A day after saying he was skeptical of criminalizing first-offense drunken driving, Republican candidate for attorney general Brad Schimel admitted Wednesday that nearly 24 years ago, he was arrested for drunken driving.
“I made a terrible error of judgment as a young person, and it’s a mistake that I deeply regret,” Schimel said in a statement. “I pleaded guilty and took responsibility for my actions, and I continue to work each day to help others learn from my experience.”
Schimel’s campaign did not respond to questions seeking details about the arrest in 1990 when he was 24, the same year he graduated from UW-Madison Law School and joined the Waukesha County District Attorney’s Office.
Schimel has been the elected district attorney for Waukesha County since 2006.
The state Legislature is debating whether to make first-offense drunken driving in which a person has a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 percent or above a misdemeanor, rather than a non-criminal offense that carries a fine. The current threshold for drunken driving is 0.08 percent.
Wisconsin is the only state that punishes first-offense drunken driving with a ticket. Top Republican leaders in the Legislature have been cool to a set of bills that would increase penalties on drunken driving, citing cost estimates in the hundreds of millions of dollars if passed.
On Tuesday, Schimel said such a move would jam the courts and result in fines flowing to the state rather than municipalities.
In a statement, Schimel campaign consultant Darrin Schmitz said the candidate “neither opposes or supports” criminalizing first-offense drunken driving but believes Wisconsin should see whether such an approach has reduced drunken driving in other states.
“Given the large financial impact this will have on the Wisconsin court system,” Schmitz said, “it’s necessary for the Legislature to do their homework.”
Schmitz added that Schimel does favor criminalizing second-offense drunken driving by eliminating the “loophole” that allows first offenses older than 10 years to be removed from a driver’s record.
Democratic opponent state Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, said Schimel should have been “more immediately forthcoming” about his drunken driving ticket.
The other Democrat in the race, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, declined comment on Schimel’s drunken driving offense.
Ozanne supports criminalizing first-time drunken driving, saying the Legislature should adequately fund prosecutors’ offices for the cases they have now as well as the new criminal cases such a change would create.
In 2004, then-Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, a Democrat, was arrested for drunken driving after driving off Interstate 94, causing minor damage to her state vehicle. She lost the next election during a primary against then-Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.
In his statement, the 48-year-old Schimel said his work as a career prosecutor includes “combating drunken driving and the very real dangers it creates.”
Schimel cited several anti-drunken driving programs that he launched or participated in, including the Waukesha County Alcohol Treatment Court, which he said was the first such court in Wisconsin to create an intensive treatment program for repeat intoxicated drivers.
“My experience led me to help create a variety of innovative and successful programs designed to reduce the number of first-time offenders and repeat drunken drivers,” Schimel said.
Richards cited his own anti-drunken driving bona fides in responding to Schimel’s 1990 arrest. Richards said he backs the bill eliminating the 10-year loophole and a bill he co-sponsored to expand the use of ignition interlock devices to prevent drunken drivers from getting behind the wheel.
Richards’ spokesman Sachin Chheda said the lawmaker is “open” to the idea of criminalizing first-offense drunken driving, “but he knows there’s significant resistance in the Legislature to go there.” Chheda said Richards plans to keep pushing the other bills, which have bipartisan support.
Schimel, Richards and Ozanne are vying to replace Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who announced he will not seek re-election to the four-year post.
— The Associated Press
contributed to this report.