One measure of a good politician is his or her willingness to forthrightly address the most important issues faced by the office they are seeking.
And in the modern age there's no better way to judge what candidates want to put forward than a visit to their websites. Of course candidates answer questions, but there's a difference between what they say when prompted and what they offer on their own. Of course candidates do commercials, but those are at best facile. Websites offer today's candidates the chance to say what they want to say and to say it at length.
A good case can be made that drunk driving and Wisconsin's high incarceration rate among African American men are the most significant issues that the attorney general can do something about. Yet these topics have been all but absent from their campaigns, and they are completely ignored on their websites.
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, in 2012 there were more than 5,000 alcohol-related crashes resulting in almost 3,000 injuries, 200 deaths and $1 billion in taxpayer costs related to those fatalities. The state had over 46,000 three-time offenders among us and more than 8,000 five-time offenders. It's not an exaggeration to suggest that we lead the nation in drunk driving.
But according to Happ's press aide Josh Lease, there just wasn't room on her website to even mention the issue. (Lease responded to my questions in a timely manner, while Schimel's press person was hard to find and didn't respond at all to the same questions when I did track down his email.)
Both Happ and Schimel shy away from changing Wisconsin's distinction of being the only state in the nation in which first-offense drunk driving is not a crime. We can argue about whether or not getting tough in that way would make a difference, but shouldn't we expect that candidates for attorney general would at least have something to say on their own websites about an issue of this importance?
They have plenty to say about heroin. Both candidates' websites attack the scourge of heroin, and, in fact, it is a serious and growing problem. Up from a steady three dozen or so deaths a year as recently as 2007, according to Schimel's website there were 199 heroin deaths last year, just about the same as the 200 killed by drunk driving. And heroin overdoses, though horrible, don't kill innocent people in the same way that a drunk driver kills his passengers or drivers and passengers in other vehicles. So while it makes sense to offer plans to fight opiates, the numbers seem to justify the same effort directed at operating while intoxicated.
Could it be that it's easier to be tough on heroin because, unlike alcohol, it is not nearly as widely used by middle-class, middle-aged Wisconsinites who are more likely to vote? Are the candidates concerned that there are too many voting Wisconsinites who might feel they would be on the wrong end of "getting tough on crime" when they leave the bar and get behind the wheel?
A recent study found that Wisconsin leads the nation in black male incarceration with a rate twice the national average. Fully 13% of the state's black men are behind bars. This is an issue so significant that it was covered by the BBC, but it doesn't merit so much as a mention on the websites of either candidate to be Wisconsin's "top cop," presumably in a position to address that issue more directly than any other public official in the state.
Again, Lease offers the improbable excuse that the campaign just couldn't find room to address it on Happ's site. And again there was no response at all from Schimel. But to Happ's credit, Lease goes on to state bluntly that "the African American incarceration rate in Wisconsin is a scandal." And he offers some concrete solutions on Happ's behalf. It's good stuff, but again, why not put that good stuff on her website?
Could it be that neither candidate wants to address the issue for fear of being labeled "soft on crime?" Is it possible that they worry about the reactions of white voters to locking up fewer black men?
We can comfort ourselves, however, that both candidates have strong Harley policies. Happ's site links to an ad, which some credit for boosting her out of the otherwise lackluster Democratic primary, where she rides Wisconsin's signature Hog. For his part, Schimel points out on his site that he's been "a Harley-Davidson owner for more than two decades."
To be fair, each of these candidates has addressed drunk driving in other forums when asked about it, and I hope they will be asked to take up the incarceration problem when they debate. But the lack of interest in addressing drunk driving and black male incarceration on their own websites doesn't bode well for much action on either issue when one of them becomes the next attorney general.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at isthmus.com/citizendave.