"The campaign has gone from a marathon to sprint," says Scott Hassett, the presumed Democratic nominee for attorney general. Hassett, who I talked to yesterday in the East Doty offices of Lawton & Cates, the law firm for whom he is a part-time counsel, has fully entered the fundraising frenzy of campaign season. He listed a number of prominent Democrats who have hosted events for him recently or plan to do so, including Peg Lautenschlager, Kathleen Falk, Gwen Moore, Barbara Lawton, Gordon Hintz and Dave Cieslewicz. He laments the necessity of soliciting contributions in modern politics, saying he would rather interact with "live bodies," but admits that it is essential to cover mailers, TV ads and overhead costs.
Hassett notes that his opponent, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, has not been raising money as aggressively as expected. Hassett rejects that Van Hollen's low numbers suggest confidence in re-election. However, as Bill Lueders recently reported, Hassett has roughly $100,000 on hand, while Van Hollen has over $300,000 in the bank.
The son of the former chief-of-staff to Republican Gov. Warren Knowles, Hassett emphasizes the need to do away with the partisan politicking that he believes has sullied the Department of Justice during Van Hollen's tenure. He accuses the incumbent of pursuing party interests over his duties to the state on multiple occasions.
In particular, he cites Van Hollen's lawsuit against the Government Accountability Board before the 2008 election, his refusal to defend the state's domestic partner law from a conservative court challenge, his attempt to sue the federal government over health care reform and his recent initiative to join Arizona in challenging the federal government over immigration as examples of a highly partisan and highly wasteful agenda in the attorney general's office.
What Hassett considers frivolous lawsuits in the attorney general's office have forced the state to divert resources from necessary operations. "District attorneys and sheriffs are crying out for resources and staff...they don't have the warm bodies to prosecute cases in a timely fashion." Moreover, in cases that Van Hollen refuses to take on behalf of the state, Wisconsin is forced to spend money on outside lawyers for representation.
He contrasts Van Hollen's record as AG with that of Jim Doyle, who was attorney general prior to his election as governor in 2002. According to Hassett, Doyle was committed to law over ideology, and frequently represented the state in cases that required him to take a position contrary to his personal political beliefs.
Hassett touts his experience as a litigator in both criminal and civil matters as his chief qualification for the job. "I've done more than 500 cases and probably closer to 1000," he says. "I've litigated everything they do here, both criminal and civil. I've appeared in 40 counties in this state, in federal court and even tribal court."
He is particularly proud of his participation in the action against Menard's for environmental violations, in which the retail giant paid the largest environmental criminal fine in state history (it held the previous record as well).
When prodded on criminal justice in Wisconsin, he notes that the state likely imprisons far too many small-time offenders. "We're not getting our money's worth," he says, comparing the corrections system here to that of Minnesota, where far less money is spent and far more offenders are put on probation or into rehabilitation programs.
However, he does not necessarily support the governor's early release program, arguing that such a program cannot be done only for budgetary reasons. "It has to be done with the corresponding system in place, such as probation officers and drug and alcohol treatment," he says. He notes that the more contact an offender has with a probation agent, the less likely he or she is to reoffend.
He also voiced concerns about racial disparities in the prison system, and said that sentencing guidelines needed to balance the need for equal treatment with discretion for judges.
Analysis: In what is expected to be an election of Republican gains, it would be highly surprising if Hassett succeeded in unseating the only Wisconsin Republican who won a statewide election in 2006, a huge Democratic year. However, there are a couple reasons he may be a stronger candidate than Falk. For instance, rumor has it that many of the anti-Falk forces, including WMC, which ran ads against her, conducted polls in which they discovered that pointing to a candidate's lack of prosecution experience resonated especially well with voters if the candidate is female. Although Hassett has never been a prosecutor, he has been involved in investigating environmental violations and recommending pursuing criminal or civil cases in his position as Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources.
Moreover, Hassett does not enter the general election weakened by a nasty primary fight, as Falk did. The fact that Doyle outperformed Falk by 9000 votes in Dane County points to the possibility that many Democratic voters were embittered by the ouster of Peg Lautenschlager, a liberal stalwart.