Re OWI and the state attorney general's race: Oh, the tangled paths they drive | WisCommunity

Re OWI and the state attorney general's race: Oh, the tangled paths they drive

Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel, seeking the Republican nomination for Wisconsin attorney general, has gotten into a bit of a bind over the revelation that he was arrested and cited for a drunk-driving offense in 1990.  Whatever voters will think of this, Schimel made things worse by not disclosing the incident before campaigning against proposals to toughen the state's drunk-driving laws.

Drinking and driving seems to be rampant among prosecutors who seek public office. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a Democrat who could be Schimel's opponent in the general election, fessed up to his own alcohol-related driving incident when he was a teenager. He, too, was cited, though not like Schimel for operating a vehicle while under the influence.

But here's the thing: Voters have short memories. Remember Peg Lautenschlager? She was Wisconsin's attorney general in 2004 when she was cited after a sheriff's deputy found her in her parked, state-owned car. She pleaded guilty to operating while under the influence (OWI), and that arguably led to her defeat in the next election two years later.

Does an OWI conviction make you unfit to be a top law enforcement official? Drunken driving is dangerous and irresponsible, to be sure. But no one's perfect, and I don't think it's a given that someone with an OWI arrest (I'm not one of them, by the way) should be kept from legal office, including a prosecutorial position. After all, the major political parties have extensive "oppo" research teams that spend considerable effort trying to document the personal defects of their electoral and other opponents. And even if he or she who is without sin should cast the first stone, the truth is that those defects often are exposed when people who are otherwise of reasonable character and skill seek public office.

Nor is every incident identical or of equal impact; the cases of Schimel, Ozanne and Lautenschlager were different in various respects. Lautenschlager clearly took the big career hit because her transgression happened WHILE she was in public office. Timing, as is always the case in human events, is everything. But so is the tendency of some partisan voters to dismiss major personal defects; the more ideological you are, the more that seems to be the norm. That's ironic, because some of the most hypocritical public officeholders are those who point out the motes in the eyes of their opponents while ignoring the beams in their own

After all, a long parade of state and national officeholders have been turned out of office for incidents of sexual misconduct. But how many were not turned out? Former Rep. Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican who led the push to impeach President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, turned out to himself have had a sexual tryst not that many years earlier in his own political career. Although he eventually left office under what seemed his own power, Hyde dismissed the apparent inconsistency in the way he treated Clinton, saying his own behavior was merely a "youthful indiscretion." Other sex-challenged officeholders, like US Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Mark Sanford, either never were forced from office or, in the latter man's case, sought and won election to other, higher office. And they're still there.

Of course, Republican officeholders far more often tend to have a powerful "get out of jail free" card to play, namely their declaration that they have come to know Jesus and are now not only cured but forgiven by the supreme being, and so ordinary human voters should do likewise.

No one ever said politics and electioneering are fairly refereed sports, but in a more thoughtful world, everyone would be treated with more equity in these kinds of cases. The biggest barrier to the short-attention span of many voters and opinion leaders, and an increasingly higher order of vicious, attack-ad campaigning as time goes on. Arguably from an ethical standpoint, the worst of the three lawyer-politicians we've focused on here is Schimel, who in his campaign argued the state should remain relatively lenient against first-time OWI offenders while failing to disclose that earlier in his adult life he was one of them. Karma's gonna get ya, especially when you fail to reveal your own, relevant past.

It's meanwhile the case that Democrats appear more likely to be turned out of office when word of their own mistakes surfaces. That may be because their opponents are less forgiving or just happenstance or (back-handed compliment) that Democrats are held to a higher moral standard in general. You decide. But also try to spend time considering each of these kinds of cases as they arise, asking yourself if you're being consistent and whether the judgment is fair in context. Sometimes, though surely not always, the lessons of one's mistakes help make a person more forgiving of and thoughtful toward others. We can only hope.


January 10, 2014 - 9:27am