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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Thursday, November 02, 2006

WI-AG, the folkbum endorsement: Kathleen Falk for Attorney General

The biggest problem Republican J.B. Van Hollen seems to have--or, rather, the biggest problem I have with J.B. Van Hollen--is that he thinks the job of Attorney General is something other than what it is.

Actually, that may not be true; Van Hollen and his staff people are probably not, in fact, that dumb. But they have made a conscious decision to campaign on a flawed premise, in the hopes that they can fool enough of the people for a few more days and collect the votes they need to put Van Hollen in office.

That premise? J. B. Van Hollen wants to be Superman. You know, out there fightin' for truth, justice, and the American way.

Every time I've heard him (or one of his surrogates), the emphasis is on fighting crime. Tackling illegal immigration. Stopping all the terrorists lurking behind every cheese-and-taxedermy shop in the state. Which is all such a small part of what the state Department of Justice does, it's not even funny.

I can't say I blame him; the only thing Van Hollen ("Jump!
Jump! Go ahead and jump!" Sorry--I just couldn't hold out any longer) has going for him is his record as a tough-on-crime prosecutor and US attorney. And when stacked up against Kathleen Falk's decidedly less shallow vitae, Van Hollen's resume looks pretty thin, hollow, unimpressive.

I endorsed incumbent Peg Lautenschlager in the primary not because I don't like Kathleen Falk, but rather because I thought Peg had done well as Jim Doyle's successor in the office, and she deserved a second term. But as I predicted, Falk won easily enough. And that's okay with me--as I wrote at the time, "she is head, shoulders, and torso above the Republican competition." She remains so.

Consider, for example, the decade and a half Falk served as an Assistant Attorney General, years of experience doing the kind of work that AG's actually do. Most of that time, Falk was our Public Intervenor, the person who directly answered to the will of the people on matters that involved distputes between the public and other state agencies. She knows exactly what it's like to stand up for and with the citizens and voters of this state, which Van Hollen can only dream about (in his red cape and underpants-on-the-outside).

Consider, as well, the fact that Falk manages, budgets for, and leads with competence and acumen an organization many times the size of the state's Department of Justice. It should be a piece of cake for her to handle an office of that size, while Van Hollen has only ever lorded over a virtual fortress of soiltude.

Consider, finally, the fact that Falk was arguing cases in Wisconsin's courts--including our Supreme Court--almost before Van Hollen could change his own clothes, phone booth or no.

That's just three basic, fundamental, critical ways Kathleen Falk is light-years ahead of Van Hollen in what it takes to be AG. And yet, Van Hollen and his team (Fraley, in particular) have tried to make this race one about experience, since Van Hollen, in his understudy Superman role, has prosecuted criminal cases. Anyone remember a single criminal case, outside of Chai Vang's, that an AG in Wisconsin has personally tried in the last decade or two? No? Me neither.

So this is what we're left with: J. B. Van Hollen, who thinks this job is all about the Superman, and who has a great deal of experience that doesn't adequately prepare him for the office, thinks Kathleen Falk doesn't have the experience or the expertise to do the job. This, ladies and gentleman, is what we in the business call irony--like the clothing brand the misspells academics, or the old Norton CrashGuard program I had that wouldn't used to let my computer start up. I'm not saying that the AG's office never prosecutes the kinds of crimes Van Hollen thinks he'll get to try; however, the AG's office is so much more than that.

Unfortunately for Van Hollen, he's banking on the voters forgetting that fact, that the AG does more than just what Jack McCoy does, more than just fighting crime. I don't know that he can pull that deception off to the extent that he needs to.


Like me, Paul Soglin endorsed Peg Lautenschlager in the primary, and he was much less sanguine about a Falk nomination than I. However, I open up my browser yesterday to see this from the former Madison mayor:
I have had my differences with Kathleen Falk. They are relevant as to differences within the progressive community. My views on her negotiations with Governor Thompson on the future of regional planning and certain land use issues were important within the Democratic Party primary. When I look at her opponent's values on these matters, the contest isn't close.
He identifies his level of support as "enthusiastic." The Recess Supervisor, perhaps sensing the same issues with Van Hollen that I have, also endorsed Falk yesterday--though I say perhaps because he doesn't seem to do it for any good reason other than he thinks she'll make a good governor some day.


Experience isn't always the end-all and be-all of electoral politics. I support both Steve Kagen and Bryan Kennedy, neither of whom have held office before. After all, the House is the kind of place where the leadership doesn't let you do very much unti they think they can take the leash off of you. And a quiet first term is not a bad way learn the ropes and start working, as one of 435, toward a committee chair or other leadership positions.

But the Attorney General doesn't get to stand back and watch the world work around her. The job requires an ability to jump in with both feet running, an ability to be the leader from day one. Kathleen Falk doesn't have to learn on the job. She doesn't have to learn how to listen to the public when they speak. She doesn't have to learn how to successfully manage a department as large and diverse as Justice. She doesn't have to learn how to represent the people or the state in court on matters not criminal. The learning curve for Falk, in other words, is near zero.

J. B. Van Hollen may want to be--may think he is--Superman. But not even the ability to leap steep learning curves with a single bound is enough for him to deserve this. Vote for Kathleen Falk on November 7.

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