Attorney General Candidates Raise Profile of Low-Key Race in Eckstein Hall Debate

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Category: Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Speakers at Marquette, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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Near the end of an hour-long debate Sunday between the two candidates for Wisconsin attorney general, moderator Mike Gousha asked if either wanted to bring up something that hasn’t gotten enough attention during the campaign.

Democrat Susan Happ, the district attorney of Jefferson County, answered first and talked about consumer protection.
Republican Brad Schimel, district attorney of Waukesha County, answered that the entire race hadn’t gotten enough attention. It’s an important race, he said, and there should be more awareness of it.

Indeed, the race has not sparked widespread public attention. A Marquette Law School Poll released on Oct 1 found that about four out of five of those polled did not have an opinion of either Schimel or Happ. Overall, the race was close, according to the poll, but people expressed an opinion on who they would vote for only in response to a question that identified each candidate by party.

With a little over three weeks to go until the Nov. 4 election, the debate Sunday, in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall, may have helped give awareness of the race a boost. The debate, co-sponsored by Marquette Law School and WISN-TV, was broadcast live across Wisconsin. The candidates are scheduled to take part in two more debates.

Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, drew out the candidates on major issues involved in the race, as well as several issues that have gotten little attention.

Schimel and Happ presented differing views of how they would handle the attorney general’s job, starting with their approach to whether there could be cases in which they would refuse to defend a Wisconsin law in court.

Happ said, “The attorney general is not a robot” and has latitude to analyze a law and decide if it would not pass constitutional muster. She has said she would not have defended Wisconsin’s laws banning same sex marriage. She said the three most recent attorneys general, both Republicans and Democrats, have declined to defend selected Wisconsin laws.

Schimel said he would defend Wisconsin’s laws “unless there is a definitive decision from a court that says that law is not constitutional.” He added, “When you take that oath, you don’t cross a couple of your fingers and say, except for these ones I don’t like or I don’t agree with.”

The two expressed different ideas on what they would do in dealing with environmental controversies, including federal carbon emission regulation and mining in northern Wisconsin. Both said they would make it a priority to work on stemming heroin use in Wisconsin and providing treatment to users, and both said they were not in favor of criminalizing first offenses for driving under the influence of alcohol, even though Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that does not do that.

And both took sharp jabs at the other for the handling of specific cases in their roles as district attorneys. Each said the other would pursue a partisan agenda as attorney general.

Neither Schimel or Happ appeared to make a significant flub and neither appeared to score major new points in arguing against the other. But for those who watched, it was a chance to see each of them discuss the issues in the campaign and the approach they would take as the state’s “top cop.” It was a chance to raise the profile of what has been a low-profile race so far.

If you want to see the debate (and perhaps gain a better handle on the race), you can see the hour-long session by clicking here.

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