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In First Debate, Candidates for Attorney General Highlight Different Visions for the Post

Voters had a chance Sunday afternoon to spend an hour with the candidates for attorney general.

Democrat Susan Happ and Republican Brad Schimel met for the first of three debates. It took place in Milwaukee, and was distributed online, and to a number of TV stations.

The conversation began with the candidates being asked: how exactly do they view the job of attorney general?

Susan Happ, Jefferson County’s district attorney, went first. The Democrat said the person holding the post is more than the state’s “top cop.”

“There’s an entire picture of what the attorney general is, which encompasses not just public protection or fighting crime or protecting our citizens, but also being an advocate for our citizens, being the people’s attorney, and that’s really an important role, because the attorney general has such a tremendous amount of ability to influence public policy and to talk to the voters and be an advocate for all of our citizens,” Happ says.

The Republican, Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel, agrees the attorney general provides guidance to local law enforcement, while also serving as the state’s top attorney.

Yet he puts a different twist on what that means.

“I think the most important thing for the attorney general, on that civil side especially, is to make sure we have a stable and predictable legal and regulatory environment. We’ve got to enforce the laws the way they’re written and we’ve got to defend Wisconsin law. Wisconsin needs to be able to count on their lawyer to step up to the plate and defend our laws when they’re under attack,” Schimel says.

Laws such as voter ID. A photo ID requirement has been on the books for three years. Yet it’s been blocked for most of that time, pending the outcome of legal challenges. Last month, a federal appeals court reinstated the requirement. Then last week, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked it -- at least until after the November elections.

Current Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has vigorously defended the law. Democrat Susan Happ says she would not, if she replaces him.

“The Wisconsin constitution is very clear about what requirements our voters need (in order) to vote. There are three requirements. This law creates a fourth requirement not in our constitution, and it does create real impediments to voters,” Happ says.

Republican Brad Schimel, however, says it would be incumbent upon him to keep up the fight.

“The Supreme Court only said that because of the short time involved we can’t let it go into effect for Nov. 4. Still right now, our law is constitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t said otherwise. Of course the attorney general is going to continue to defend that, if I’m the attorney general,” Schimel says.

Schimel claims Happ’s approach – to pick and choose her battles -- would make her an “activist” attorney general. Happ claims Schimel’s plan, to defend the state’s laws, no questions asked, would be a “robotic” approach to the job.

The two also bickered over claims that have come up in the campaign, questioning both candidates’ ethics. Schimel criticized how Happ’s office handled a sexual assault case, in which the suspect had personal business dealings with Happ.

“She’s got a big challenge with a case that she hasn’t answered the questions on yet, where she had a $180,000 land contract with an individual who was pending in her office on first degree sexual assault to a child, and ended up with a very dramatic reduction of that charge and the recommendation in the case,” Schimel says.

Happ defended the actions of her office, and said she’s been mum about details, because it’s an open case. Meanwhile, she criticized how Schimel has handled a number of matters. One was a complaint related to Oconomowoc Republican state Rep. Joel Kleefisch. A liberal group had contacted Schimel, accusing Kleefisch of planning legislation that one of Kleefisch’s donors helped write. The group said the donor would benefit, because the proposal would lower his child support payments. Schimel declined to investigate. Happ took issue with Schimel’s response, including an email, in which he said there’s nothing wrong with a citizen donating to a lawmaker, in hopes of furthering a cause.

“It certainly looks as if the office has been politicized because it wasn’t just a person who helped draft this legislation, it was a campaign donor of Republican Rep. Kleefisch, who was going to directly benefit financially from this legislation,” Happ says.

Schimel said his comments were taken out of context. And he says the group that complained about Kleefisch never followed up with information that would have helped him pursue an investigation.

Despite their differences, Schimel and Happ found some common ground. Both said the attorney general should play a role in the fight against heroin and against drunken driving.

And both said the office holder must help find ways to lower Wisconsin’s black male incarceration rate. The state leads the nation, by far.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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