Susan Happ and Brad Schimel, candidates for Wisconsin Attorney General, debated for the third and final time tonight at the State Bar of Wisconsin Center in Madison. A packed house heard the candidates discuss their qualifications, the AG's role with respect to state legislation, and their plans to address specific problems in Wisconsin, among other things. Eric Franke of WISC-TV moderated the debate.
Visit the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Facebook page for more photos of this event, or view here.
Oct. 30, 2014 – From Wisconsin’s heroin epidemic, gun violence, and drunk driving to defending state laws and upholding the constitution, state Attorney General candidates Brad Schimel and Susan Happ outlined different philosophies in the pair’s final debate.
Held at the State Bar Center in Madison and moderated by WISC-TV New Anchor Eric Franke, the debate focused on Wisconsin’s major public safety concerns and how the candidates propose to deal with them if elected Attorney General on Tuesday, Nov. 4.
In addition, the candidates distinguished their philosophies with the respect the Attorney General’s role in defending state laws that are challenged on constitutional grounds.
Schimel said it’s the duty of the Attorney General to defend laws passed by the legislature, which are entitled to a presumption of constitutionality. This philosophy would create a stable and predictable legal and regulatory environment, he said.
“I recognize that I’m running for the executive branch,” said Schimel, a prosecutor for 16 years before he was elected Waukesha County’s District Attorney in 2006. “I’m not running for a legislature that writes policy or for the judiciary that interprets the law.”
Happ noted that the last three Attorneys General, including outgoing Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, have declined to defend certain state laws challenged on constitutional grounds, and she would take the same course for laws with constitutional flaws.
Candidate Susan Happ answers a question about the Attorney General's role when it comes to defending or not defending state laws.
“There’s an obligation to voters to have the independence and the courage to say that when a law is blatantly unconstitutional, I would not defend it,” said Happ, a private practitioner for a decade before elected Jefferson County’s District Attorney in 2008.
Both candidates said public safety is a top priority, and the heroin epidemic is perhaps the biggest public safety challenge of all right now in Wisconsin. Each candidate said they would implement plans to address heroin’s consistent presence in the state.
Happ said Jefferson’s County’s Heroin Task Force, started in 2013, brings community leaders together for summits to address the problem, and she would support similar community-based efforts in other counties if elected Attorney General.
Schimel touted his role in addressing the heroin problem in Waukesha County. Under his leadership, he says his county has “stayed ahead of the curve.” Schimel said he has a comprehensive plan and the track record to prove he can carry it through.
The candidates have different views on dealing with gun violence. Schimel says the current gun laws are enough if properly enforced. Happ says universal background checks place another barrier on those who should not have access to firearms.
Candidate Brad Schimel responds to a question about Wisconsin's OWI laws.
Happ noted the Brookfield spa shooting in 2012, where the husband of a spa employee opened fire in the spa, killing his wife and two others before shooting himself. The shooter had been served with a domestic abuse injunction the week before.
“He should have never been able to purchase a firearm, yet 40 percent of our sales in Wisconsin are over the Internet or across the table with no background checks,” said Happ, who grew up hunting and holds a concealed carry permit.
Happ said nearly 1 million attempted purchases by felons have been prevented since enactment of the federal Brady bill, which requires background checks to purchase firearms from federally licensed dealers. The law passed under Bill Clinton in 1993.
But Schimel said gun ownership is one of the earliest and most basic rights in America. He said making it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to purchase guns is not the answer, especially since criminals “don’t care about buying guns legally.”
He said he has a plan to help fight gun violence in Milwaukee County, which has about 50 percent of the gun violence in Wisconsin but only 38 percent of the state’s prosecutors. It includes more investigators and prosecutors on gun-related crimes.
Both candidates said they would not push to criminalize first-time OWI offenders without more data. Wisconsin is the only state that does not criminalize a first offense OWI.
Happ said she would support it, despite the fiscal costs, if data suggested that criminalizing a first offense would deter people from driving drunk.
“If we had data to show that criminalizing a first offense drunk driving actually worked to deter people from getting behind the wheel, I don’t view that as a matter of financial resources because we are talking about saving people’s lives,” Happ said.
Happ said Wisconsin should focus on strengthening laws against repeat offenders, because these people have not learned from their contact with the justice system.
WISC-TV news anchor Eric Franke served as the moderator of the debate.
Schimel said he has “not seen the evidence to demonstrate that making a first offense a crime would make a difference for public safety for Wisconsin.” He noted the high costs of criminalizing first-timers and said Wisconsin should close OWI loopholes and invest in treatment courts, saturation patrols, and victim impact panels. He also said the legislature should study the issue, and if it didn’t he would as attorney general.
Schimel said he is better suited for the job because he has headed one of the largest law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin for the last eight years and has made his presence known through outreach efforts on a statewide basis.
“I’m ready to go statewide and I have a footprint that demonstrates I can do it,” said Schimel, who noted his involvement on various task forces that meet with legislators and his participation in statewide conferences to educate law enforcement.
Happ noted that Jefferson County is a rural county with fewer resources and staff but is used to “doing more with less.” She says she’s ready for the challenge and has no concerns about “learning while earning” because she’s quick study and a quick learner.
“I’m not a career politician and I wasn’t handpicked by my party,” Happ said.” I won a tough three-way primary to be here. I’m independent enough to put people first, and do what’s right. I’m not afraid of a fight, and I won’t back away from a tough challenge.”
Catch the Televised Debate on Sunday, Nov. 2
The debate will be televised three times on Nov. 2, airing in the Madison area on WISC-TV at 10 a.m. and TVM at 1 p.m., and in the La Crosse area on WKBT-TV at 5 p.m.