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Politics Tinge Wisconsin AG Race and Job

Attorney General candidates Susan Happ (D) and Brad Schimel (R) may reveal plans for the Justice Dept. and political leanings, during their debate Sunday.

The role of Attorney General is to represent Wisconsin in legal matters. That might mean defending the state or suing on its behalf. Sometimes, the AG and governor belong to the same party, other times not. Either way, politics can creep in, depending on the issue, according to Janine Geske, distinguished law professor at Marquette.

"Anything from what position the AG’s office might take on defending a law involving abortion, gay marriage or gay rights; what position it might take on defending the governor’s office on some issues; a lot of those, what I would call hot button political issues, the AG’s office becomes front and center as the decision is made, whether to defend a law or not defend a law,” Geske says.

All those issues have arisen during the tenure of outgoing Republican J.B. Van Hollen. Geske recalls former AG Peg Lautenschlager upsetting some by taking up cases related to worker rights, while Donald Hanaway rankled thousands by arranging a deal on tribal spear fishing.

Lately, Geske says, outside groups have taken an increased interest in Wisconsin’s AG race and some try to influence it, because a few issues have become national issues.

“Whether it’s related to the control of abortion clinics or enforcement of environmental laws. Many of these laws are no longer just contained within the state.They have a national impact and, as a result, many more groups and people and corporations around the country are watching these races because they see that that position is so powerful, as to whether or not the state will get involved in litigation. Another example is fighting Obamacare,” Geske says.

Geske says, during campaigns for Attorney General, candidates sometimes highlight where they fall on politically-charged issues. They also usually offer a platform of what they’d like to accomplish - perhaps upgrade the state crime lab or beef-up drug enforcement. But she says voters may overlook a huge part of the job - running the state Justice Dept.

“How good are they at managing some very excellent career attorney? What is their judgment on allocation of funding and less funding for services that affect the poor, the elderly, people in the criminal justice system,” Geske asks.

Geske says the case these days with most state offices, is that voters view candidates in light of a few issues, when the jobs are so much bigger.