AG candidates spar on campaign coordination

October 25, 2014

   

In this combination of file photos are Republican Brad Schimel, left, and Democrat Susan Happ. Schimel, Waukesha County’s district attorney, and Happ, the Jefferson County district attorney, are candidates in Wisconsin’s attorney general race.

MADISON - Democratic attorney general hopeful Susan Happ accused Republican opponent Brad Schimel of backtracking on whether he would defend a Wisconsin law restricting political candidates from coordinating with outside groups during their second debate Friday evening.

The law is at the heart of an investigation that prosecutors and the state Government Accountability Board have launched into whether Republican Gov. Scott Walker's campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups in 2011 and 2012. The law limits coordination between outsiders and candidates, but one of the groups targeted in the probe, Wisconsin Club for Growth, maintains that groups and candidates can coordinate on so-called issue advocacy — ads or communications that don't expressly advocate for or against a candidate's election or defeat. The group says the GAB is interpreting the law too strictly

Schimel said earlier this month that he would defend the law. When a moderator asked him Friday if he would defend how GAB has interpreted the law, Schimel said state laws enjoy a presumption of constitutionality but state agencies' rules don't. When agencies go beyond constitutional boundaries he can't defend them, he said.

"I would not defend all of their decisions, no," Schimel said.

Happ seized on that, declaring that Schimel had flipped on both his stance on the coordination law and his broader philosophy that the attorney general is obligated to defend every state law.

"What I just heard him say was he would not defend that law," Happ said.

Schimel countered that the question wasn't whether he would defend the law but whether he would defend GAB's interpretation of it.

"You can count on me to defend the laws and make sure regulatory agencies don't go beyond the guidelines set by the statutes," he said.

Schimel, the Waukesha County district attorney, and Happ, the Jefferson County district attorney, are vying to replace outgoing Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. Polls show they're locked in a tight race. Each has accused the other of being soft on crime as they scrap for votes. Both candidates and their allies spent the hours leading up to the debate trading attacks.

Schimel's campaign issued a statement accusing Happ of going easy on domestic abusers, saying she has allowed 13 defendants to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Happ's campaign countered by saying there's been an uptick in mentally ill defendants and a doctor and a judge signed off on the deals.

Democrats went after Schimel for endorsing a Wisconsin Right to Life white paper in 2012. The paper concluded that abortion opponents should make sure that a 1950s-era statute that made the procedure illegal except to save a mother's life stays on the books. If the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturns its Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide, abortion then would immediately be illegal in Wisconsin, the paper said. Democrats said women should be appalled at Schimel's position.

The insanity pleas didn't come up during the debate. When Happ questioned him on his abortion beliefs, Schimel said he wouldn't defy Roe vs. Wade but is anti-abortion.

Associated Press