Friday, August 8, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

Jon Richards
You’ve seen the prediction by experts that only 15% of Wisconsin voters will turn out for the August 12 primary. That requires some adjustment. The estimate is spread out over 72 counties and many don’t have intensive contests, particularly on the Republican side. But throughout the state there are pockets of dispute among Democrats that could spur bigger numbers.

That’s anticipated in Milwaukee County by the overseeing public authority. In an interview, Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnecki expects interest will be considerably higher given the sheriff’s race alone, not to mention the intense battle among Democrats in several legislative districts, such as 10 and 19. In another Milwaukee centered federal race (the county has the responsibility of placing it on their prepared ballot), there is growing desire to protect respected and admired US Rep. Gwen Moore from the crossover machination of right-wing radio.

The situation in Dane County as well as Milwaukee might also increase the current ho-hum attention to the attorney general contest. Both counties have high Democratic populations and well-known candidates in this race to counter what has largely been a blandly covered contest. It’s not just DA Ismael Ozanne but how well Jon Richards is known from years in the Assembly in Madison.

A lot of media is indifferent because of the bigger money raised by the unopposed Republican in the race. Brad Schimel doesn’t have to spend money or time on this contest until the November finale, which observers see as an edge. But there is also a negative – the taint of agreeing so much with the current AG, J.B. Van Hollen, who spends more money defending laws that are questionable or unconstitutional – and Schimel agrees with Hollen. They are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (One example is the voter ID law blocked by federal ruling and not even solving the 31 cases of voter fraud in 1 billion US ballots cast from 2000 to 2014). 

So there is a lot of pressure to find a new AG more concerned about the Wisconsin public than about partisan buddies. There is a nonpartisan history in this state for that office, a search for an AG with the proven standards and intelligence to oppose any questionable laws whichever party offers.

The lack of interest in this primary doesn’t mean the voters aren’t eager for change. It may simply be they don’t much care which of three respectable Democrats win.

But maybe they should. There is a misconception about the role of the attorney general, often described as the state’s “top cop.”  In public discussion of the “issues” important in the job, what often dominates is the courtroom experience putting murderers in jail, which the AG doesn’t do. It is seen as prosecutorial presence in criminal cases, again not the key role, which is setting tone and policy with an almost academic ability to understand nuanced and complicated laws. 

The public doesn’t see the huge operative sweep of a major agency that must interpret laws, administrate statewide police procedures and facilities, cooperate and set the standards for other state law enforcement units and prosecutors, while working with dozens of outside agencies of justice and with the legislature, listen to the people and maintain as primary his or her own conscience.

We’ve left out the very important meeting and cooperating with other state attorneys general on task forces and combined legislative concerns such as white collar crimes, fraud mongers and criminal groups across jurisdictions. Van Hollen because of political vagaries has resisted a lot of such opportunities, but they raise the state’s profile and importance and often bring in money for state coffers and respect for the state’s moral status.

Those are some of the reasons I much prefer Jon Richards. He is a lawyer but offers far more than knowing his way around the court in criminal and civil cases. He knows his way around governments. He has spent decades in the Assembly pushing for responsible behavior not just in law enforcement but budget issues, mental and social health, poverty and other factors that have a direct impact on crime and punishment. Richards abandoned a secure seat in Milwaukee District 19 knowing he will have some image problems as a liberal Democrat and a genial politician who knows how to work the rope lines more than strut and posture iron-jaw for the camera. 

He must also deal with that old saw that urban Milwaukee candidates can’t win statewide, ignoring Herb Kohl and even our current governor (though they reflect different parties) not to mention past state leaders in other generations that won big coming out of Milwaukee. The office is expected to be nonpartisan and approachable.  Administrative competence and infighting skills may be the most important – and Milwaukee if nothing else sure teaches you about infighting.  Charlie Sykes’ junior partner in talk radio, Jeff Wagner, may beat up on Jim Doyle in part because Doyle beat him for the AG spot, and actually ran it well enough that even Republicans voted him in as governor – and he worked with other state attorneys general to bring in tobacco settlement money, though the other party frittered it away.  

Richards’ quiet manner, his ability to enthusiastically glad-hand while keeping his counsel until he stands up in negotiations, may fit this job better than the macho prosecutorial toughness that Wisconsinites associate with “top cop” – as the media should be pointing out.

His platform reflects how long his  policies have matched his AG intentions -- increased funding for drug and alcohol  courts, increased pay and experience for prosecutors, background checks and taking guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, and –- a major function of the office -- protecting all consumers from fraud, such as senior citizen abuse by unscrupulous nursing homes. These don’t make great 30-second ads, nor does suggesting wait-and-see-what-happens in Colorado before writing a law about legal marijuana.  But this is the kind of measured soundness the AG job will require whomever occupies the governor’s mansion or legislature.

That may be why both his opponents are playing up their roles as criminal prosecutors – and good ones on the record. What else can they say?

Ismael Ozanne
Dane County DA Ismael Ozanne also made a lot of friends exposing what the GOP did to the open records law to rush-pass Act 10, though the Wisconsin Supreme Court, whose rulings have become a blot on the nation’s judicial system, overruled him.  That case alone made him a favorite of the far left, which is somewhat misleading given his balanced record.

Similarly – in a mystification to some longtime progressives – there is a big money hug for the other DA, Susan Happ, because she flashes Democratic principles in conservative Jefferson County, though some of her positions are closer to those of Schimel, the Waukesha County DA.

Ozanne does stick with his principles, such as a diversion program for abusive parents, which encourages greater understanding of adults raised to believe in corporal punishment as a “culturally acceptable” style of discipline.  News reports oversimplified his program as supporting spanking as opposed to his recognition that the problem can’t be solved by jail time. But Ozanne has not sufficiently responded to some intelligent criticism from child psychologists about longer term educational needs for such families.

Susan Happ
Happ is selling herself as a tough Democrat who can win -- and has -- in rural Republican territory. But the ad campaign and financing are doing more than that – playing up her gender at one moment and then overemphasizing the masculine associated side of her biography – a tiny baby who grew up with muscles, wrestling boys into submission, riding a Harley, having a concealed carry permit and putting away criminals with enthusiasm.

At the June 4 Emerge Wisconsin event in Milwaukee honoring Gwen Moore as woman of the year, she gave a mighty speech I totally  agree with about the extraordinary efforts needed to put more  women in public office – but not any woman, as she knows from working in  Congress next to rabid Marsha Blackburn and ranting Michelle Bachman.

But women are more than half the population and less than a fifth of Congress.  They work with more compatibility and effectiveness in many cases, yet because of cultural bias and upbringing they must be more forcibly recruited into public roles. That inherent sexism of society they have to conquer is reflected even in diaper styles, where girls get plastic butterflies and boys get Spiderman. Yet most women I know have more physical endurance and tolerance of pain. As British actress Helen Mirren is fond of saying, there will be more good roles for actresses the more diverse roles society gives women.

So no question we need more and more women and they need a special push. But the problem comes in politics when a man is proven equal or better on women’s issues and negotiating skills (Richards) and the “more women in office” organizations ignore the field to support the gender.

I sure wish (and have told them) that the national Emily’s List supporting more women in office  had done more homework before backing Happ given not any deficit on her part but how Richards has proven himself in their causes for two decades.  I also wish Happ didn’t feel the need to emphasize a lifestyle associated with men to convince male voters.  Intelligent America is supposed to have grown beyond that.  Maybe it’s that lingering belief that women don’t have fortitude or that voter association of the AG with physical bull-rush.  Maybe we can grow beyond that?

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news.

From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with its still operative archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for

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