A Harley-riding Democrat from a Republican county wants to be Wisconsin’s next attorney general.
Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ is touting her potential to draw independent and Republican voters as she squares off against two other Democrats in the Aug. 12 primary. Happ is serving her second term as district attorney in Jefferson County, the first Democrat elected to that post in 70 years.
And Happ points out she’s the only woman in the race. She told a group of Democrats last month that one of the main differences between herself and the other candidates is, “I’m a mother. I carry a purse.”
Happ, 42, is running against Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and state Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee. The winner will face Republican challenger Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel and Libertarian attorney Thomas A. Nelson of Madison on Nov. 4. The current attorney general, Republican J.B. Van Hollen, is not seeking re-election.
Like the other two Democrats in the race, Happ said if elected, she would not defend the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage, the voter ID law nor the law that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. All three are under legal challenge. Happ also said she would not prosecute tickets handed out to state Capitol protesters.
“As attorney general, I want to protect our rights: The right to vote. The right to marry who you love. And the right of women to make their own health care decisions,” she told fellow Democrats at the Madison Labor Temple in early May.
In an interview, Happ praised the April 29 decision by U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman overturning Wisconsin’s voter ID law. Adelman found the law violates both the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by putting up unreasonable barriers to Latino and African-American voters, who are less likely to have the required identification. “We need to make sure that every citizen who can vote and wants to vote is able to exercise that most important constitutional right to vote,” she said. “We shouldn’t be impeding people’s desire to vote.”
A Jefferson native and daughter of two school teachers, Happ worked for six years at a Jefferson law firm handling a variety of cases. For four years, she ran her own law office, where much of her work entailed serving as a court-appointed child advocate.
During her six years as district attorney, Happ said one of the biggest cases she handled was the 2009 prosecution of Edward W. Edwards for the 1980 murder of a young couple, Tim Hack and Kelly Drew.
Happ said one of her top priorities as district attorney has been combating the heroin “epidemic” by prosecuting traffickers and helping create opiate-abuse prevention programs. If elected attorney general, Happ said she would continue focusing on the heroin problem but also on enforcing consumer protection, environmental and child pornography laws.
“We’ve got great environmental laws that we need to refocus our energies on in terms of corporate polluters who endanger the health and safety of our air and water,” she said. “I grew up hunting and fishing with my dad, so I really feel our natural resources are something that we need to work harder to protect.”
Happ differs from her Democratic challengers on whether the state should criminalize first-offense drunken driving. Wisconsin is the only state that punishes first-time drunken drivers with a ticket if no one is injured. “In terms of criminalizing the OWIs, I’m not sure if that’s the answer because you’re dealing with someone who is impaired and not making sound decisions,” she said. But Happ said she would favor harsher penalties for repeat drunken drivers “who don’t learn from that first mistake.” In some counties, fourth- and fifth-time offenders can be placed on electronic monitoring or spend less than two months in jail. “Everyone agrees that is woefully inadequate,” she said.
Happ said Jefferson County is launching an alcohol court that will require jail time, treatment, alcohol monitoring and 12 months of close court supervision for drivers convicted of third-, fourth- or fifth-offense drunken driving. After that, offenders are placed on probation, she said.
“You’re addressing the public safety concern but you’re also addressing the need to rehabilitate,” she said.
“Alcoholism is a disease,” Happ added. “The problem is when you get behind the wheel, you’re putting the lives of other people at risk. And that’s got to stop.”