Columns » John Brummett

Attorney general: mixes law and politics

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Two ambitious Democrats, one 33 and the other 31, have announced their candidacies for attorney general. I must keep the perspective that both are older than Bill Clinton was when he held the office. A Republican state legislator who is a business lawyer with a staid and prestigious firm appears inclined to run as well, and he may get a primary opponent from the GOP’s zany anti-immigrant right wing. That gives me the opportunity to consider the office itself, which is of utmost importance to government but not all that challenging politically. Attorney general is a snap, actually, so long as the staff is good and the bulk of that competence hangs around from one administration to the next to transcend the political passers-through on their way up or out. When he was the attorney general for one term while killing time for his defining U.S. Senate run, Mark Pryor told me he had given the staff of lawyers only one instruction: Y’all do the law; I’ll do the politics. That ought to be in the oath of office. The attorney general’s office is effectively one of the state’s largest law firms. It defends state agencies, sues on behalf of the state and gives nonbinding advice to clients in the form of formal opinions sought by people with “standing,” such as legislators. It goes into court to argue the state’s defense on school adequacy cases. It joins multistate class actions to sue the tobacco companies and enter settlements for millions. It tends to function best when the ambitious politicians taking their turns in the corner suite — Jim Guy Tucker, Bill Clinton, Steve Clark, Winston Bryant, Mark Pryor, Mike Beebe — spend most of their time out of that office and talking to civic clubs, thus clear of the lawyering. That’s not to denigrate the lawyering skills of all of them. Beebe once was a highly regarded trial lawyer. Tucker was an uncommonly bright lawyer. Pryor wasn’t a bad lawyer, people tell me. It’s merely to say it’s best if we limit the mixing of church and state, if you know what I mean. But here’s one thing the attorney general does not do: fight or prosecute crime. District prosecutors do that. Keep that in mind, for I fear that the ambitious young Democratic candidates will tout themselves as crime-fighters. Dustin McDaniel, the 33-year-old from Jonesboro, is a former policeman. Robert Herzfeld, the 31-year-old from Benton, is a current prosecutor with a self-fashioned high profile. Both should be advised that the low point of Mark Pryor’s political career was when he tried too early to take out Winston Bryant as attorney general, and presented himself in commercials as some kind of super trooper. But there are two things the attorney general gets to do that are easy and ready-made for populist images. He may issue consumer alerts warning of rip-offs and he may intervene in utility regulatory cases at the Public Service Commission. In that regard, it’s interesting to observe that all the modern-day attorneys general have been moderate to liberal Democrats seeking a populist image. It’s not so easy to see the likely leading Republican candidate, state Rep. Marvin Childers, a state legislator who does business law for the prominent Friday firm, in that role. As for Gunner Delay, the personable if mercurial Fort Smithian reported to be considering challenging Childers in the primary, and who ran unsuccessfully for Congress on a deport-the-immigrants platform — well, it’s hard to see him as attorney general, period. All I want to hear from any of the candidates is whether they intend to try to keep the fellow who’s been working for all these years on the school case as well as the bright woman who heads up the highly efficient and credible opinions division.

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