Let's assume for the sake of argument that the four candidates for state attorney general are trustworthy and reliable ' something we really should be able to take for granted. If that's the case, then we can conclude, based on what the candidates are saying about each other, that whoever wins in November will be utterly unfit, incompetent and quite possibly corrupt, a raging ideologue pursuing a partisan political agenda. We'd probably be better off with no attorney general than one of these clowns.
Yes, it's the state's top law-enforcement position and second highest political office, next to governor. Yes, the person who holds this job oversees the state Justice Department, which has 535 employees, including 88 assistant attorneys general, and a 2006 budget of $97.4 million. Yes, he or she makes critical decisions regarding law enforcement priorities, environmental and consumer protection, interprets and enforces the state's open records and open meetings laws, and otherwise seeks to ensure integrity in government.
And yes, all four contenders have resumes that would seem to qualify them for the job. Incumbent Democrat Peg Lautenschlager, elected in 2002, is a former district attorney, state legislator and U.S. Attorney. Democratic challenger Kathleen Falk spent 14 years as an assistant attorney general before being elected in 1997 as Dane County executive; she now manages a budget about four times as large with four times as many employees as the state Justice Department.
On the Republican side, J.B. Van Hollen is a one-time public defender who went on to become district attorney of two northern counties and be appointed by President Bush to follow Lautenschlager as U.S. Attorney. And Paul Bucher has logged 18 years as district attorney of Waukesha County.
But in their face-offs in advance of the Sept. 12 primary and especially in the bombs they've lobbed across party lines, the candidates agree: Electing anyone but themselves would be a terrible mistake, with potentially ruinous consequences for Wisconsin.
"I don't recall a primary in any context that has been as vitriolic as this one," says Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, referring to both the Falk-Lautenschlager and Van Hollen-Bucher match-ups. "They see each other as evil incarnate."
In fact, the race is so negative that Heck told the Associated Press he thinks the candidates are actively seeking to "drive down turnout and disillusion supporters of the other side. The way you do that is to paint your opponent as a slimeball."
They've succeeded. The race for Wisconsin attorney general is a triumph of calculated political skulduggery and spontaneous eruptions of pure contempt. The quest to be the state's top cop has been redefined by the candidates themselves as a race among unworthy contenders. And, who knows, maybe they're right.
Falk vs. Lautenschlager
Peg Lautenschlager is often said to possess uncommon courage. She's stood up to Gov. Jim Doyle, the leader of her party, making a powerful enemy who some see as seeking to engineer her defeat. She's sued the Bush administration for playing politics with women's reproductive health. She's gone after pharmaceutical companies and gasoline price gougers. And she's now prosecuting legislators for allegedly violating the state's open records law.
But Lautenschlager, her opponents agree, is just plain unelectable, because she got busted for drunk driving in 2004. Never mind that numerous state politicians, including at least one other attorney general (Bronson La Follette in 1981), have made the same mistake and gone on to be reelected. When it happened to Lautenschlager, Falk says, it sparked a groundswell of concern: "People all across the state said, 'Falk, you've got to run.'"
When she entered the race last fall, Falk dodged questions as to why voters should pick her over another progressive Democrat with a track record of achievement. She said that was something she'd be talking about in the course of the campaign. But mostly, she's just continued to outgas mind-numbing platitudes about values and children.
(One letter writer to The Capital Times, responding to a typically unsubstantial Falk offering, had this to say: "Intense personal ambition cloaked in chipmunk cheery nonsense about 'caring' and 'values' is about as off-putting as finding a live cockroach hissing and twitching in my bowl of tapioca pudding." Jeez, pal, there's no need to pull your punches; tell us what you really think.)
Falk is the only candidate who lacks experience prosecuting criminal cases. Her stint as assistant AG was mostly as public intervenor, an environmental watchdog. Falk likes to say she was so good that Gov. Tommy Thompson eliminated the position; she tends not to mention that Jim Doyle lied to voters in promising to restore it.
Despite Falk's tough talk about "gang violence funded by drug sales" and Milwaukee's "unacceptable" murder rate, her opponents paint her as soft on crime. Lautenschlager faults Falk for rising gang activity in Dane County, noting that her response has been to appoint an anemic task force that's met once in three months. "All we've heard from her is meaningless talk and proposed committees," declared Lautenschlager campaign manager Greg Leifer via press release. Falk last week countered with a position paper on anti-gang strategies.
Falk's Republican rivals, meanwhile, are aghast at her desire to address the root causes of crime. Falk has pioneered diversion programs that offer treatment as well as punishment under strict controls to jail inmates with substance abuse problems. As attorney general, she hopes to expand such initiatives, noting that they reduce recidivism and save taxpayers' money.
Bucher, in particular, has pounced on this, all but declaring Falk a menace to society. His Web site features a political hit job called "Catch and Release Kate," with 18 scary mug shots of mostly black men who were at one time convicted of nonviolent offenses. These are the sort of offenders who might, if Falk had her way, be eligible for drug and alcohol treatment. All went on to commit other, more serious crimes.
Of course, it could be argued that this helps make Falk's point. If these individuals had received treatment, they might not have later victimized others. But Bucher seems to be saying that the justice system should have known early on these people were ticking time bombs and made sure they got only punishment, not treatment. That's the kind of smart thinking about criminal justice that Bucher would bring to the job.
Perhaps the closest thing to a substantive issue that's emerged between Lautenschlager and Falk concerns DNA testing at the Justice Department's crime lab. From 2003 to 2005, the number of cases awaiting completion nearly tripled, from 478 to 1,375, largely because of a huge spike in requests for DNA tests.
That, according to Falk, indicates a failure of leadership. "The job of attorney general is to solve that problem," she's said. "Under my watch, we will fix that backlog." Lautenschlager suggests that Falk simply doesn't understand the problem and what is being done about it. "This is so naive," she's said of Falk's critique. (The GOP contenders have also seized on this issue, suggesting that more timely processing of DNA evidence might have spared the life of a Justice Department drug agent; the man's family reacted with outrage, expressing support for Lautenschlager and decrying "attempts to use his murder for political purpose.")
Falk, whose campaign has spent $16,500 on a Chicago-based firm to dig up dirt on her opponents, is also seeking to peg Lautenschlager (cleaver pun intended) as compromised if not corrupted: "She's accepted [campaign] money from those who have had cases settled in front of her." Falk vows that, if elected, she'll impose a one-year ban on contributions from individuals or groups with business before the Justice Department. But only if elected. For now, candidate Falk has taken money from people who've been subject to recent Justice Department enforcement actions.
In addition, Falk rips Lautenschlager for getting too much campaign money from out-of-state. In the first six months of 2006, more than 40% of the total amount of individual contributions to Lautenschlager's campaign were from other states. Falk campaign spokesperson Adam Collins says this shows "it's been increasingly difficult for Lautenschlager to find support?from inside Wisconsin" but confirms that Falk, if elected, has made no pledge to return out-of-state contributions beyond a certain level.
The GOP contenders, meanwhile, accuse the incumbent of ethical lapses several times a week. Bucher, for instance, on July 31 filed an Ethics Board complaint blasting Lautenschlager's "obvious conflict of interest" when her office said it might look into a contact between a state official and Richard Schiffrin, an attorney seeking state business he did not get. Lautenschlager received a $5,000 donation from Schiffrin's wife, and her aide referred Schiffrin to another agency.
"The solution is simple," declared Bucher via press release. "Step aside and let someone else investigate. Does the AG not recognize the appearance of pay to play? Even if he didn't get the work, it doesn't mean there was no wrongdoing here. The AG doesn't belong on this case. Peg Lautenschlager shouldn't be doing the investigating."
In fact, by this time, the Attorney General's Office had already deferred the matter to the Ethics Board to investigate. That prompted Bucher to issue another, even angrier press release the next day, Aug. 1, demanding that Lautenschlager explain her office's decision to step aside: "She should have known she had a conflict of interest in the first place. She shouldn't have had to be forced into doing the right thing."
Bucher vs. Van Hollen
If you should ever be given a choice between watching Paul Bucher and J.B. Van Hollen debate each other, or having wild boars eat your face, go with the boars. They are gentler and less disagreeable.
"You and Peg are locked at the hip on this issue," seethed Bucher to Van Hollen during one debate, on Wisconsin Public Television. "She doesn't want to do anything; you don't want to do anything."
The issue was illegal immigration and Van Hollen was saying that enforcing immigration laws was primarily a federal matter. He boasted to Bucher that as U.S. attorney, "I came up with an illegal immigration plan that was far tougher [and] far, far more conservative than yours." According to Van Hollen, Bucher would simply return illegal immigrants who commit crimes to their home country so they can sneak back across the border and create new victims.
Bucher accused Van Hollen of "rhetoric and distorting my plan," then repeated his central critique: "[Van Hollen] wants to sit on the sidelines with Peg Lautenschlager and do nothing." No doubt they'd be holding hands.
When Van Hollen tried to score points by asserting, "Peg Lautenschlager does not provide law-enforcement leadership," contrasting this to his own record as U.S. attorney, Bucher belittled him: "'I did this,' 'I did that,' what is your plan?" And later: "No plan. What he did in the past. No plan."
This sort of nasty, juvenile sniping has been a mainstay of both campaigns. Bucher and Van Hollen ' who are, in most things, ideological soul mates ' have picked endless fights over how to interpret their respective poll and campaign finance numbers and other matters. They seem to despise each other even more than they do their Democratic rivals. (Curiously, in recent weeks, both Republicans have backed off on Falk and focused on Lautenschlager ' perhaps an indication that they see the incumbent as the Democratic frontrunner.)
Compared to Bucher, who probably ought to be checked for rabies, Van Hollen often comes across as more moderate and restrained. But it's actually Van Hollen who takes the gold medal for Extremism in Pursuit of the AG's Office. This spring, he announced that terrorists "are training and raising funds" in Wisconsin, then balked at providing additional information. (Did he think no one would ask?)
The statement drew such widespread ridicule ' "one of the most shocking, irresponsible, unbelievably politically pandering statements I've ever heard from a candidate running for attorney general," said Bucher, the bronze medal winner ' that Van Hollen was forced to backpedal. He now says all he meant was that Wisconsin has the same need to be vigilant as everywhere else. And he contends that questioning his original unsubstantiated claim shows an "irresponsible" lack of concern for this terrorist threat.
(Van Hollen is no stranger to unsubstantiated and likely false claims. During the thick of Russ Feingold's 2004 U.S. Senate race, he proclaimed that "Sept. 11 would not have happened if the delayed search notice, a part of the Patriot Act, had existed at that time.")
A pinnacle of peevishness was reached early this month when Van Hollen, claiming Bucher called him "stupid," told his rival "you suck," an insult he later compounded with this backhanded apology: "I regret that I lowered myself to his level with my language choice."
Just about the only thing Bucher and Van Hollen have not attacked each other for is being too far to the right. There are obvious reasons for this omission. Asked by Wisconsin Public Television to rank themselves on a scale of 1-10, with ten being the most conservative (think Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, Ann Coulter), Bucher was the first to answer: "Eight." Van Hollen one-upped him, literally: "Probably a nine."
Asked a similar question ' "On a scale of 1-10, with ten being the most liberal, where would you be?" ' both Falk and Lautenschlager declined to answer. Instead, Falk's people reached into their bag of rhetoric, citing her "long record as a progressive champion fighting for the shared values of Democrats throughout the state."
Jay Heck is nonetheless troubled by the degree to which ideology is shaping the current race. "You don't want your attorney general to be as politically partisan as the governor or legislators," he says, noting that the attorney general has statutory and ethical obligations that require putting fidelity to the law above politics.
All four candidates pledge allegiance to this ideal. For instance, Falk and Lautenschlager vehemently oppose the proposed state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions but vow to defend it from legal challenge should it pass. Lautenschlager has already proved her mettle in this area, defending the denial of domestic partner benefits to state employees as constitutional, even though she disagrees.
Similarly, both Bucher and Van Hollen promise to respect state law with regard to abortion, despite their personal opposition. (How opposed are they? Asked by WisPolitics.com whether government "should be involved in the personal decisions as to whether somebody should have an abortion," Van Hollen said he would not want to leave this up to the folks "any more than I believe that homicide in any other circumstance should be the choice of a specific individual.")
But no matter what they say, the political leanings of an attorney general influence what she or he does. Bucher and Van Hollen accuse Lautenschlager of using her office to advance a personal political agenda, as when she sued Bush's Food and Drug Administration for its dragging its feet on approving over-the-counter sales of a morning-after contraceptive pill. Bucher has called this "wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong." This is ironic, since the FDA seems to concede the same about its own position, and is now taking steps to approve the pill.
The GOP challengers have also attacked Lautenschlager for suing a northern Wisconsin cranberry grower who allegedly polluted a lake and utility companies who've contributed to global warming. (Van Hollen calls it "global warming," in quotes, presumably to signal his view that it's some sort of lunatic theory, as opposed to his claims about terrorists in Wisconsin.)
Clearly, these are not the kinds of actions Bucher and Van Hollen would pursue. Nor would they likely issue an opinion, as Lautenschlager has done, that a law barring the UW-System from advocating emergency contraception or providing it to students would be unconstitutional.
But these admittedly hardcore conservatives would, in ways subtle and profound, use the office to convey their conviction that abortion is murder, gay marriage a threat, the death penalty is needed in Wisconsin and citizens ought to be able to carry concealed guns. They may not break any laws, but they would interpret them all through the prism of their beliefs.
Politics, like it or not, is part of this job. The only question is: Whose politics?
Falk, early in the campaign, said she was running because Lautenschlager's vulnerability "increases the possibility of a right-wing fanatic taking the state's highest law-enforcement position." A harsh assessment, to be sure, but perhaps not empty rhetoric.
Folks: Both parents were public school teachers; mom taught math and dad taught history.
Fun fact: Husband Bill Rippl, a retired police office, now works as an aide for 15-year-old autistic child.
Endorsed by: Wisconsin AFL-CIO, Mark Handel (the former Columbus cop who busted her for drunk driving).
Money: Raised $245,411 first half of '06; had $238,639 on hand.
Campaign boast: "Peg's willingness to pursue proactively wrongs to average Wisconsin citizens has earned her respect among both consumers and businesses hoping to compete on a level playing field."
Folks: Grandpa was a trolley driver; parents once ran a custard stand in Milwaukee.
Fun fact: Started a conservation club at age 7; now is an avid hunter.
Endorsed by: AFSCME, SEIU and eight other unions.
Money: Raised $372,906 first half of '06; had $607,916 on hand.
Campaign boast: "I am running for attorney general for the same reason I entered public service 30 years ago: to put the law to work to protect our children."
Folks: Raised by single mom who supported six boys working as a telephone operator and department store clerk.
Fun fact: Married to Jessica McBride, the Milwaukee radio host and blogger.
Endorsed by: Former Wisconsin Gov. Lee Dreyfus, Milwaukee Police Association.
Money: Raised $136,111 first half of '06; had $85,397 on hand; loaned $30,000 to own campaign last year.
Campaign boast: "I am proud that my campaign has raised the most money in the Attorney General's race during the last six months in the Republican primary."
J.B. Van Hollen
Folks: Father served in state Legislature; mother is not mentioned in his online bio and his campaign rebuffed requests for more information.
Fun fact: Has run two marathons and completed the 2003 Ironman Wisconsin Triathlon in Madison.
Endorsed by: Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, Pro-Life Wisconsin, and "more sheriffs and district attorneys than his three opponents combined."
Money: Raised $468,892 first half of '06 (including a $350,000 personal loan); had $417,254 on hand.
Campaign boast: "A faith-filled family man."