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Missouri's GOP candidates for attorney general rip off the gloves

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, left, and professor Josh Hawley came out swinging in their campaigns for the Republican nomination for attorney general.
official photos

As if the University of Missouri didn’t have its own troubles, the state school now is caught in the middle of arguably the nastiest political primary battle in the state.

The combatants are university law professor Josh Hawley and state Sen. Kurt Schaefer. Both are Boone County Republicans vying to be their party’s nominee this fall for Missouri attorney general.

Schaefer calls Hawley “just another self-entitled academic … who doesn’t want to do the job the public is paying him to do.”

Hawley, who’s on unpaid leave from his post, contends that Schaefer’s actions fit in with “the culture of corruption that we’ve seen in Jefferson City.”

Hawley’s campaign adds that it’s Schaefer, not the professor, who currently draws a state paycheck.

Hawley also asserts that Schaefer is “a moderate’’ trying to pass himself off as a conservative. And Schaefer contends that Hawley “has less legal experience than a third-year law student.”

By the way, there’s lots more where those attacks came from.

Such sharp exchanges – noteworthy between candidates in the same party – are expected to end up in each man’s political advertising in the coming months, as they vie for votes in the Aug. 2 primary.

State Republican Party chairman John Hancock emphasized that the party is staying out of the fight, although some party leaders – but not him – may take sides. The chairman said he'd prefer that any GOP primary battles remain civil.

“Anytime a primary contest gets nasty and personal," Hancock said, "you run a real risk of damaging your nominee.”

Meanwhile, the two announced Democrats for attorney general – St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman and former Cass County Prosecutor Teresa Hensley – are generally keeping low profiles and focusing primarily on raising money.

Missouri’s candidate filing for all posts on this year’s primary and general-election ballots officially begins Feb. 23.

University leave policy a hot issue

The Schaefer/Hawley sparring, underway for months, got a hefty dose of political fuel last week when news broke of former university system president Tim Wolfe’s letter that, among other things, accused Schaefer of trying to block Hawley’s leave.

Wolfe implied that Schaefer was improperly wielding his muscle as the longtime chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

Schaefer calls such accusations “ridiculous,’’ adding that he has supported “record funding’’ for university construction, despite his differences with Wolfe and other Mizzou officials on a variety of matters.

Schaefer acknowledges that he had raised questions last year with the university about Hawley’s academic leave. “The university should follow their own rules, which in fact they didn’t do,’’ Schaefer said.

Among other things, Schaefer alleges that Hawley initially sought paid leave and is getting longer than the standard one-year academic hiatus.

'Just another self-entitled academic ... who doesn't want to do the job the public is paying him to do' - Schaefer on Hawley

Hawley denies that he ever asked the university for a paid leave. And he says his leave does fit the one-year standard, because it officially began with last fall’s semester, and will end this fall. Hawley went off the university’s payroll May 31, 2015, but he says his contract always has covered only nine months, so last summer doesn’t count as part of his leave.

Hawley pointed to previous university professors who were granted leave while they ran for office, including Rick Hardy, who made two unsuccessful GOP bids for Congress in the 1990s.

The university says it won’t comment on Hawley’s specific case.

Candidates question rivals’ legal expertise

A state senator since 2009, Schaefer announced his plans to run for attorney general several years ago, when it became clear that Attorney General Chris Koster – a Democrat -- was going to run for governor this fall.

Schaefer grew up in St. Louis County and has lived in Columbia since 1983. He attended the University of Missouri and graduated from Vermont Law School in 1995. He was elected to the state Senate in 2008, knocking off the incumbent Democrat, Chuck Graham. Schaefer won his second term in 2012.

His actions fit in with 'the culture of corruption that we've seen in Jefferson City.' - Hawley on Schaefer

Now 50, Schaefer has raised close to $2.5 million – the most of any Missouri attorney general candidate in either party, and currently has about $2 million in the bank. That money includes $500,000 he received last year from wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield, and $500,000 from a Schaefer family trust.

Schaefer cites his background as “a former prosecutor, a former assistant attorney general, a former special assistant to the U.S. attorney,’’ and his more than seven years in the state Senate.

Schaefer also notes his record handling hundreds of court cases, including those involving the death penalty. “He’s never tried a case in his life,’’ Schaefer said of Hawley. “That’s what this is about.”

Schaefer says his six years as Senate appropriations chairman has given him a deep knowledge of the state budget and state agencies. “I know the operation of state government forward and backward,” he said.

'I know the operation of state government forward and backward,' - Schaefer

In contrast, Schaefer added, “I don’t think Josh Hawley has any idea how state government or the state budget works.”

Hawley, 36, has collected  almost $900,000 since declaring his candidacy last year. His last campaign-finance report showed him with $802,000 in the bank.

Hawley grew up in Lexington, Mo., and graduated from Stanford University and Yale Law School. He served as a clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court, working with chief justice John Roberts. Retired Sen. John C. Danforth says he helped woo Hawley to return to Missouri and become a law professor at Mizzou.

Hawley highlights his expertise as “an appellate litigator. I’m not a trial lawyer.” As a litigator, Hawley files legal briefs that go before judges, not juries.

The Missouri attorney general also generally does appellate work, Hawley added. “My expertise lines up with what the attorney general actually does.”

'My expertise lines up with what the attorney general actually does.' - Hawley

Hawley was a founder of the Missouri Liberty Project, a group formed in 2014 to "fight government overreach." He also has worked as senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. His best-known legal work was on behalf of Hobby Lobby in its successful Supreme Court case that challenged the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that businesses provide insurance coverage for contraception.

The court ruled that certain companies do not have to comply if they have religious objections.

Hawley served as co-counsel, but did not argue the case before the high court.

Schaefer also is attacking Hawley’s legal work on behalf of the People’s Mujahideen Organization of Iran, which Schaefer calls a “terrorist” group.

Hawley says the organization opposes the current ruling government in Iran. The group is no longer on the U.S. terror-watch list, he said.

Hawley added that this Iranian group’s U.S. allies include former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and former Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo. He provided a copy of a letter than he had sent to Schaefer in December offering such details.

“Schaefer hasn’t done his homework,’’ Hawley said.

Each questions rival’s conservative credentials

Hawley has gotten national endorsements from the Family Research Council and the National Review magazine. He also has the support of Danforth, a former Missouri attorney general.

Schaefer says the national endorsements are proof that Hawley is “very much with D.C. insiders,’’ which Schaefer contended could be bad for Missourians.

As for himself, Schaefer said, “I am never going to be the ‘insider’ Republican candidate.”

Hawley countered, “I’m not aware of any major conservative group that’s endorsed my opponent, and for good reason. He’s not a conservative, as he’s said many times. He has said over and over again that he’s a moderate.”

'He's not a conservative, as he's said many times. He has said over and over again that he's a moderate.' - Hawley on Schaefer

Among other things, Hawley points to campaign contributions Schaefer has received from labor groups and certain votes that he says prove that Schaefer is not as staunch an opponent of abortion as he contends.

Schaefer replied, “My record speaks for itself,’’ adding that his overall voting record is proof that he’s a solid conservative.

“I have consistently been ranked among the most conservative members of the Senate by multiple organizations,” he said.

Schaefer particularly points to his work last summer chairing a special legislative committee charged with investigating Planned Parenthood in the wake of videos alleging that some Planned Parenthood operations in other states illegally sold fetal remains after abortions. Koster’s investigation found no evidence of such activity in Missouri, but the General Assembly plans to continue to probe the issue.

Schaefer pressed the University of Missouri to end its cooperation with the Planned Parenthood clinic in Columbia and to drop the hospital privileges it had granted the clinic's physician who performed abortions.

Meanwhile, Hawley has called for the General Assembly to take action to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving any Medicaid money for health care services.

Hawley also has promised that, if elected, he’ll issue an opinion as attorney general that would allow county clerks and others, such as recorders of deeds, to avoid issuing licenses for same-sex marriages because of their religious beliefs.

Hawley’s key pitch is that he’ll bring in a fresh perspective to state government, which he maintained now is ruled by a “Jefferson City cartel’’ that has fed “the culture of corruption.”

'He can go out there and say he is whatever he wants people to believe he is. He's never been vetted.' - Schaefer on Hawley

Schaefer contends that because of Hawley’s lack of a voting record, “he can go out there and say he is whatever he wants people to believe he is. He’s never been vetted.”

“He’s no different than John Roberts saying, ‘Put me on the Supreme Court for life, I’m a conservative,' " Schaefer said. "And he gets put on the court and then immediately upholds Obama care, twice.”

As for himself, Schaefer observed, “Hate me or like me, people know who I am.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.