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Missouri attorney general candidates battle over symbolism as well as substance

From left: John Hawley, Kurt Schaefer, Teresa Hensley and Jake Zimmerman
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
From left: John Hawley, Kurt Schaefer, Teresa Hensley and Jake Zimmerman

Until a few days ago, the battle to become Missouri’s next attorney general appeared to be one-sided:

Only the two Republicans seeking the job — law professor Josh Hawley and state Senator Kurt Schaefer — were hotly fighting over it.

But now that’s changed. Although the Schaefer-Hawley contest remains the nastiest, the two Democrats — St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman and former Cass County Prosecutor Teresa Hensley — also are tussling.

Hensley’s first TV ad, which went up this week, lays out her qualifications as a prosecutor but also includes attacks against Zimmerman. The ad refers to 2013 allegations by a private tax-appeal firm that Zimmerman’s office had over-assessed some properties in north St. Louis County. Zimmerman says that’s not true and that it has been debunked.

St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman is optimistic about Stenger's administration.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman

Zimmerman has been running ads for several weeks, but they haven’t mentioned Hensley. Instead, his ads highlight his pledge to focus on consumer protection if elected attorney general.

Meanwhile, Schaefer and Hawley continue to raise and spend the most. 

The Republicans and Democrats are fighting each other separately until the Aug. 2 primary. After that, the two victors will face off in November.

What does the attorney general do?

The Missouri attorney general is the state’s top law enforcement official.  

The office handles all felony cases that end up before the state Supreme Court, defend Missouri’s legal rights, and is charged with prosecuting corporations that violate state laws. 

Teresa Hensley
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Former Cass County prosecutor Teresa Hensley

Hensley, the former Cass County prosecutor,  cites her knowledge in the courtroom.

“You’re the top managing partner of a pretty big law firm. And it is at the same time an office that handles tremendous prosecutorial cases, like murder cases and child sex abuse cases — all of which I’ve taken great priority and training to make sure we’re handling those cases appropriately.”

Zimmerman had worked in the attorney general’s office for part of 2003 and 2004. His ads focus on the job’s consumer protection duties, such as targeting people who try to scam senior citizens.

Zimmerman agrees that prosecution is part of the attorney general’s duties, but he takes issue with the Republican candidates’ focus on the federal government.

“All of us are running to be the top law enforcement official in the state of Missouri, whose job it is to uphold the laws and the constitution of the state of Missouri,” Zimmerman said. “Not to pick a fight with the president because you don’t like them. Not to advocate for a set of right-wing ideological talking points.”

So far, the two Democrats haven’t attracted the attention of national political groups. But on the GOP side, millions of dollars are being spent on ads aired by outside campaign operations who don’t have to identify their donors.

Terrorism and the Chinese

Many of those outside ads are attacking Schaefer. Most of them point to a vote he cast in 2013 to allow foreign companies, such as those owned by Chinese, to own a small percentage of Missouri farm land.  The change stems in part from a Chinese company's purchase of a pork-producing business, Smithfield Farms.

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia

However, many Missouri lawmakers approved the measure. And Gov. Jay Nixon — a Democrat — signed it into law.

Meanwhile, Schaefer has been under fire over two of his own TV ads that accuse Hawley of performing legal work for terrorists. Hawley and his allies say the ads are inaccurate and misleading. But Schaefer plans to keep them on the air.

The Schaefer/Hawley fight has focused so much on such side issues that it’s easy to overlook their more substantial differences. They have starkly different visions of what the attorney general should do.

Schaefer says he’s the best qualified because of his earlier background working as a staff lawyer in the attorney general’s office under now-Gov. Jay Nixon and in the U.S. attorney’s office.

“I can walk into that office today and whether it’s the civil aspect or criminal aspect, there’s not a job in that office that I have not done or that I couldn’t go in and do from Day 1.”

Schaefer went on to assert that Hawley lacks the courtroom experience for the job.

Josh Hawley takes part in a debate.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio | file photo
University of Missouri law professor Josh Hawley

Hawley, a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, replied that his expertise in constitutional law is closer to what the state attorney general actually does.  

“What the attorney general’s office does, it defends cases on appeal and then it defends the laws of Missouri and the officials of Missouri, when necessary, and the constitution of Missouri. And I think I have a background perfectly suited to do that.”

Hawley is proposing to set up new units in the office that would focus on government corruption — particularly in Jefferson City — and on addressing federal overreach.

Schaefer also is promising to challenge the federal government.

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