Will Van Hollen Stay as Attorney General?
He hasn't announced a 2014 reelection effort. He might decide to pursue other interests.
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen spoke for almost seven minutes at the May 4 annual Republican Party state convention.
He estimated that it was his 40th state convention, since his parents brought him to the event as a child. He praised Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s “wonderful reforms.” He said he has spent the last few years fighting to keep judges from tossing out new laws—redistricting, collective bargaining changes and requiring a photo ID to vote—passed by Republican legislators and signed into law by Walker.
But there were two words missing from Van Hollen’s speech: Next year.
Wisconsin’s two-term attorney general has made no final decision about whether to run again in 2014.
That’s surprising because incumbent politicians in top elective Capitol jobs usually play it safe and seek re-election.
But a gun-owning hunter raised in northern Wisconsin—Class of 1984, Ondossagon High School—Van Hollen is not your typical politician.
He’s so comfortable with himself, his family and his political achievements (Bayfield County district attorney, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, attorney general) that he doesn’t need to someday be governor, or U.S. senator or attorney general for 20 years.
Besides, even if he ached to be governor or U.S. senator, Republican incumbents will try to keep those jobs until 2018, when Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin will likely seek re-election.
He’s also not a big fan of political rituals such as dialing-for-dollars and pandering.
Van Hollen has also largely traveled under the Capitol radar in some ways. He also hasn’t attracted as much animus as Walker, for example, because it was Walker—and not Van Hollen—who successfully pushed to all but end collective bargaining for most public employees.
Although Van Hollen supports those changes, he never had to vote for them. Instead, it was his job to go to court to defend those changes.
The Marquette Law School Poll, which tracks the popularity of national and state politicians, has not asked about Van Hollen.
But Van Hollen is very proud of his record as attorney general—a job he interprets as making sure new laws passed by the legislative and executive branches of government withstand legal challenges. He told Republicans he has been in court so often in the last two years that he feels like he’s “half the equation” in the lawmaking process.
Besides “going to the mat” to defend laws enacted by his fellow Republicans, Van Hollen also listed victories in catching more Internet predators of children and fighting child sex trafficking, the too-easy access teens have to prescription drugs and growing use of heroin. He’s also fiercely proud of his Department of Justice’s close working relationship with local law officers.
“We’ve performed overwhelmingly,” he told the GOP convention. “It has been a great pleasure for six years to be able to fight for public safety.”
His comments—past-tense statements with no mention of a “four more years” plan—earned warm applause from Republicans at the convention.
But at 47, Van Hollen frequently asks himself: What else—apart from politics—would be out there for me? Sometimes, he finds those nonpolitical possibilities exciting.
Still, in some ways, Van Hollen is at the peak of his tenure as attorney general:
–He was just elected president of the prestigious National Association of Attorneys General, which advises national leaders on law enforcement issues.
–Since November 2011, the Department of Justice he runs has run backgrounds checks on applicants for concealed-carry permits and issued 192,655 of those permits. Van Hollen holds concealed-carry permit No. 1.
–The budget of the Department of Justice he runs will grow by 33.8 percent over the next two years because it will absorb the Office of Justice Assistance and have to administer a new DNA test-on-arrest program for all those charged with felonies and some misdemeanors.
–He got 57 percent of the vote in 2010 and has no trouble raising campaign cash at low-key events at private homes this year.
If Van Hollen doesn’t seek re-election, which Republican would run for attorney general?
It’s a short list because the assumption is that Van Hollen will seek a third term. One possibility is Court of Appeals Judge Mark Gundrum, a former Assembly member and circuit court judge, who won a new six-year term in April.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.