- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Four Republicans and two Democrats are vying to become Nebraska’s next attorney general in a rare, contested primary that has revolved around legal experience and how they would use the office if elected.

The job opened suddenly in February when Republican Jon Bruning announced he would run for governor rather than seek re-election to the office he has held since 2003.

The GOP hopefuls - Brian Buescher, Mike Hilgers, Doug Peterson and state Sen. Pete Pirsch - have all cast themselves as champions of states’ rights, saying they would seek opportunities to fight the federal health care law and the Environmental Protection Agency if elected.

The two Democratic candidates, Al Eurek and Janet Stewart, said they would focus on public safety and consumer fraud, and both have promised not to use the position as a step to higher office. Bruning, a former state senator, has run for U.S. Senate and governor while serving as attorney general. His predecessor, Republican Don Stenberg, launched two unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaigns during his time as attorney general.

All the candidates are touting their legal experience.

Buescher, 39, points to his experience in Nebraska agribusiness cases, representing farmers and ranchers for Kutak Rock, a national law firm with offices in Omaha.

Buescher worked with the attorney general’s office in the early 2000s on Nebraska’s court battle with Kansas over the Republican River water allocations. His private-practice experience includes litigation with the federal government related to soil erosion, agricultural waste and the Endangered Species Act.

“We need an attorney general now more than ever who is dedicated to advocating on behalf of all Nebraskans to fight the federal government’s takeover of health care and its attempts to exert more control over Nebraska’s citizens and businesses,” he said.

Lincoln attorney Hilgers, 35, highlights his management experience as a founding partner of Gober Hilgers, a firm that bills itself as a lower-cost option for clients with complex legal cases. Hilgers, who ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 2012, said he hoped to continue Bruning’s focus on lawsuits challenging the federal government’s environmental and health care regulations.

Hilgers also said the state should consider a lawsuit or other actions against Colorado, which has legalized marijuana use and created concerns for western Nebraska law enforcement.

“Our next attorney general is going to have to deal with problems that we can’t anticipate right now,” he said. “I’m actually laying out a plan for what I will do.”

Peterson, 53, said he would bring experience from his 23-year private practice in Lincoln and the five years he spent as an assistant attorney under former Attorney General Robert Spire.

Peterson said he would continue the attorney general’s support for local law enforcement and prosecutors, and strengthen the office’s consumer protection division. He also pledged to work with lawmakers to strengthen Nebraska’s penalties for human trafficking.

“People are so tired of the politically ambitious,” Peterson said. “They’re tired of the flash. A public servant should look different than a career politician, and I think that resonates with people. Nebraska voters are smart. I think they realize that it’s important for an attorney general to have experience.”

Pirsch, 44, emphasizes his background as a former criminal prosecutor and state crime commission member. Pirsch is serving his eighth year in the Legislature and can’t seek re-election because of term limits. As a lawmaker from Omaha, he worked extensively on bills seeking to lower taxes and increase penalties for sexual offenders.

Pirsch pointed to his recent endorsements by former Gov. Charles Thone and 64 local elected officials, including current and former state senators and county attorneys.

“My record is really unmatched,” Pirsch said. “When it comes to candidates, I’m the only one with an eight-year proven record that has established my conservative values.”

Democrats are facing an uphill battle to reclaim a position the party last held in 1951.

Eurek, of Lincoln, said he would end the state’s participation in “frivolous lawsuits” that challenge federal laws at Nebraska taxpayers’ expense, and would provide help to local county attorneys in prosecuting major crimes. Eurek, who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 1990 and secretary of state in 1994, promised not to seek any other office if elected. He pointed to his 32-year legal career that includes felony and misdemeanor cases and civil matters against the state.

“I’m running primarily to restore integrity to the office,” said Eurek, 63. “I think it’s become too political, and I’d like to see it become less partisan.”

Stewart, 64, spent 24 years as an attorney with Mutual of Omaha and two with Ceres Group, a health and life insurance company, before joining her husband in a Fremont law office. Stewart lost the 2004 Democratic primary for the first 1st Congressional District, and was beaten in the general election for secretary of state in 2010. She now works as a senior attorney with Register Law Office in Fremont.

Stewart said she would focus on issues related to child protection and domestic violence as attorney general. In her current job, she said, she handles juvenile court matters that often involved neglect and abuse.

“Those are issues that I care very much about,” she said. “I’d like to be an advocate for local prosecutors working in some of those areas, where I think I can bring some expertise.”

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