Steven Walters: Democrats for state attorney general sell their personal narratives

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Steven Walters
Monday, June 16, 2014

You were probably too busy to notice, but a fascinating campaign is developing for the Democratic nomination for attorney general. It's the most dramatic statewide race that will be decided in summer-ending primary elections Aug. 12.

The three Democrats—state Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee, Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne—took turns promising to stand up for Democratic priorities at the party's recent state convention.

“I'm not afraid of a fight,” each one vowed.

Although they haven't yet turned on each other, they have less than two months to walk the fine line between convincing voters why they would be the better attorney general and staging a down-and-dirty mudfight.

The primary winner will face the only Republican running, Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel, in the Nov. 4 general election.

But a mudfight could be inevitable because the three agree on so many issues:

-- Same-sex marriages must be legalized.

-- New laws setting up barriers to a women's right to an abortion must be overturned.

-- The environment must be protected.

-- Voters should not have to present photo IDs before exercising that constitutional right.

-- The epidemic of heroin abuse must be confronted.

When you agree with your primary election opponents on so many things, you can either tear them down or sell your personal story to voters. That's why delegates to the Democratic convention were treated to so many details of this trio's personal lives.

“I almost died in childbirth,” Happ said, casting herself as a fighter and a “Harley-riding Democrat from a Republican county.”

Without naming her opponents, Happ said she is the only candidate who can attract “swing voters.” She didn't remind delegates, but she's also endorsed by EMILY'S list, which strives to elect pro-choice Democratic women.

In 2008, she told the convention, she was the first Democrat elected as Jefferson County's prosecutor in 70 years, and her winning margin then was higher than President Obama's.

“When will the attacks stop?” Happ challenged Democratic convention delegates. “As your next attorney general, they stop with me.”

Here's one number that puts Happ's challenge in perspective: Jefferson County voters cast just 1.3 percent of the statewide ballots in the 2006 Democratic primary for attorney general.

An African-American, Ozanne told delegates that at one time his marriage to a white woman may have been illegal in parts of the nation.

He said his mother risked her life signing up African-American voters in the Deep South, where she was a founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. His father taught labor history, he added.

“I know rural and urban Wisconsin,” Ozanne said.

Ozanne reminded Democrats he personally told state Supreme Court justices that Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators broke state law in 2011 when they passed Act 10, which all but ended collective bargaining by most public workers. The court ruling in that case was a “shame,” he said.

Ozanne said he has taken risks by pioneering an alternative to prosecuting parents who use corporal punishment with their children and added that Wisconsin “cannot prosecute our way out” of heroin abuse.

“It's not all about putting people in prison,” added Ozanne, former deputy secretary of the state Department of Corrections.

“This is leadership before you,” Ozanne told convention delegates. “Look at what I am doing and what I have done.”

Dane County cast 18.6 percent of votes in the 2006 Democratic primary for attorney general.

In a campaign video, and in his convention speech, Richards introduced his 6-year-old son, Alex. His wife, Andrea, praised her husband in the video.

Richards emphasized his 16-year Assembly record, saying it prepared him to be “a lawyer for the people.” He was an assistant leader of Assembly Democrats and served on the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee.

Richards, who advocates background checks before all gun purchases, also decried the “easy access” to guns and warned the National Rifle Association, “I'm not afraid of you.”

He also wants first-offense drunken driving to be a crime and said the U.S. Constitution must be amended to overturn the Citizens United ruling on campaign finance.

“Corporations are not people. Money is not speech,” Richards said.

One number that helps Richards: Milwaukee County Democrats cast 24.5 percent of the vote in the 2006 statewide primary for attorney general.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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