If it had not been for the deliberate unraveling of campaign finance standards and election oversight in Wisconsin — which he encouraged and helped to engineer — Attorney General Brad Schimel would not be a serious contender for re-election this year. Only a massive inflow of money from outside special-interest groups and wealthy self-interested donors keeps Schimel, a scandal-plagued political careerist, in the running.
Unfortunately, because the attorney general is such a dutiful servant of the Trump administration, and that of Trump-aligned Gov. Scott Walker, the big dollars are flowing into Wisconsin on Schimel’s behalf as he faces a challenge from a highly qualified Democrat, Josh Kaul.
The national Republican Attorneys General Association, which collects special-interest money from across the country in order to warp state races on behalf of the anti-labor, deregulation and privatization agendas of multinational corporations, is — according to the Associated Press — preparing to launch a $2.5 million television ad campaign on behalf of Schimel. Schimel is taking so much money from the RAGA that the state Democratic Party filed an ethics complaint against him for accepting more than the legal limit from a political action committee. That’s right: The state’s chief law enforcement officer was hit with a complaint for violating one of the few remaining rules for keeping politicians honest. (Conveniently, a RAGA spokesman said the donation was "a mistake that has been corrected.")
But the ethics complaint against Schimel is only in regard to the candidate's campaign. Most of the millions that will be spent on his behalf by the RAGA and other outside groups will come in the form of supposedly “independent” ad buys. How high will be the spending to save the embattled attorney general? We know it will be in the millions. The question is whether it will rival the orgy of spending by outside groups on behalf of Walker’s many campaigns. Don’t be surprised if it does.
Schimel has nurtured networks of out-of-state supporters, particularly Trump defenders. Late last year, he spent a weekend at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, wining and dining with major contributors to the Republican Attorneys General Association. Among the listed activities at the gathering were a catamaran tour for AGs and their benefactors, and a dinner with donors who wrote $125,000 checks to RAGA.
Why are corporate CEOs and billionaires gathering in Florida to help re-elect an attorney general of Wisconsin who is so inept that he has been criticized by serious lawyers from across the political spectrum?
It has everything to do with the win-at-any-cost politics that has warped national and state elections in recent years — and that will hit its peak in 2018. While responsible attorneys general have stood up to Trump and Trumpism, a handful of the most extreme Republican attorneys general have erected a bulwark of state-level support for the president. They do not do so as traditional Republicans, as they are defending a president who has veered toward white nationalist themes that are the antithesis of the Republican Party’s founding values. Nor do they do so as supporters of the ideals that underpin what is noble about the American experiment, as Trump’s pronouncements are openly at odds with the better angels of our nature as a nation.
Attorneys general like Schimel back Trump because they want to see a rebalancing of American politics that is defined not by voters but by campaign money. This makes a certain perverse sense for Schimel because it is impossible to imagine how someone like him would ever win statewide office without massive infusions of outside money.
But it does not make sense for Wisconsinites who have long regarded the office of attorney general as a unique position that is supposed to reject cult-of-personality politics, extreme partisanship and deference to campaign donors. Wisconsin has had great Democratic attorneys general, like Peg Lautenschlager, Bronson La Follette, John Reynolds Jr. and Thomas Fairchild, who have risen above politics and embraced the rule of law. And Wisconsin has had fine Republican attorneys general, like Don Hanaway, Robert Warren, Stewart Honeck and John Reynolds Sr., who assembled teams of top lawyers and let them do their jobs. Wisconsin even had an exceptional Progressive Party attorney general in the 1930s, Orland Steen Loomis, whose commitment to the interests of workers, farmers and consumers was so great that he would eventually be elected governor on the third-party line.
Historically, this state’s attorneys general have understood that, when the election was done, it was necessary to eschew partisanship, ideological loyalties and allegiances with national politicians in order to do the right thing for Wisconsinites.
Schimel lacks this understanding. That is why 45 former assistant attorneys general with over 900 years of experience working under both Republican and Democratic AGs have signed a letter that objects to Schimel’s bumbling of his responsibilities (including delays in testing sexual assault evidence kits), his ethical lapses (including the spending of taxpayer funds on promotional coins and other attempts to celebrate himself) and his prioritizing of out-of-state corporate interests over the needs of Wisconsinites (as occurred when Schimel joined then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s efforts to gut federal initiatives to protect the environment, and as continues to occur with Schimel’s steady refusal to challenge Trump administration abuses).
The letter, which was signed by at least 10 former assistant attorneys general who served under Schimel and 20 who worked with his Republican predecessor, J.B. Van Hollen, bluntly declares: “The Wisconsin attorney general’s office is a mess. The current attorney general, Brad Schimel, has blatantly politicized the office, dropped the ball on his role as the lead crime fighter in Wisconsin, and abdicated the AG’s traditional role as ‘the people’s lawyer’ representing Wisconsin citizens’ interests in criminal and civil matters alike.”
That’s quite blunt. But we’ll be even blunter: Brad Schimel is, by any honest measure, the worst attorney general in Wisconsin history.
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