Republican A.G. candidates stress experience

Ask either of the Republican candidates for attorney general what makes him different from his opponent and both will give the same answer.

Experience, they say, sets them apart.

For Ralph DeZago, it's his experience in the courtroom, as a trial attorney, knowing the ins and outs of the justice system.

For Derek Schmidt, it's his experience in state government, wading through the bureaucracies of different agencies as the Kansas Senate majority leader.

They will meet in the primary next month for the opportunity to challenge Democratic incumbent Steve Six. Libertarian Dennis Hawver also is running in the general election.

Each of the Republican candidates lists a different kind of experience that he says separates him from the other.

Otherwise, they have similar stances on the issues.

Both want to lead Kansas in a lawsuit against federal health care reform. Both cite public safety as their main focus for the office of the top prosecutor.

Even in experience, they are similar.

Both have worked in the attorney general's office as assistant prosecutors. And when a reporter originally called them, both DeZago and Schmidt were in court, serving as municipal prosecutors in small Kansas towns.

The big difference is Schmidt's time in elected office, including three terms in the Senate.

DeZago says that works in his favor.

"I think the deal with the attorney general's office is, it needs to get out of the realm of politics and get back into the realm of enforcing the law," DeZago said.

"Since the position I take is that the attorney general's primary function is to enforce laws, and I've been involved in the criminal justice end for 29 years, I think that's what gives me the kind of experience I need to do this job," he said.

DeZago, who currently is the city prosecutor in Junction City, ran a public defenders' office in north-central Kansas. He served as defense attorney in the state's first murder case involving DNA evidence — only the fourth in the nation in 1988. He was defense counsel on the first death penalty case in Kansas after it reinstated capital punishment in 1994.

From 2003 to 2007, he worked as an assistant attorney general, writing legal opinions for the office.

"I've refused and will continue to refuse any endorsements from any politicians whatsoever," DeZago said. "I think the attorney general needs to be the honest broker in the system. And to be in a situation where you're taking endorsements from politicians, it either looks bad or you're in a position where you owe somebody something, and I'm not going to be there."

Schmidt says his time in state office works in his favor.

"I think I have the strongest range of experience in this race — both legally and in terms of understanding the client, which is state government," Schmidt said.

In addition to prosecuting crimes, the attorney general also defends the state in legal actions.

"I've worked with every state agency," Schmidt said. "I've drafted a large number of statutes that are on the books in Kansas — particularly public safety laws."

Schmidt now works as city prosecutor for Independence.

On the state level, Schmidt worked in the consumer protection division of the attorney general's office under Carla Stovall. He also worked as general counsel to Gov. Bill Graves.

Schmidt also has experience in contract law and real estate transactions.

Neither of the candidates like Six's decision not to join with other states in challenging the federal health care legislation.

DeZago sees federally mandated health care as a political ploy that defies the will of the people.

"One of the first things I would do would be to join in any suit going on to rid Kansas, and to rid the U.S., of Obama care," DeZago said. "That's because that's what I believe the people of Kansas want."

Schmidt sees the health care debate as a fight for state's rights. He said the health care bill is compelling citizens to buy a product, to force them to engage in commerce.

"It is an unprecedented reach of federal power," Schmidt said. "I'm one who believes because of that precedent-setting nature, it's a fight worth fighting, particularly for states.

"Today that's in the context of health care. But if that precedent is established... it will be applied in ways that have nothing to do with health care. It will be applied in ways we don't even contemplate today."