Option #1: In tackling workers’ rights or underfunded schools, the “people’s lawyer” needs to offer a disinterested opinion recognizing different sides.
Option #2: In tackling workers’ rights or underfunded schools, the “people’s lawyer” needs to find a way to take a stand for social justice.
Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen picked the first of those two options this past year when he was called to weigh in on two crucial issues in state government.
Now two of the people looking to replace Jepsen when he retires at the end of 2018 are offering two views on which path he should have taken — and more broadly, what role the attorney general, the top lawyer who represents the people of Connecticut, should play.
Those different visions emerged in interviews on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program with Clare Kindall, who last week announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination in this year’s attorney general race; and with Mike D’Agostino, who has formed an exploratory committee to consider a similar run.
Both Democrats said they support labor’s rights to collective bargaining. Both said they want to see the state fund public schools more equitably. Both said they are seeking higher office as part of the wave of Democrats opposed to the policies of President Trump and the national Republican Party. D’Agostino has been supported by the Hamden Progressive Action Network, a “resistance” group spawned by Trump’s election. Kindall participated in the Women’s March the weekend of Trump’s inauguration and said she’s answering the call for women to seek public office. (“I could not reasonably ask the younger generation, ‘Step up,’ when the most qualified woman with experience in elected office did not step up and say, ‘I can run for this. I would be the best attorney general.’”)
And both D’Agostino and Kindall said they want to build on Jepsen’s office success in filing civil lawsuits, often in conjunction with attorneys general of other states, to combat predatory finance, consumer fraud, assaults on labor rights, corporate malfeasance, and efforts to defund “sanctuary cities.” (In Connecticut, the attorney general heads a 200-person office that handles civil, not cirminal, matters; the state’s attorney’s office prosecutes crimes.)
But when it comes to another important part of the attorney general’s job — issuing advisory opinions and representing state government in court — the two diverged.
D’Agostino, a Hamden state representative, criticized Jepsen’s office for appealing state Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s ruling that Connecticut violates the state Constitution in the way it pays for public education, by underfunding poorer districts to the benefit of wealthier districts without any coherent rationale. The state Supreme Court is expected to rule on the appeal in coming months. (Click here for a previous interview with Jepsen about why he decided to file the appeal.)
D’Agostino also criticized Jepsen for offering a nuanced opinion this past session when legislators were voting on whether to ratify a concessions package with state labor unions. Republicans at the time sought to overturn part of the agreement; Democrats argued that the legislature couldn’t legally do that. Jepsen issued a ruling largely supporting the Democratic position but noting that under certain circumstances the legislators might have the legal right to change elements of a collectively bargained contract. The State Senate’s leading Republican used that part of the opinion to press his party’s case. In the end, the Democrats prevailed, and the concessions deal was ratified.
In criticizing Jepsen’s office, D’Agostino was by extension distinguishing himself from Kindall as well: She has worked as an assistant attorney general for the past 20 years. She argued in the interview that the attorney general has many avenues for fighting for people’s rights, but has a legal obligation to play a more neutral role in issuing advisory opinions and representing state government in court. She was unapologetic in her defense of Jepsen’s tenure, saying she seeks to build on his record, not diverge from it.
Who’s right? Democratic voters will decide that in a party primary, in which numerous attorney-politicians are currently mounting campaigns to compete. General election voters will decide in November.
In the meantime, you can weigh the question by hearing how Kindall and D’Agostino argued their points; following are edited transcripts of the portions of the WNHH interviews with Kindall and D’Agostino dealing with collective bargaining rights and with the school-funding lawsuit.
Former federal prosecutor Chris Mattei, state Rep. William Tong of Stamford, and Sen. Paul Doyle of Wethersfield are also vying for the Democratic nomination. Former state Rep. John Shaban is the only Republican candidate to announce his candidacy.
Keep reading the New Haven Independent to listen to the interviews with Kindall and D’Agostino.