Democrats throughout the state are calling the attorney general's office more partisan than ever. But has the position really grown more political since current Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen was elected in 2006? Or have a slew of controversial issues given the impression that the focus of the state's "top cop" has changed from neutral enforcer to partisan crusader?
In the last eight years, Van Hollen has defended Wisconsin's Voter ID law -- which opponents argue disproportionately affects people of color and low-income groups -- and the state's ban on same-sex marriage, recently overturned by U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb. He also defended Act 10, the law championed by Gov. Scott Walker that eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public workers, and continues to prosecute Solidarity Sing Along participants for protesting at the state Capitol.
Former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat who also served as attorney general from 1991 to 2003, says Van Hollen's record reflects what happens when the office "becomes so overly politicized."
"I care a lot about the attorney general's office," says Doyle, who refused to defend certain state laws while heading the Department of Justice under Republican governors Tommy Thompson and then Scott McCallum. "And I think that we really need a change."
When taking the oath of office, the Wisconsin attorney general swears to uphold and enforce state law, as well as the state and U.S. constitutions. Regardless of political ideology, the AG is required to represent the diverse needs of Wisconsin residents in a nonpartisan manner.
But Dennis Dresang, UW-Madison professor emeritus of public affairs and political science, says that is rarely the reality. The ambiguity of most laws, he adds, lets the attorney general use his or her discretion, often leaning to one side of the political aisle.
"While we elect the AG independent of the governor and other officers, the AG is an interdependent part of state government," Dresang says in an email. "Individual AGs are likely to claim that they are outside of politics and they act objectively to uphold the constitution(s) and serve us, but only the naÃve and ill-informed really believe this."
Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee), Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ will face off in the Democratic primary for Wisconsin attorney general on Aug. 12. The victor will take on Republican Brad Schimel, Waukesha County district attorney, in the general election on Nov. 4. Schimel does not have a primary opponent.
All three primary candidates say taking partisan politics out of the position is a priority for them. At the same time, they have taken the rare step of publicly stating which controversial laws they will and will not defend -- all while touting their neutrality. For instance, all three have stated they would not defend the 2006 ban on same-sex marriage, saying it violates the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution.
Schimel has also publicly stated which laws he would defend if elected to office. For instance he would not defend the state's domestic partnership law, which provides limited protections to same-sex couples.
According to Dresang, these kinds of campaign promises are a new twist in contests for attorney general.
"It is unusual for candidates to identify laws that are on the books and make pledges about which ones they would enforce and which ones they would ignore," he says.
Jon Richards, who has served in the state Assembly since 1999, came out of the gate running. He has the most active campaign, a strong web presence and the largest war chest. His most recent campaign finance report, released July 17, reveals he has raised more than $190,000 since Jan. 1 and has more than $169,000 cash on hand.
His campaign has already produced three online ads, with more to come between now and August's primary.
Richards touts the longest and most geographically diverse group of endorsements. His list of 150 current and former elected officials and law enforcement officials includes Democratic Assembly Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Ismael Ozanne, Dane County district attorney and former deputy secretary of the Department of Corrections, has heavy support from his home county, including Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and a slew of county board supervisors. Former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager and former Secretary of State Vel Phillips are also supporters. Ozanne has raised $39,002 since January 1 and has $3,405 on hand, according to the most recent campaign finance report submitted to the Government Accountability Board.
Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ is the only candidate from a rural and Republican county. She was the last to announce and, according to the latest campaign finance reports, has raised $170,020 since January 1 and has $120,939 in reserves. She does not list endorsements on her website, but scored big in March when she was endorsed by EMILY's List -- an affluent PAC that backs Democratic, pro-choice, female candidates in major state races. Happ is also backed by former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.
All candidates are Wisconsin natives, all are graduates of UW-Madison's law school, and all are liberal, with minor differences. Ozanne and Richards, for instance, would like to see first offense drunk driving criminalized while Happ is opposed. All three candidates support universal background checks for gun purchases and laud Judge Crabb's ruling on Wisconsin's same-sex marriage ban.
Turnout for the August primary is, once again, expected to be low. No partisan primary election in the last 50 years has gotten more than 28% of eligible voters to the polls, according to the Government Accountability Board.
Says Doyle: "It's often hard for any candidate -- Democratic or Republican -- to break through."
'A true statewide campaign'
Richards says one thing that sets him apart from his opponents is that he is running a "true statewide campaign."
While collecting signatures for his nomination papers, he traveled to all 72 counties in the state rather than rely on his hometown of Milwaukee County, the state's most populous county.
"We are building a strong statewide campaign because I think that's how you win, but I also think it's the right way to run a race," Richards says.
He says he entered the race because he and other residents are concerned about where the state is going.
"That's true for Democrats, Republicans and independents. People want to have a Wisconsin where people play by the rules and where we can really advance the values and protection for our citizens," says Richards.
Richards has aimed his ammunition not at his Democratic opponents, but at Schimel. He says he is concerned about Schimel's disregard for open and transparent government and his commitment to representing all Wisconsin residents.
"I'm someone who is going to stand up for the rights of Wisconsin citizens," says Richards. "I believe that we should have marriage equality in Wisconsin; he doesn't. I believe in defending a woman's right to choose; he doesn't. I believe that we should have background checks on gun purchases, he doesn't."
His campaign has also been the most active, sometimes dispatching multiple news releases in a day. He was the first to fire off a statement after Crabb ruled Wisconsin's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. "I am overjoyed that our LGBT brothers and sisters will finally have the ability to marry in Wisconsin," he said, urging Van Hollen not to appeal and pledging he would drop the state's defense of the law if he were attorney general.
Richards says protecting Wisconsin families is his number-one priority. He says he plans to take measures to address Wisconsin's heroin epidemic, stop Internet sex predation on children and get tough on drunk drivers. He also wants to protect families by enforcing equal pay laws and existing environmental protections.
"Protecting our environment is critically important," Richards says. "I'm the only one in this race that has any experience protecting our environment and making sure that people aren't skirting the law to make a quick buck in Wisconsin and leave behind dirty air and filthy water."
A League of Conservation Voters "Conservation Champion," Richards helped write the Great Lakes Compact, a formal agreement between Great Lakes states banning the diversion of water out of the Great Lakes Basin.
Richards attributes his long list of endorsements to partnerships he has made over the years.
"I'm going to make sure we have a strong, independent AG," Richards pledges. "I'm going to do everything I can, no matter who is serving in the governor's office, no matter who is serving in the Legislature."
Though Richards worked as a special prosecutor in Kenosha County's district attorney office while in private practice, he is not a career prosecutor like his primary opponents or Schimel, for that matter, who has worked as a prosecutor since 1990.
'Smart on crime'
Ozanne says his experience gives him a leg up on his primary opponents: "Our last two Democratic candidates were beat up for not having prosecutorial experience, and I believe I am the only one that that cannot be lobbed against with my experience going on 14-some years in the state's second-largest county."
Ozanne touts his ability to be tough on crime -- in a practical, evidence-based manner.
While he notes the importance of prosecuting violent criminals, Ozanne says that jail time isn't always the answer. "We need to be smart on crime. We can't build prisons to build our way out of this."
He says his "smart on crime" mantra is something his opponents lack. He cites his focus on using evidence-based practices like diversion programs -- a form of sentencing that helps offenders avoid a criminal record after they have completed a variety of requirements. As district attorney, Ozanne initiated diversion programs to help tackle the heroin epidemic and intentional physical abuse of children.
"We try and keep people out of the system if possible and get them in a pre-conviction drug court model, where if they successfully complete they aren't necessarily convicted of a felony," Ozanne says.
Ozanne stands by diversion programs even though his opponents criticized him for a program targeting parents who use force as a form of punishment. Both Richards and Happ are wary of the program and the possibility that it lets child abusers off the hook.
But Ozanne thinks the program has a great benefit.
"We are looking to address those situations where we can change parental behavior and hopefully get to nonviolent parenting," Ozanne says. "This is something that child advocates say works."
Ozanne believes that working with offenders and getting to the root cause of crime will go the furthest to improve public safety.
"We can't fix the system from the back forward," Ozanne says. "We need to address mental health and addiction issues in a meaningful way because those are the root causes of what brings people to the system."
As attorney general, Ozanne says he wants to restore Wisconsin's history of being a leader in criminal justice and rehabilitation. Ditto for Wisconsin's history of open and transparent government -- starting with strict enforcement of the state's open meetings law.
In 2011, Ozanne filed a civil complaint that legislators violated Wisconsin's open meetings law by passing a bill that stripped public workers of collective bargaining rights without proper notice.
"I didn't blink," says Ozanne. "We took that straight to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Some tried to paint that as a partisan challenge, but they just don't understand the challenge. We were addressing citizens' access to their own government and making sure those who write the laws are accountable for them. Notice and access are essential to the system no matter who's in charge."
For Ozanne, changing who is "in charge" in Wisconsin is key to the future.
"This last Legislature has not only attacked women, it has tried to restrict access to the polls and make it easier for special interests to take our natural resources and pollute our environment," he says. "When I look at history, we see whenever we as a people move forward they attack the vote, they attack education, they attack labor, and that's precisely what they're doing now."
Ozanne rejects the notion that a candidate from Madison can't win a statewide vote.
"People look at me sometimes and say, 'How are you going to be elected, you come from Dane County?' And I just sort of scratch my head and think about history. I think [former U.S. Sen.] Russ Feingold, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, [former Gov.] Jim Doyle, [former Gov.] Fighting Bob La Follette."
As a rural Democrat from a heavily Republican county, Susan Happ says she knows how to work across the partisan divide to bring people together and get things done.
"When I was elected in 2008, I became the first Democrat in 70 years in Jefferson County, and I actually won 56% of the vote," says Happ.
The district attorney touts her crossover appeal to distinguish herself from her primary opponents and Schimel. "I'm the only candidate -- Republican or Democrat -- who has that demonstrated ability to earn votes from independent and swing voters, and there are going to be a lot more independent and swing voters because of the divisiveness we have seen in government over the last four years.
"I think voters by and large, Republican or Democrat, want their next attorney general to be someone who's going to protect rights and values," she adds.
Happ says protecting Wisconsin's most vulnerable citizens would be her top priority.
The recent news that the Department of Justice mishandled cybercrime tips, waiting over four months -- and in some cases longer -- to pursue child pornography leads points to a need for a streamlined process, she says.
Happ says she would like to see designated agents and attorneys handle tips and cases, respectively, related to Internet crimes against children. "I think that would help facilitate the efficiency of the process and make sure that our children do not fall through the cracks," she says.
Even though the Department of Justice provides training for law enforcement to conduct investigations on Internet crimes, most local agencies can't afford the staff and time investments, Happ says.
As attorney general, Happ would use the bully pulpit to tell the Legislature, "You've got to invest the resources, particularly when it comes to heroin and Internet crimes against children. Yes it costs money, but we know we can't put a price tag on our children and on keeping our communities and our families safe."
When asked what every person in Wisconsin should know about her going into August's primary, she says, "I'm different. I don't fit the mold in many ways. I'm a woman. I'm a fighter. I'm not afraid to take on tough challenges, and when someone tells me I can't do something, that only makes me dig in harder. People shouldn't underestimate me, because I've got the drive, I've got the support, and I've got the background to win."
To hear directly from the Democratic candidates for Wisconsin attorney general, keep your lunch hour free on Tuesday, Aug. 5. The University of Wisconsin Law School, WisPolitics.com and WORT are hosting an hour-long debate that day in room 2260 of the Law School, 975 Bascom Mall.
Professor Erin McBride of the Law School and professor Michael Wagner of the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication will moderate. Organizers suggest arriving by 11:45 a.m. They also warn that the portion of Park Street that runs adjacent to the Law School will be closed for construction that day.
If you can't make it to campus, tune in to 89.9 FM. WORT will be broadcasting the debate live.
[Editor's note: This article is corrected to note that the debate or the Democratic candidates for attorney general is Aug. 5 at noon in room 2260 of the UW Law School.]