Democrats in Attorney General Primary Try to Distinguish Themselves

Jul 21, 2014

Attorney General candidates (from left) Jon Richards, Ismael Ozanne and Susan Happ.

Wisconsin Democrats will decide in a few weeks who they want running for state Attorney General. 

Three Democrats are vying to replace J.B. Van Hollen, who’s retiring after serving eight years.

The primary hopefuls include state Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee and two District Attorneys, Susan Happ of Jefferson County and Dane County’s Ismael Ozanne.

The winner will face Republican candidate, Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel, in November.

Each candidate boasts of having a wealth of experience that makes them the best choice for Wisconsin Attorney General. Richards has served 15 years in the Assembly and is an attorney in private practice. He believes his credentials will help win votes.

“I have the broadest range of experience of anybody running in this race, being able to work with Democrats and Republicans to get things done on public safety. I’m the only one in this race, Democrat or Republican, who has experience working on issues involving civil rights, on the environment, on health care and a range of other issues coming before the Attorney General’s office,” Richards says.

Richards says if elected, he’ll fight the state’s heroin problem. He says the drug has ruined too many lives.

“We know that the heroin trafficking is coming in from the Twin Cities and Chicago. There are some heroin highways that we know about and we need to do a better job of working with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Department of Justice to work together as a team, collaboratively to stop that and we need to increase our efforts,” Richards says.

Richards also supports background checks for all gun sales, and believes first-time drunken drivers should be charged with a crime. Opponent Susan Happ disagrees. Happ is the only candidate in the primary who does not think first time offenses should be criminalized. But she would like tougher penalties than Wisconsin imposes now.

“If someone makes the mistake of getting behind the wheel, they drive and they’re caught, they’re fined, it’s heavy, it stays on their record for a lifetime. If they reoffend, they’re going to jail,” Happ says.

Happ is the District Attorney in Jefferson County. She says that’s one of the unique qualifications she would bring to the AG’s office.

“First and foremost, I’m a woman, I do ride a Harley, and being a Democrat from a Republican county should tell people that I can earn votes not just from my Democratic base but independent and swing voters as well,” Happ says.

Happ says if she wins the job, she’ll beef up staffing at the State Crime Lab and put more money toward nabbing internet predators. Another Democrat in the race is Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne. He thinks his stint as deputy corrections secretary under Gov. Jim Doyle sets him apart from the other candidates.

“I’m the only one having the experience heading the day to day operations of a statewide agency and not just any statewide agency, the largest one we have. It had 10,000 employees and a budget of $1.2 billion when I was deputy secretary,” Ozanne says.

Ozanne says if elected, he’ll work to restore the Public Intervenor to the Attorney General’s office. The position used to prosecute environmental violations, until Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson eliminated it nearly two decades ago.

Ozanne lauds the steps he took to try to halt Act 10, the law that weakened public unions. He unsuccessfully sued legislative leaders over the procedure they used. Ozanne says as Attorney General, he would not defend laws that he believes are unconstitutional, such as Wisconsin’s ban on gay marriage and Voter ID.

“We must be very careful when we put hurdles in front of people’s ability to exercise their most essential right, and voter suppression is something we have to fight against every single day,” Ozanne says.

All three Democratic candidates criticize outgoing Republican Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen, for defending Wisconsin’s Voter ID law and the state ban on gay marriage. They say they would not do likewise. That common stance concerns former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske. 

“They have a constitutional responsibility and they take an oath to represent the state, both on constitutional attacks and also the enforceability of the laws the state has enacted,” Geske says.

Geske says she hopes people vote for Attorney General, based on a candidate’s skill and ability, not where the person stands on political issues. Yet she thinks voters may have a keener sense of the office these days, because of the hot-button issues it’s had to consider.