The three Dem candidates for attorney general focused on the need for more state diversion and rehabilitation programs while meeting Tuesday night for a panel discussion.
State Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne started on the theme of rehabilitation programs early in the discussion with a question on the heroin epidemic sweeping the state. Both said the fight against heroin must extend further than prosecuting those people already involved with the drug. They said it should include getting to the root of the issue through community-supported diversion programs that educate families, children and other community members like doctors.
For Wisconsinites who have only been addicted a short time, the candidates pushed programs to give them the tools and community support to change course.
That way, Ozanne and Richards said, the problem will be prevented instead of dealt with after severe damage has already been done.
“We are not going to prosecute our way out of a heroin epidemic, period,” Ozanne said, adding that in his experience those people who are prosecuted for heroin deaths end up being those who loved the victim most. “We are ripping families apart through prosecution.”
The candidates also pitched similar programs as solutions to the high number of incarcerated blacks and Native Americans in Wisconsin, as well as a way of curbing domestic abuse and problems stemming from mental illness.
Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ joined Ozanne and Richards in emphasizing a conscious effort to prioritize keeping non-violent and first-time offenders in programs where they have access to help. Keeping people in their communities to overcome past issues can be a great solution, Happ said.
The candidates are three weeks away from the Aug. 12 primary with the winner moving on to face Waukesha County DA Brad Schimel, who is running unopposed on the Republican ticket.
All three Dems acknowledged there were many cases, such as those of repeat and violent offenders, where prosecution was the best option and each made it clear they would not be afraid to follow through on such cases.
While the candidates agreed on almost every question posed during the panel put on by the Democratic Party of Dane County, they did take several opportunities to differentiate themselves from the others in the field.
Happ reminded the audience she has served six years as DA in a traditionally GOP county, proving she can get votes from both Republicans and Democrats. She also said her background as a woman allows her to approach issues differently than any other candidate running for the office, specifically when searching for remedies to the “war on women.”
“I nearly died in childbirth, and I know that these are personal decisions that must be made by women with their family, their physician and their faith, not by politicians in Washington, D.C., and Madison,” Happ said.
Ozanne said his background running day-to-day operations for the state’s Department of Corrections as well as his experience as DA for the state’s second-largest county gives him the institutional knowledge to run a major agency like the Department of Justice. He also told those at the event he was the only Democratic candidate who could say he truly had extensive experience as a prosecutor, downplaying Happ’s six years in a less populated county.
“Experience and leadership matter. The other side is coming at us with a Mack truck,” Ozanne said about Republicans and Schimel. “The last two [Democratic] candidates were beaten back because they had a lack of prosecutorial experience. I am the one with the leadership and experience.”
Richards, who served 15 years in the state Legislature and has his own private legal practice, said he has based his candidacy on the “need to protect Wisconsin families” through better enforcement of issues like domestic abuse, child pornography and women’s rights. He also said he stands apart from the other candidates because of his legislative experience developing statewide policy as well as with his focus on background checks for all gun sales in the state, something he said no other candidate in the race has explicitly sought.
The candidates also differed slightly in their explanations of the attorney general’s role for the state. For Ozanne, public safety is No. 1 and the ability of the attorney general to choose which cases to pursue or let sit is important given the impact it can have on citizens’ lives.
Richards stressed using the position to set up statewide standards and to use the power of the position to help rural counties that have law enforcement problems but do not have the money to fix them.
Happ tapped into her image of a candidate for both sides in saying the main role is to push divisiveness and politics away from decisions and make sure the state is following through on constitutional standards.
Aside from those relatively minor deviations, each candidate put forward similar ideas to promote marriage equality, pour more resources into fighting drugs and domestic abuse, and defending voting rights and the environment.
The Democratic Party of Dane County held a straw poll at the event, which Ozanne won with 19 votes. Happ came in second with 16 and Richards was third with eight.