There’s no shortage of differences between the two candidates vying to be Missouri’s next attorney general.
But the defining one may be the role of the office itself.
Democrat Teresa Hensley says the attorney general is the state’s top prosecutor, and for people to hold that office they must have courtroom experience.
“I’ve practiced law for 25 years, including 10 as a county prosecutor,” Hensley said. “My opponent is a young man who has never represented a client in a Missouri courtroom. He’s never practiced law in Missouri or stood in front a judge in Missouri. He’s not qualified for this job.”
Republican Josh Hawley says the main function of the attorney general’s office is to defend Missourians from an overreaching government and uphold criminal convictions won by local prosecutors that are on appeal.
“She has very little experience in federal court or in appellate court,” Hawley said. “That’s what the job is. It’s an appellate lawyer’s job and a constitutional lawyer’s job.”
It will ultimately be up to voters to decide which version of the office they prefer. And both candidates can point to their backgrounds to bolster the case for why they’d be best to fill the role they see for the office.
Hensley grew up in Raymore and served as the Cass County prosecutor from 2005 until 2014. She boasts that during her time in office she obtained convictions in all of her 21 murder cases and prosecuted hundreds of other criminal cases involving child abuse and sexual assault.
“Experience matters,” said Hensley, 57. “When you have 180 attorneys in the attorney general’s office going into courtrooms around the state day in and day out, the office should be run by someone who has done the work.”
In 2012 Hensley fell short in a run for Congress against Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler. Two years later she lost out on her bid for re-election, succumbing to the Republican tidal wave that swept across the country.
Hawley, 36, is a law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who has never run for elected office. He attended Rockhurst High School in Kansas City and graduated from Yale Law School in 2006.
He eventually clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts at the U.S. Supreme Court before joining Roberts’ old law firm as an appellate attorney. He moved back to Missouri to teach law at Mizzou in 2011, and in that time also served as senior counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Hawley says Missouri’s economy is “being stifled and strangled by over regulation,” and he vows to use the office to “fight back against Washington dysfunction and bureaucratic overreach.”
“We need an attorney general that’s going to be an advocate for the state of Missouri and is willing to intervene in the regulatory process and go to court to protect Missourians from over-regulation,” he said. “Prosecuting crime is a hugely important job, and that’s why we elect 114 prosecuting attorneys to do that.”
But Hensley says her opponent has made it clear he’ll use the office to advance an “extreme political agenda” instead of “protecting the people of Missouri from those who would pollute our air and water. From those who would commit consumer fraud. From predatory lenders.”
That becomes clear, she said, when the debate turns to LGBT rights and religious freedom.
Last year a county clerk in Kentucky served five nights in jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Hawley’s campaign responded by calling for public officials in Missouri to be able to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples by citing their religious beliefs, saying at the time that the “tragic situation makes clear we need new legal protections for people of faith, and we need them now.”
“He’s not interested in enforcing the law,” Hensley said of her opponent. “He’s interested in advancing his own political views.”
Religious liberty, Hawley said, is a “foundational part of who we are as a country.”
In order to “turn down the temperature on these issues,” Hawley said, “we have to protect the rights of every person and group to follow their sincere religious belief peacefully without hurting other people.”
Both Hawley and Hensley think lawmakers should approve meaningful ethics reform to clean up the culture of the statehouse.
Hawley says a “pay-to-play mentality” is pervasive in the Missouri Capitol, and the accusation applies to both parties.
“Republicans in the legislature have to face up to the fact that they need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he said.
He plans to create a public corruption unit in the attorney general’s office that “will take a more aggressive role in aiding local and federal prosecutors investigating allegations of corruption.”
“People don’t have any confidence in Jefferson City,” he said. “There’s incredible anger in the political establishment, and one of the reasons is special interests dominate the Capitol in our state.”
Hensley agrees but says the fact that Hawley’s campaign has accepted more than $3 million from the family of one prominent donor — Joplin businessman David Humphreys — erodes all of his credibility on the issue of ethics reform.
“The people of Missouri should be concerned,” she said, “that we could have an attorney general who is owned by one individual.”
In the end, one area where both candidates agree is that there is a stark choice for Missourians on Election Day.
Hawley said: “Do voters want someone who has a record of fighting back against Washington dysfunction and bureaucratic overreach, or do they want someone who has spent their entire adult life running for office? If you want a politician, then you probably shouldn’t vote for me.”
Hensley said: “The choice is pretty clear when you consider the fact that I’m the only person in the race with any experience. Josh Hawley isn’t qualified to be an elected county prosecutor, let alone the top prosecutor in the state of Missouri.”