Van Hollen faces little challenge
POSTED: Wednesday, October 27th, 2010 at 11:21 am
BY: WISCONSIN LAW JOURNAL STAFF
Tags: Attorney GeneralJ.B. Van Hollen By Todd Richmond
Associated Press Writer
Madison - With 2010 shaping up like a huge year for Republicans, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen might be in the best position of any political candidate in Wisconsin.
His first term as Wisconsin’s top cop has been scandal-free. He delivered on a campaign promise to wipe out the state crime lab’s DNA backlog, earning support from police across the state. And the Republican has a two-to-one fundraising advantage over Democratic challenger Scott Hassett.
“Do I lose sleep at night thinking I’m going to lose? No,” Van Hollen said. “They (voters) don’t know who (Hassett) is. He’s got nothing to go with. We haven’t provided openings. We’ve done our job, and we’ve done it well.”
Hassett has been trying to gain ground by accusing Van Hollen of using the state Justice Department to advance Republican philosophy.
He has pointed to Van Hollen’s decision to file a lawsuit challenging voters’ identities and Van Hollen’s moves to join multistate lawsuits challenging health care reform and supporting Arizona’s immigration law.
Hassett also has tried to make an issue of former Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz, who resigned earlier this month after The Associated Press reported Kratz, a Republican, sent racy text messages to a domestic abuse victim while prosecuting her ex-boyfriend. The state Justice Department found no criminal wrongdoing and forwarded the case to the state Office of Lawyer Regulation.
Hassett has argued Van Hollen should have sent the case directly to Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, who has the power to remove district attorneys from office. The DOJ opened a second investigation in the case after Kratz resigned.
“When you run for this office, you do it as a partisan,” Hassett said. “When you are there, sitting in that chair, you have to be the people’s lawyer. J.B. Van Hollen has not done that.”
Van Hollen has repeatedly denied that politics dictate his moves, saying he interprets the law as written. And with Hassett unable to afford a television campaign, his personal appearances, e-mails and Internet postings have barely registered with voters statewide.
“It’s been difficult to learn much about (Hassett) and how he’d run the office differently,” said Janine Geske, a Marquette University law professor and former state Supreme Court justice. “(Van Hollen) will take his political positions, but as long as the (state Justice Department) continues to operate at a high level of excellence, which it does, there’s not much to work with.”
Hassett is best known for his ties to the outdoors. An avid hunter and angler, he has twice served as the chairman of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and remains a member of the Wisconsin River Sportsman Club, the Bentshaft Bowhunters Club and Wisconsin Bowhunters.
He graduated from Madison Memorial High School in 1968 and worked as a mail clerk for the DNR, an agency he would return to lead some 35 years later. He also worked for two years as the managing editor of the Jefferson Banner newspaper and spent 22 years as an attorney with the Madison-based law firm Lawton and Cates.
In 2003, Doyle tapped him to serve as DNR secretary. He took over as the DNR’s fight against chronic wasting disease in the state’s deer herd was unraveling. Landowners and hunters were angry with the DNR’s plan to kill every deer in disease zones, and a 2006 state audit found the herd was growing in those zones despite the DNR’s $30 million effort. Hassett blamed the mess on his predecessors, saying they were overzealous.
He resigned abruptly in mid-2007, saying only that the job had left him exhausted. He has since hinted there was friction between him and Doyle, but he hasn’t elaborated.
Hassett, 60, says he spent the next two years writing articles, traveling to New Zealand and hunting and fishing on his land near Lake Mills. This year, he rejoined Lawton and Cates.
He believes his experience leading the DNR’s law enforcement division makes him a great candidate for attorney general, but he trails Van Hollen badly in fundraising. According to campaign finance reports, Hassett had $127,000 at the end of August. Van Hollen had nearly $360,000 and had outspent Hassett by nearly $180,000 in the first eight months of the year.
“This one looks like a long shot for a Democrat in a Republican year,” said Joe Heim, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist. “Being DNR secretary doesn’t strike me as the obvious place for jumping off as the attorney general.”
Van Hollen, like Hassett, is a Wisconsin native. A fitness enthusiast who makes his home in Waunakee, he has run two marathons and the Ironman Wisconsin Triathalon. He also has served as grand master of Wisconsin’s Grand Lodge of the Free and Accepted Masons and sits on the board for the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association, an organization committed to the memory of George Washington.
He holds a law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School and has served as an assistant state public defender, an assistant U.S. attorney and a district attorney in two counties. He was appointed U.S. attorney in Madison in 2002 and served until 2005, when he quit to run for attorney general.
During the 2006 campaign, Van Hollen, 44, promised to eliminate the state’s massive DNA evidence backlog, keep politics out of the Justice Department and restore integrity to the agency, which was reeling after Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager was caught driving drunk in a state car.
Soon after winning office, he convinced the Legislature to let him hire more DNA analysts. Today, the Justice Department says cases take no longer than 35 days to process.
He angered hard-core Republicans early in his term when he issued legal opinions that ran counter to GOP stances. But he has swung to the right over the past two years.
In 2008, he caused a political uproar when he filed a lawsuit weeks ahead of the presidential election demanding state election officials verify the names and addresses of hundreds of thousands of voters. Critics denounced the lawsuit as politically motivated voter suppression and a judge ultimately dismissed it. Van Hollen said he was just trying to force election officials to follow federal law.
Doyle also refused to grant Van Hollen permission to join multistate efforts to support Arizona’s immigration law and challenge health care reform.
Those stances haven’t seemed to hurt Van Hollen, who enjoys wide support from a number of police groups and district attorneys.
“He’s certainly taken some positions on cases and things that some will say are partisan positions,” Geske said, “but for the most part the office tends to operate well. As a result, there are very few issues coming out of this race.”
But in the world of politics anything can happen. We'll know next Wednesday.