Wis. AG Election a Race to the Bottom
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
A vulnerable incumbent trying to overcome a drunken-driving conviction while fending off three bruising challengers makes the Wisconsin attorney general's race stand out among this year's 30 state races for top law enforcement officer.
On the Democratic side, Attorney General Peggy Lautenschlager is fighting for her political life in the Sept. 12 primary after pleading guilty to drunken driving while in office in 2004. Her opponent in the primary, Dane County Executive Kathleen M. Falk , trails Lautenschlager in recent polls but launched a new offensive over Labor Day weekend with the first television ads of the campaign mentioning the drunken-driving conviction.
Republican hopefuls Paul Bucher , the attorney general of Waukesha County, and J.B. Van Hollen , former U.S. attorney for Wisconsin, have been chastised by their own state party head for their negative campaigning. During a radio debate last month, Van Hollen told Bucher, "You suck," after being repeatedly interrupted by his rival, according to media reports.
All three of Lautenschlager's challengers blasted her at a debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday, Sept. 6, for allowing a backlog of unanalyzed DNA evidence to build up in the state crime lab during her term. It was the candidates' last chance to face each other before next Tuesday's primary election. (Listen to the Democratic candidates' debate or Republican candidates' debate at Wispolitics.com )
"I've never seen the negativity that we're seeing in this race. The tone is just nasty, and the personal animosity between each of the candidates is clearly evident," said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin , the state's largest nonpartisan citizen reform group.
Wisconsin is one of 30 states electing attorneys general in what is a banner year for statewide elections. Governors are up for election in 36 states, secretaries of state are running in 27 states and legislators are up for election in 46 states.
Much attention has been paid to the growing influence of state attorneys general since they started taking on big tobacco, corporations such as Microsoft, and even the Bush administration in recent years.
Led by former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore (D), several states won the largest civil settlement in U.S. history against tobacco companies in 1998, requiring the companies to pay states more than $246 billion over 25 years. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (D), now running for governor, has made headlines suing major Wall Street firms for fraud, microchip manufacturers for price-fixing and the Bush administration and Midwest power plants over air pollution.
The attorney general's office is the second most powerful in state government and increasingly has served as a stepping stone to higher office. According to Louis Jacobson, a columnist for the Washington, D.C.-based publication Roll Call , s ix current governors and seven U.S. senators are former state attorneys general, and this year, six sitting attorneys general are running for governor.
Democrats outpace the Republicans 29-21 in attorney general posts, leading 25-18 in states where voters elect their attorney general. Attorneys general are appointed in seven states: Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Tennessee and Wyoming.
The most competitive races are in the 10 states with open seats: Arkansas, California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Ohio.
National political parties now vie for control of the offices through the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA), which have funneled millions of dollars to state attorney general races since forming in the late 1990s. The business community, increasingly the target of state attorneys general, also has increased spending to influence election outcomes in those races.
Despite the increased attention, contests for attorney general still are overshadowed by higher statewide races, hinge on local issues and, as a result, are harder for outside interests to influence, political experts from both parties said.
"The role of attorneys general has increased tremendously, so interest groups are paying more attention. But we're still waiting to see if it translates into people paying any more attention at the ballot box," said James E. Tierney , the director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School and former Democratic attorney general of Maine.
Defeating an incumbent attorney general is particularly difficult, Tierney said. The nature of the office — locking up bad guys, going after corrupt businesses and alerting consumers to fraud — generates a steady stream of positive news for incumbents to campaign on. In fact, popular incumbent attorneys general in Iowa, Nebraska and South Carolina are running unopposed this year.
Lautenschlager in Wisconsin has been considered the most vulnerable incumbent attorney general in the nation since she drove a state-owned vehicle into a ditch and was arrested and pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated two years ago. She paid a $784 fine and reimbursed the state $3,250 for misusing a state vehicle to commute to work.
When her driving record came up in the Sept. 6 debate, Lautenschlager said, "I hope that as (voters) look at the candidates, they look not just at whether or not sinners have a future or whether or not saints have a past, but hopefully they will look at a number of factors in terms of how I've handled this job."
Lautenschlager has remained ahead of her challengers in recent media polls in a state that Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry barely carried in 2004 with 50 percent of the vote to President Bush's 49 percent. Political experts in the state say the primary race is too close to call.
Falk's entry in the race divides state Democratic voters, many of which have rallied behind the embattled attorney general. Falk is the first and only candidate so far to use the drunken-driving incident in a campaign ad , but she blamed Lautenschlager's camp for going negative first with an ad criticizing Falk's lack of prosecutorial experience, which was "extremely unprecedented" for an incumbent, said Falk spokesman Adam Collins.
At least four Wisconsin legislators and one former attorney general, Bronson La Follette in 1981, overcame drunken-driving incidents and were re-elected, state media have reported.
Voters are likely to give Lautenschlager more leeway because of the state's permissive attitude towards drinking, Heck said. "Cheese heads" are known for consuming large quantities of beer and brats, and Wisconsin is the only state in the nation where first-offense drunken-driving is not a crime, but an "ordinance" violation.
"I'm not saying it isn't a serious issue, but drunken driving in Wisconsin is less problematic," Heck said.
Besides the drunken-driving incident, the biggest issue in the campaign has been the backlog in unanalyzed DNA evidence in the state's crime lab. Lautenschlager's opponents charge the backlog has resulted in criminals being left on the street, and they criticized her for waiting until this week to announce her plan to speed up processing of DNA evidence.
Lautenschlager announced Tuesday a $1.9 million proposal for 12 additional DNA analysts and new facilities to close the backlog.
Bucher launched a particularly hard-hitting radio ad last week featuring the parents of a teenage rape victim. In the ad, the parents describe the 2004 rape and recount how the rapist later killed a state law enforcement officer before DNA evidence from the rape was matched with the assailant's DNA sample in the state crime lab.
During the debate, Lautenschlager said that the number of DNA samples submitted to the state lab skyrocketed 65 percent during 2005 and that her administration has studied ways to speed up processing.
"It's not reasonable to see (the backlogs) disappear quickly," she said.