If you are seeking election as a state attorney general these days, it helps to have a résumé like that of Gary King, the Democrat who is running for the job in New Mexico. King has a doctorate in organic chemistry and a record of service as a policy adviser to federal agencies on energy, land use and nuclear waste disposal issues long enough to earn him praise from the Sierra Club for his “real world understanding” of environmental essentials. He’s also a lawyer, a former City Attorney and a former legislator who spent twelve years crafting New Mexico’s statutes. King’s combination of scientific and legal skills may be rare in politics, but it should prove extremely useful if, as expected, he’s elected in November.
The days when state attorneys general were merely cops-and-robbers prosecutors are long gone. In states across the country, and increasingly at the national level, attorneys general are in the forefront of fights on everything from access to birth control to price-gouging by oil companies to preserving pensions to preventing state laws from being pre-empted by free-trade agreements. Of particular note has been their aggressive and often effective advocacy on behalf of environmental protection initiatives that have had few friends at the federal level since President Bush took over. Attorneys general haven’t just been going after companies that fail to obey the law, they’ve been going after the Bush Administration for failing to enforce the laws.
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the nation’s most prominent prosecutor, made his name going after targets usually regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Food and Drug Administration. But Spitzer was also in the thick of state-generated challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency’s neglect of its responsibilities. In 2004 he led a coalition of attorneys general who got a judge to block implementation of federal rule changes that would have allowed major utilities to expand their plants without upgrading environmental protections. Earlier this year Spitzer was one of ten attorneys general who sued the EPA for “failing to adopt strong emission standards to reduce air pollution from new power plants.”
Spitzer is one of several attorneys general seeking higher office this fall. But his exit won’t end the new pattern of activism: Incumbents such as Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal and Rhode Island’s Patrick Lynch, who have worked with Spitzer to protect the environment in particular, and more generally to hold corporations and federal regulators to account, are leading races for re-election in a year that will see twenty-nine states choose their chief law enforcement officers. And their ranks are likely to be joined by a new crew of change agents. Californian Jerry Brown’s long, strange political trip has him on track to secure the attorney general job in the nation’s largest state, while New Yorker Andrew Cuomo, a former Clinton Administration Cabinet secretary and the son of former governor Mario Cuomo, is ahead in the race to replace Spitzer. Both promise to pick up where Spitzer left off, as do a number of impressive Democratic candidates for open posts, such as Minnesota’s Lori Swanson, who currently serves as that state’s solicitor general.
Swanson may well be the most ambitious of the newcomers. She promises that if elected, she will use her authority not just to take action against HMOs and insurers that deny Minnesotans benefits to which they are entitled and to crack down on predatory lenders–as many attorneys general now do–but also to combat discrimination against women and minorities, to demand accountability from corporations and to lead the fight to prevent Congress from pre-empting consumer protection laws as part of moves to deregulate the healthcare, pharmaceutical, mortgage lending and banking industries.
Predictably, such pledges have not endeared Swanson to corporate interests in Minnesota or at the national level, and she’s facing attacks from business and conservative groups. That’s to be expected. The ranks of activist attorneys general won’t increase without a fight in states where corporate interests are waking up to the reality that some of the most serious threats to the Bush Administration’s Wall Street-friendly policies are coming from the states. After Kathleen Falk, a veteran Wisconsin environmental lawyer who served for many years as an assistant attorney general responsible for intervening to protect air and water quality and wetlands, won the Democratic nomination in September, the state’s big-business lobby immediately bought $300,000 in television attack ads. Falk’s campaign shot back by charging that her GOP opponent and his backers were “trying to bring the failed environmental policies of the Bush/Cheney Administration to Wisconsin.” Actually, what the business lobbies are trying to do in Wisconsin and elsewhere is to prevent more state attorneys general from using their legal skills and their positions to assure that the Administration’s polluter-friendly environmental policies–as well as its corporate-friendly approaches to a host of other issues–do indeed fail.