said calls for increased patrol are routine at the office, adding “we literally get hundreds of those” and the deputy left soon after speaking with a group standing outside the restaurant.

“He saw there was no need for any law enforcement interaction,” Spurlock said. “It was an uneventful contact.”

Spurlock said he called Nelson and asked for a debriefing on the matter after it took off on social media the following morning. He also called Kellner, whom he has formally endorsed, and he spoke to Traylor by email. Kellner told Spurlock he did not hear the exchange between the committee members and Padden's campaign staff, Spurlock said.

“I think we all just need to remember that during political season, everyone has an opinion, and everyone has the right to have an opinion," he said, "but we should use caution on a rush to judgment on things."

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