To get a bead on the race for Wisconsin attorney general, consider the dust-up over allegations against Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz.
Scott Hassett, the Democratic challenger, says the office of Republican incumbent J.B. Van Hollen badly botched matters when it received reports last fall that Kratz had sent text message come-ons to a victim whose ex-boyfriend he was prosecuting.
"They should have given the governor a heads-up immediately," asserts Hassett, noting the governor's ability to remove district attorneys for cause. Gov. Doyle initiated this process, prompting Kratz's resignation, after several other women gave similar accounts.
It's a smart issue for Hassett to raise, since people are angry that Kratz was able to keep his job as long as he did. But is Van Hollen a fair target of this anger?
Whereas others who knew of Kratz's transgressions sat on their hands, Van Hollen's Justice Department actually did something. It took over Kratz's prosecution of the ex-boyfriend, securing a conviction. It also forced Kratz to step down as head of the state's Crime Victims' Rights Board and report himself to the Office of Lawyer Regulation (see post on TheDailyPage.com, 9/20/10).
Hassett believes the Justice Department should have taken additional steps, like notifying the governor and keeping closer tabs on what happened with OLR and the victims' rights board. But Van Hollen and his staff say they took appropriate action based on what information was available at the time - a single case that did not involve criminal behavior. They were surprised, along with everyone else, when it came to light that OLR had concluded that Kratz committed no ethical violation.
"What reasonable person didn't think there would have been at least a public reprimand?" asks Dean Stensberg, Van Hollen's executive assistant. The Justice Department did try to keep tabs on the outcome but was hampered by what Stensberg calls "the shroud of secrecy" in place at OLR.
The whole episode seems to bear out WisPolitics.com's observation that Hassett has "had trouble finding issues with any staying power to use against the incumbent." He wants to make Van Hollen out to be a bad attorney general, but Van Hollen isn't cooperating.
In seeking the AG's job in 2006, Van Hollen gave rise to legitimate fears that he would advance an ideological agenda. The conservative Republican, in that first campaign, likened abortion to "homicide" and issued wacky warnings about terrorist training camps in Wisconsin.
But since then, Van Hollen has surprised people with his professionalism and competence more often than he's given them reason to view him as a partisan hack. He's earned a reputation, at least among some, as a pretty good attorney general.
"In many ways, he's the least partisan of the attorneys general that I've experienced here," says Stephen Hurley, a Madison defense lawyer who has been practicing in Wisconsin since 1976. "It's a political office - you run for it. And one has to expect that decisions will be influenced by politics. I just think I see it less in him."
Moreover, among lawyers he knows who've had dealings with Van Hollen, Hurley says, "I've never heard a negative thing about him."
Van Hollen came to office clucking about the "liberal activist" bent of Democrat Peg Lautenschlager, who was bumped off in the primary by Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. Then as now, he stressed his law enforcement credentials, including stints as a district attorney and U.S. attorney.
The Justice Department's function is twofold: enforcing the law and serving as the state's law firm. Van Hollen insists he's fulfilled these functions fairly, without regard for politics or ideology.
"If I wanted to be a partisan," he says, "I would have run for governor or the Legislature."
Of course, Hassett and others charge that Van Hollen has repeatedly subverted his office for political ends (see "AG Race Pivots on Role of Office," 8/12/10). He sued a state agency over election rules in what some deemed a Republican ploy, refused to represent that state in defending its domestic partner registry and unsuccessfully sought permission to join multi-state actions against federal health-care reform and in favor of Arizona's tough new immigration law.
Van Hollen says he gets accused of being partisan because of "a few issues in which the law has come down on the side of the beliefs of many Republicans." In other cases, he's sided against what Republicans would like.
And while Hassett holds that the AG's office has an obligation to defend the state, Van Hollen frames it differently: "It's our job to defend the law."
In seeking to join multi-state actions on health-care reform and immigration policy, Van Hollen says his office had a "very substantial basis in the law" but was denied for purely political reasons. He even argues that challenges to Arizona's law could undo gains he's made working with local law enforcement to "take criminal illegal aliens off the streets."
So what difference does it make that Van Hollen is a Republican? What do voters who prefer Republicans get from picking him over, say, Scott Hassett, a proud Democrat?
"There's a difference between partisan politics and Republican philosophy," says Van Hollen, arguing that he agrees with the latter - smaller government, individual rights - without succumbing to the former.
Van Hollen, answering questions Hassett suggested, admits attending past events sponsored by the Promise Keepers, a far-right Christian group whose purpose he describes more sedately as "helping Christian men be better spouses."
He has "respect" for the Tea Party movement and would gladly accept the endorsement of Sarah Palin. He doesn't agree with everything she's said and done but says support from Palin wouldn't make him her clone, just as "I don't believe that because Peg Lautenschlager is stumping for Scott Hassett he [would] necessarily be a redux of her failed policies."
Van Hollen cites support from law enforcement officers, including many sheriffs and district attorneys, for his efforts to crack down on drug dealers and Internet sex predators. He even boasts success in an area where Scott Hassett, the former head of the state Department of Natural Resources, might be seen as having an edge: "The Justice Department has brought more environmental enforcement actions [during my tenure] than any in history."
Numbers provided by his staff show that Van Hollen's office brought 319 environmental protection cases during its first three years, compared to 245 such cases during Lautenschlager's last three years.
Jason Stephany, a spokesman for Hassett, says virtually every prosecution was a referral from the DNR, which Hassett headed until September 2007, so "Van Hollen's largely claiming credit for Scott's work as DNR secretary."
Hassett adds that Lautenschlager initiated several environmental cases under her own authority, as nuisance actions. Van Hollen's side counters that it did join one action, on the issue of Asian carp, independent of the DNR. Hassett notes that this case was started by another state: "I wish Wisconsin would have been out front on that one."
It's a smart response but, like Hassett's campaign as a whole, it might not be enough to convince people that Wisconsin needs a new attorney general.