J.B. Van Hollen
44. Former assistant state public defender, district attorney in Ashland and Bayfield counties, and U.S. attorney for Wisconsin's Western District.
59. Former secretary, state Department of Natural Resources. Civil and criminal attorney at Lawton & Cates for 22 years.
There's a reason state attorney general is an elected partisan position: However much anyone tries to deny it, political ideology is key to how the job gets done.
But oh, how they try to deny it.
"You have to run for this office as a partisan," says Scott Hassett, the Democrat challenging Republican incumbent J.B. Van Hollen. "But once you're there, you're the people's lawyer, and you should not be using the agency for partisan political purposes."
This, asserts Hassett, is what Van Hollen has done, time and again. Van Hollen, of course, denies it, saying on his website that he's restored the office's "commitment to the rule of law" after dark days of "gimmicks and political agendas." (His Democratic predecessor, Peg Lautenschlager, was ousted in the 2006 primary by Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, whose "liberal activist agenda" Van Hollen beat back. Both Lautenschlager and Falk support Hassett.)
The candidates' high-stakes game of "I know you are but what am I?" has played out mostly unnoticed, though the Nov. 2 election is less than three months away. Van Hollen has already spent a bundle of campaign cash - $179,328 in the first six months of this year alone. Most went to consultants and direct mail, and seems not to have raised the profile of the race.
Still, the race's key issue is abundantly clear: Which partisan contender for this partisan office can most be trusted to keep partisanship out of the equation?
Hassett, the former head of the state Department of Natural Resources, cites a string of occasions where he believes Van Hollen has misused the resources of his office on "partisan political causes."
In September 2008 Van Hollen sued the state Government Accountability Board, alleging it failed to comply with new federal voter registration rules. Critics pegged this suit, ultimately dismissed, as part of a national Republican strategy to lower voter turnout.
More recently, Van Hollen has sought gubernatorial or legislative permission to join the attorneys general of other states in challenging federal health-care reform and backing Arizona's tough new immigration laws. In both cases, permission was denied, but the fall elections could change that, if Van Hollen is reelected and the Republicans win either the governor's office or one legislative house.
Hassett also faults Van Hollen's refusal to defend the state against a challenge to its domestic partner registry. Van Hollen said the registry was clearly contrary to state law. The state hired outside attorneys, who successfully argued that it was not.
Scott Hassett says that there's "a pretty low bar" for when the office has an obligation to defend the positions of the state and that past AGs, including Jim Doyle, have sometimes had to "hold their nose" on cases in which they personally disagreed. "I would do the same thing, if I felt it was my duty to do so."
And while Hassett doesn't vow never to make common cause with other AGs or refuse to back the state, he says Van Hollen has sought to involve the office in causes where there is no firm legal (as opposed to political) basis for doing so.
Van Hollen, of course, would insist he's taken the stands he has because he thought the law was on his side (efforts to arrange an interview were not successful). And in fact, he has disappointed some conservatives by not being more ideological. Early in his term, for instance, he issued an opinion agreeing that the state's ban on partial birth abortion was, as written, not constitutional.
Van Hollen's campaign touts his success at cracking down on Internet sex predators and reducing backlogs at the state Crime Lab. (Hassett gives the credit to lawmakers and Doyle, for coming up with the cash for new positions.)
Other Van Hollen issues carry a faint whiff of politics. He champions his efforts to fight voter fraud - a cause célèbre among conservatives but, according to most observers, not a significant problem in Wisconsin - and an opinion he wrote barring illegal immigrants from getting professional licenses.
Hassett charges that, while pursuing such causes, Van Hollen has done little to protect consumers or police big business through antitrust, price-fixing and bid-rigging cases. And he feels the office should be more involved in environmental issues, especially those affecting the Great Lakes and the state's groundwater supply.
But aren't these arguably, on some level, the priorities of a Democrat?
Despite the "throw the bums out" mood of the electorate, it's likely Van Hollen will benefit from being an incumbent. He raised $206,469 during the first six months of this year and, despite his high level of spending, still had $340,996 on hand as of June 30. Hassett, meanwhile, raised $107,917 and had $120,564 on hand.
It remains unclear whether and to what extent outside special interests will get involved in the race. In 2006 these interests poured $3.6 million into the race, mostly on Van Hollen's behalf, more than that spent by the two major candidates. Van Hollen also has significant personal wealth, as evidenced by his $700,000 loan to that cause.
And Van Hollen, a former state and federal prosecutor, enjoys substantial backing from county sheriffs and district attorneys and associations representing law enforcement. Expect his campaign to make much of the fact that Hassett has never worked as a prosecutor.
Hassett, of course, has a ready reply: "I believe I am a better candidate in terms of broad experience, in litigation from one end of the state to the other, as well as my experience of running one of the more complex agencies in state government."
Hassett says he knows as well as anyone what makes a good prosecutor. Moreover, as DNR secretary, "I reviewed and signed off on close to 100 prosecutions a year, civil and criminal, that we referred to the Department of Justice." This includes a criminal prosecution of Menards that drew the largest environmental fine ($2 million) in state history.
Hassett is proud of his role in this case, although it angered some lawmakers and continues to have repercussions for him: One of Van Hollen's largest campaign contributors, having given a total of $10,000, is company president John Menard. Of this, $450 was donated in 2007 and early 2009; the remaining $9,550 came in the latter half of 2009, after Hassett entered the race.