Any other year, Barbara Ann Radnofsky may have had trouble getting to the public to pay attention to the attorney general's race. But the past 12 months have seen the two-term incumbent, Greg Abbott, enter the national spotlight on controversial issues like health care reform, environmental regulation, immigration and the BP oil spill, raising the profile of what is ordinarily a much less visible statewide office.
The Democratic nominee for AG, who has a U.S. Senate run and more than 30 years of experience practicing law under her belt, talked with the Tribune by phone on Friday about how long of a long-shot campaign she's mounting, her opponent's predilection for what she calls “show lawsuits,” when it’s appropriate to sue the federal government, whether she’s willing to debate Abbott and more.
An edited transcript and full audio follow.
TT: A Democrat hasn't won statewide since 1994. You are going up against a popular incumbent with a formidable campaign war chest. Is that daunting?
Radnofsky: It's not daunting. It's a little bit exhilarating. I’ve been single-mindedly working on [my campaign] for a very long time, so now with a few months left, I'm able to focus on what I've learned over the years I need to do — not only to do my best, but to win. By the way, I might disagree with your comment about his [popularity]. His support is not quite as deep as I would think as the word "popular" would mean.
TT: Where are the areas in which you think he’s lacking support?
Radnofsky: I think he’s stumbled in several areas that have caused the general [election's] likely voters to begin to doubt his capabilities. The issues we’ve started raising about child support have hit a very deep trove of people who know by virtue of experience that child support is administered poorly in the state. And now that’s there’s been some publicity of his very quiet filing and committing Texas to defend Arizona in the immigration lawsuit, I think that issue is going to erode what you characterized as his popularity.
TT: The brief supporting the Arizona health care law is just one of the instances where Abbott has challenged the federal government. In the past year, he's filed suits objecting to EPA regulations, health care reform and two federal oil-drilling moratoriums. When do you think it's appropriate to go up against the federal government?
Radnofsky: One of the basic powers of the AG that has been has been recognized for over 100 years in the Supreme Court of the United States is what's called "quasi-sovereign interests" — that is, the state has and the AG has a responsibility to protect the economic and physical well-being of the people of Texas and Texas itself and our economy. So if you're going to file a lawsuit, you have to do it knowing that you'll have standing, that it will be recognized and that you will be able to proceed with it. These "show lawsuits" [over health care reform and EPA regulation] can't be settled and don't involve the proof that the AG [must show] on economic harm or on the magnitude of harm that's required by the law.
And how about his moratorium attack on the federal government? There he is suing the federal government, [but] he marshals all the evidence about that [harm] BP caused us. Keep in mind that in his complaint he’s talking about BP action — he has marshaled evidence of over $600 million in damage he can prove, and he makes the legal argument that there’s been a physical touching of our shores, scientifically proven to be BP oil from the disaster. Then, instead of going after BP, who he accused of not planning properly — thereby allowing the federal government to do what they said they did because of BP; that is, issue a moratorium — he files a show lawsuit against the federal government. It will never bring a dollar back to Texas.
Audio: Barbara Ann Radnofsky
TT: So you’re saying that if you were attorney general, you would have sued BP by now.
Radnofsky: Oh, yes. The economic loss that Texas has already suffered as a result of the moratorium and the uncertainty in the Gulf can be directly attributed to the BP disaster. We have White House quotes on it. We have Mr. Abbott saying it, in terms of BP’s misconduct. But instead of suing BP for the damage that they’ve caused, he’s not. It’s crazy to go after the people who cannot give you the economic recovery we’re entitled to.
TT: If you win, you will be the state’s first woman AG. Is that important?
Radnofsky: I think a woman’s perspective could be very helpful in the office. I think folks would trust a woman with good experience as a lawyer to get down to work and stop these posturing, boasting show lawsuits. Really, the politicization of the office is outrageous.
TT: Do you think you could work with a Republican governor and other Republican statewide officials?
Radnofsky: Sure. No problem. The reason that it’s really no problem at all is that it doesn’t matter if the governor is Republican or Democrat — the attorney general works for the people of Texas. He’s not supposed to be Rick Perry’s consigliere; it’s just worked out that way.
TT: Last week, General Abbott told the Tribune that it was “up to his campaign staff” to decide whether he would debate you. Are you willing to debate him?
Radnofsky: Yes. And let me take the opportunity to renew my calls for a debate. I appreciate y’all raising the issue, because my calls for a debate with Abbott have been lost in the huge [fight] over Gov. Perry’s refusal to debate Bill White.
TT: What will you do if you don’t win in November?
Radnofsky: I’ve made no plans for the future other than reforming the AG’s office.
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.