Nearing the end of a three-act play for the Republican AG nomination

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Fitzgerald talks while Russell eats at Custer County GOP

John Fitzgerald is characteristically succinct when asked why he's the best qualified candidate for the South Dakota attorney general:

“In a word, experience,” the gruff state’s attorney from Lawrence County says. “The attorney general is the lawyer we elect to lead the fight against crime in the state. And I’ve got 38 years of experience as a South Dakota state’s attorney. So that makes me very qualified for this position.”

Fitzgerald argues, in fact, that he might well be the most experienced candidate for South Dakota attorney aeneral in state history. And that might be true, although the Democratic nominee, Randy Seiler, brings a pretty good resume in that regard himself.

But it’s hard to argue with 254 jury trials, although it might be 255 now. Rumor has it he tried another case since I talked to him 11 days ago. And as he points out on his campaign website, those cases have involved the tough stuff: “capital murder, rape, robbery, burglary, arson, kidnapping, distribution of controlled substances, and just about every other crime imaginable.”

If you’re going to commit a crime, don’t commit it in Lawrence County, where Fitzgerald has been state’s attorney since 1995. He was deputy states attorney there for five years before that, and states attorney in Butte County for 14 years or so before that.

But the attorney general’s job isn’t just about prosecution. It’s also about managing a team of  prosecutor, a larger group of support staff, assisting local states attorneys, overseeing the state Division of Criminal Investigation and developing legislation and working with lawmakers to get it passed.

It can also be about playing politics, just a bit — or quite a bit. So is a steely courtroom-loving prosecutor like Fitzgerald ready for all that?

No problem, he says. Fitzgerald believes he can get by on the politics and excel at the office management and oversight. But he argues that the central job should not be missed: “80 percent of what the attorney general does is criminal law enforcement and law enforcement training, so that makes me very qualified.

“You need an attorney who can mentor, aid, assist and train the state’s attorneys in the tough jobs they do, and also the law enforcement. These are tough, tough jobs that they do. And you need somebody who has been doing this for a long period of time to help out in those cases. And you need somebody with the skill set to hit the ground running.”

As for wanting to be in the courtroom a lot, Fitzgerald doesn’t flinch:

“You bet, I wouldn’t quit trying jury trials, but you have to be able to put people in positions that can assist in the multi-faceted parts of the job. It’s not something where you can be attorney general and attempt to do everything.”

State Sen. Lance Russell doesn’t try to match Fitzgerald in courtroom experience, or years on the job. But he does insist that his time as Fall River County states attorney gave him essential experience in dealing with the bad guys.

“I understand how difficult it is to be a state’s attorney, and I’ve done that for eight years,” he said. “But in addition, for the last 10 years I’ve been in the Legislature and I understand the policy implications of having the wrong policy and how it can impact that state in a negative manner.”

Russell got in some trouble in his state’s attorney’s job in 2011, when he was censured by the state Supreme Court. The court said he allowed politics to influence his behavior on certain actions. Russell admitted mistakes at the time but maintained he never intentionally broke the law.

Fitzgerald hasn’t publicly mentioned the censure in the campaign. The third candidate, Yankton lawyer Jason Ravnsborg, has brought it up. The censure didn’t affect Russell’s popularity within District 30 or his standing with other conservatives in South Dakota. And it hasn’t been a major issue in the AG race, so far.

Russell believes his record as states attorney was otherwise solid. And he thinks his proven record of beating Democrats in elections is important, too. So, he said, is his actual experience in the state Senate and the House, which will matter if he is elected as attorney general.

“In my estimation it can be of great benefits,” he said. “For the last two years I was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And because (Attorney General Marty Jackley) wanted to bring legislation through the Senate, because the Senate was more favorable to it, and because my committee was more favorable, it was my responsibility. So I carried his legislation the last two years, and I understand how important it is to have good legislation in order to retool these things to make sure we stay ahead of the curve.”

Russell also said his close connections with the Republican Party, including serving is the past as its executive director and involvement in state party conventions since 1992, are also important qualifications, as are the campaigns he ran for the Legislature.

“Just like running for any political office, you learn more about the needs of the state, what the needs of the people are,” Russell said. “I’m just happy to have been part of the process.”

The third AG candidate, Yankton lawyer Jason Ravnsborg, hasn’t been in the state Legislature or prosecuted cases before a jury. But he argues that he has a broad level of experience in the law, the military and in life.

Ravnsborg is a lieutenant colonel and battalion commander in the Army Reserves, where he says he oversees 600 people. He has been deployed overseas in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He said his  “lead from the front” style and experience prepared him to lead an office that has more than 180 employees.

“I am the only candidate in this race that has any leadership and management experience of an organization of this size,” Ravnsborg said. “I have had four different company commands in the U.S. Army Reserves, hundreds of hours of training in a variety of schools on leadership and management.”

In the law, he says he has “worked on criminal cases both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney,” but he focuses his campaign pitch on civil proceedings that involved large sums of money.

“One example is a nine-day jury trial I did once where my client was sued for approximately $1 million and the jury found in our favor and awarded the plaintiff zero,” he said. “I have also worked in family law, where you learn a lot about dealing with people, negotiations and emotions that can easily run high.

“I have also worked in a number of other areas of civil law. While the civil areas of the law in the attorney general’s office are not always mentioned as prominently as prosecutions, as the recent South Dakota vs. Wayfair case demonstrates, a solid grasp of other areas of the law are also very important to our state,” Ravnsborg said.

Ravnsborg said he has handled “hundreds of bankruptcy cases involving chapters 7, 11 and 13,” as well as recent cases on consumer protections in the Fair Debts Collections Act.

“I believe I am the most well-rounded candidate for the position based on my life experiences both in the legal world and outside of it,” he said.

All three candidates agree that a criminal-justice reform package approved by the state Legislature as Senate Bill 70 and signed into law by Gov. Dennis Daugaard several years ago needs to be addressed. In providing more alternatives to incarceration to relieve pressure on crowded jails and prisons, SB 70 has provided less flexibility to judges and more chances for offenders to offend, the candidates said.

“Senate Bill 70 probably needs an overhaul if not outright repeal,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s taking discretion away from judges. It has hamstrung probation and parole. What I mean is you’re taking a lot of the deterrent out of the law.”

Russell said crime has increased in Sioux Falls and other communities since the package was implemented.

“So it would be my intention to make some reforms to give law enforcement back the tools to do their job, to keep the state safe, and the judges the ability they need,” he said. “Their hands were largely shackled by it.”

Ravnsborg said the trick is to keep the good parts of the law while amending out the bad.

“I do not believe we should repeal SB 70 as there are some very good components to it, such as drug courts and the Statewide Automated Victim Identification and Notification system,” he said. “However, while our prisons are nearly full, we need to return deterrence to our judges.”

Delegates to the Republican convention are expected to take up the AG nomination by late morning tomorrow in Pierre.  Fitzgerald was believed to have a slow start on delegate recruitment, but he downplayed that.

“Well, I’ve got delegates lined up. We’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “I feel fine.”

Russell, as a state senator who won his party’s nomination for another term in the June 5 primary, had to decide by 5 p.m. today whether to back off on the Senate run and go through the AG nomination process or withdraw from that process and focus on his Senate race. Before that, he planned to be working hard on the "old-school politics” of delegate outreach and recruitment of the convention.

“It’s an inside ballgame,” he said.

Ravnsborg said he was making calls all week to maintain and build delegate support.

“My campaign is in a strong position,” he said.

It won’t be long before we see just how strong.
 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.