For Gov. Scott Walker, it’s “moving Wisconsin forward.” In the attorney general’s race, Republican Brad Schimel likes to call himself “law enforcement’s choice.”
But there’s one key phrase that Schimel, the Waukesha County district attorney, and his opponent, Democratic Jefferson County DA Susan Happ, love to use: “frontline prosecutor.”
Every time they say it, I just wonder: what exactly is that?
I mean, I know what a prosecutor is. I don’t think I should have a job at a legal publication if I didn’t.
I also know both have served as their elected DAs for some time. But what makes their work so special that they feel the need to add “frontline” before their title when they speak or send out emails?
As it turns out, not much.
“I think it’s just candidates using a military metaphor to kind of gin up what it is they do,” said Michael Wagner, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at UW-Madison. “There’s no such job as frontline prosecutor or battlefield prosecutor. It’s just a way to try to indicate they get their hands dirty.”
Representatives from both campaigns didn’t return my messages (they’re understandably busy).
However, both Happ and Schimel have exhaustively pointed out their track records while heading their respective county offices. Both have said they are tough on criminals and will continue to do so if they are elected to replace outgoing attorney general J.B. Van Hollen.
But isn’t going after criminals in any prosecutor’s job description? And what it is about those terms that tells a voter that an attorney general candidate is more or less qualified for the job?
Wagner said the use of the word “frontline” is a way for candidates to imply they and the voters are in a battle and that the candidates will fight for them.
“A lot of advertising tries to heighten voter’s anxiety and make them afraid,” he said. “A military metaphor calls that anxiety out and also offers that solution.”
It’s common for other candidates, such as those running for Congress or governor, to often use the term as well. If a candidate voted to, say, allocate more money for a state’s university system, they could say they “fought for you,” even if dozens of other legislators did the exact same thing, Wagner said.
“It’s all rhetorical,” he said.
And while there’s nothing about “frontline” or other military terms that have proven to work, Wagner said candidates are usually “pretty confident it’s not going to turn anybody off.”
So if you are going to vote Tuesday, there are just a few hours left.
But if you think either candidate is qualified because they call themselves a “frontline prosecutor,” it’s probably best to focus on something else.