The Republican candidate for Missouri attorney general this week accused his opponent of not understanding the job.
“The attorney general defends the state and its people against federal overreach,” said GOP candidate Josh Hawley, a constitutional lawyer and professor.
Democrat Teresa Hensley has consistently cited her resume that includes practicing domestic law, defending the rights of victims and prosecuting child abuse and sexual abuse cases as reasons for being the best candidate for the job. But Hawley said that is not the type of experience Missourians are seeking.
“The criminal part is a minor percentage of the structure of the office. I believe the job is to stand up for all Missourians," Hawley told American Media Institute. "She seems to think she’s in charge of all the state’s prosecuting attorney offices. Prosecuting attorneys around the state handle criminal cases. The attorney general handles appeals of felony convictions and serves as special prosecutor when needed."
Hawley's point matters, he said, because the attorney general is tasked with defending the state and its citizens against federal regulatory overreach, government and corporate corruption as well as consumer fraud.
"She’s also on the side of the regulatory overreach from the federal government that we’re trying to defend Missouri against," Hawley said. "She supports Obamacare and is for increased environmental regulations.”
Hensley countered that her background with domestic violence is integral to the attorney general office.
“It’s important to have prosecutorial experience in murders and child and sex abuse cases,” Hensley told American Media Institute. “It’s the top prosecutor office of the state and it’s the job of the attorney general to step in and be a special prosecutor if needed. It is the attorney general’s job to help train prosecutors and to seek the best practices. Whether it’s civil or criminal, the same experience applies. The job is to go after anyone who violates the law.”
Hensley said she successfully convicted 21 of the 21 murderers she prosecuted and earned 93 convictions for child sexual abuse as a prosecutor. Hensley, who returned to private practice after losing re-election in 2014, said she decided to run for the state attorney general seat after learning current Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster would be running for governor.
“I was very passionate about my job as a prosecuting attorney so I thought my strong background was a good fit for the top prosecutor job in the state,” Hensley said. “I’ve been successful with convictions. I think that is important as the attorney general. I think we need someone who is not wholly political. The person needs to be someone who has a strong background in enforcing the law and I have 24 years of experience. The office has more than 180 attorneys so it needs to be run like a law office. That’s how I treated the prosecuting attorney’s office.”
Both candidates had faced tough primary elections. After an onslaught of negative campaign ads from state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, Hawley soundly defeated Schaefer for the Republican nomination in the Aug. 2 primary for attorney general. Hawley received 64.2 percent (415,300 of the 646,744 votes cast in the Republican race) while Schaefer finished with 35.7 percent.
Hensley, a former prosecutor from Kansas City, defeated St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman in the Democratic race by a 5 percent margin, receiving 167,003 of 316,914 votes cast (52.6 percent) to Zimmerman's (47 percent).
Hawley had a financial advantage immediately after the primary, with more than $970,000 in campaign funds compared to Hensley’s $40,000. Hawley maintains the advantage, with more than $4.3 million compared to Hensley’s $1.1 million as of Oct. 15.
After one of the most contentious Republican primary campaigns in recent Missouri history, Hawley and Hensley remained cordial and respectful during the general election race, Hawley said.
“We’ve had a good discussion about the issues,” he said. “We differ on how we think the office should be run. She talks about how she has prosecuted cases against child abuse and sexual abuse, and those are good things to prosecute, but that’s not what the attorney general’s office does. She doesn’t have a vision or understanding of what the office should do, or the experience. She was appointed (as Cass County prosecutor) as a political favor by former Gov. Bob Holden. Then the voters fired her in 2014.”
Hawley is a constitutional attorney, and, according to his campaign, a leading national expert on religious freedom. He served as co-counsel on the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, a significant decision about First Amendment religious liberty. He also served as senior counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, winning again at the Supreme Court.
At Yale Law School, he led the Yale Federalist Society and earned clerkships at the U.S. Court of Appeals, the 10th Circuit, and the United States Supreme Court. Hawley taught law at the University of Missouri-Columbia and was an attorney in private practice but took a leave of absence to run for attorney general.
“There is a contrast between my opponent and me,” Hawley said. “She has never tried a case in federal court and has no background in complex civil and criminal appellate cases. So many criminal appeals cases involve constitutional issues and she has no background on that. That matters because the attorney general defends on appeals.”
Hensley is focusing on her 24-year career as a lawyer in private practice and decade as the Cass County prosecuting attorney in the Kansas City area, she said. Hensley majored in history and education in college and received a Missouri lifetime teaching certificate. She taught for a year before being accepted into law school.
She practiced family law with her husband, Kenny, for 14 years before then-Gov. Bob Holden appointed her to complete two years of an unexpired term as Cass County prosecuting attorney. Current Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster had vacated the seat to become a state senator. Hensley started in January 2005 and was re-elected in 2006 and 2010 but was voted out in 2014.
“We focused a lot on victim advocacy,” Hensley said. “Part of my job was to train and educate the lawyers who worked for me as well the first responders for some of the cases we worked so that we could help people. The attorney general is someone who can truly be a people’s representative, whether you’re holding the hand of a woman or child who has been abused or protecting consumers from fraud or ensuring that corporations are abiding by the laws.”