With the lawsuits, Sunshine requests and and accusations of supporting terrorists in the Republican primary for attorney general, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that there’s also a Democratic primary.
But the candidates probably prefer it that way as they quietly build their campaigns around their experiences with the office they seek, one both prefer to refer to as the top law enforcement office in the state.
St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman is probably considered the favorite right now based on his fundraising ability and political experience. He’s served as an assistant attorney general and as a state representative, positions he feels make him well qualified for the office.
“Whether it’s my time as an assistant attorney general where I took on scammers and I took on corporations who wanted to cheat everyday people, my time in the legislature where I fought for consumer protections or my current job as county assessor where I go after tax cheats who want to game the system at the expense of everybody else, I think that’s exactly the sort of experience that should prepare someone to do the vitally important work of this office,” he said.
While Zimmerman has a political track record, former Cass County prosecutor Teresa Hensley is running on her experience as a prosecutor and an attorney. She spent 10 years in the prosecutor’s office, succeeding current Attorney General Chris Koster when he was elected as a Republican senator, and has spent 24 years altogether practicing law. She has a private practice firm with her husband.
Hensley aims to build on that experience, saying she’s the most experienced candidate — Republican or Democrat — running for the office and that she won’t require “on-the-job training.”
“I am the only woman running and I would be the first woman attorney general, but the reason for people to support me is actually that I have more experience than all three men that are running combined. When you look at that, that actually matters in this office,” she said.
In comparison to the Republican primary, both candidates have lauded the tone of their race and say they respect each other. But while Hensley says she respects Zimmerman, she doesn’t think he has the experience needed for the office.
“I think he’s a good young man and a very smart young man. This is just about experience,” she said. “He doesn’t have the experience. He hasn’t practiced law for the last 10 years and I just think it’s an office where that matters.”
Both candidates have focused on using their past experiences to inform what they will do when they enter office. While he sees the post as a law enforcement position, Zimmerman said his top issue would be getting meaningful ethics reform accomplished, more than what he sees as token measures passed by the legislature this year.
“We need to clean up that culture and we could start by fixing the twin problems of unlimited campaign contributions and unlimited freebies from lobbyists,” Zimmerman said. “The legislature’s response to that in the last session was to pass a six month waiting period to become a lobbyist. That’s not acceptable and I know that there have been brave folks in the legislature who have been willing to stand against the status quo and I look forward to working with those folks to change the culture in Jeff City and get some meaningful reform passed.”
Hensley remains committed to the law enforcement side of the office. She wants to see more done to keep communities safer while also ending the reliance on prisons to accomplish those goals. She wants expansion of drug courts and gun courts and thinks there’s too much reliance on prisons for mental health.
“We send way too many people to prison who don’t belong there. While I sent bad folks to prison, I can talk about alternative programs because I have a really tough on crime record and can also talk about the programs that actually aren’t filling our jails and costing tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for no reason,” Hensley said. “As attorney general, I’d really like to be able to make sure that we’re making DWI courts and drug courts and mental health courts and veterans courts affordable and successful around the state, not just in places right now that can afford them”
With Hensley from the Kansas City area and Zimmerman from the St. Louis side of the state, the candidates are spending time crisscrossing the state to build name id in unfamiliar areas. Hensley picked up the endorsement of the Democrats in the 8th Ward of St. Louis while Zimmerman says he’s been focusing on letting rural voters know the laws apply the same everywhere in the state.
“Whether I’m in Kansas City or whether I’m in Springfield or last night I was in Adair County speaking at a picnic in Thousand Hills State Park, the message is the same,” he said. “Just as there’s not a Democratic or Republican way to enforce the law, there isn’t an urban or rural way to do it.”
Zimmerman’s fundraising ability could tilt the balance in this race. He had nearly a million dollars when Hensley announced her candidacy for the office. While Hensley built into that lead by the April filing period, Zimmerman’s $1.1 million still led Hensley’s $238,000.
Hensley recognizes her disadvantage, but thinks her other qualities can help her close out a win in August.
“I believe it will be a low turnout and the voters who turn out are going to be people who are voters time and time again,” she said. “They’re actually the most informed voters. They actually find out who the candidates are and what they stand for and what they can do. I’m comfortable that as we continue to get our message out that people understand who the most qualified person is for this office.”
No matter who wins the Democratic primary, both candidates have been disturbed by the tenor of the Republican race. Zimmerman doesn’t think that type of attitude serves the voters of the state.
“I think that my message of fairness and accountability is what we ought to see in an attorney general. I think the people of this state are tired of partisan ideological warfare,” he said.
Hensley says she’ll support Zimmerman if she loses because she believes neither Josh Hawley or Kurt Schaefer should be the attorney general.
“I think we can see that the two Republicans are just beating each other up and both of them have really, both made statements and actions, that I think are critical to folks making a determination if they would really want either one of these in an office that has the power and the authority that the attorney general’s office has,” she said. “I think the two Republican candidates have done some things that should make people question whether they would want them as an attorney general.”
Ed note: A previous version of this story said that Hensley supported the expansion of drug courts. That is incorrect and the Missouri Times regrets the error.