Campaign Connection 2014: Republican Candidates for Attorney General

Pete Pirsch at a panel discussion with candidates for Nebraska attorney general. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Mike Hilgers campaigning. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Brian Buescher campaigning. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
Doug Peterson at his law office. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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April 23, 2014 - 6:30am

When current Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning decided to run for governor just months before the May primary, he opened up a key top level office. Four Republicans and two Democrats had only weeks to put together a statewide campaign. As part of our Campaign Connection 2014 election initiative, NET News prepared short biographies of each candidate and selected excerpts from interviews with Bill Kelly of NET News.

Below are comments from Republican candidates Pete Pirsch, Brian Buescher, Mike Hilgers and Doug Peterson. Read about the Democrats running for Attorney General here.

Doug Peterson (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Doug Peterson, age 54, was born in Columbus, Nebraska and graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He obtained his law degree from Pepperdine University School of Law. After graduating Peterson became the deputy county attorney in North Platte. In 1988 he worked with Attorney General Bob Spire as an assistant attorney general specializing in civil cases. Now in private practice, Peterson primarily works on business, employment, and personal injury cases. He lives in Lincoln with his wife.

Q: Why do you want the job of attorney general?

Peterson: I believe strongly in the value of public service. My dad served on the public service commission. My uncle served as governor back in ’47. I saw it when I was in the county attorney’s office. I looked at my strengths and I thought the attorney general’s office need someone as a legal advocate. I want to bring something in the public servant role as opposed to as a personal politician, personal gain, personal advancement approach to the office. One thing I have done is make a pledge that I would not seek any other political office while serving as attorney general.

There is much talk among the Republican candidates about using the office of the attorney general to take on the federal government when it disagrees with federal policy or law. You have said you don’t see the merit in bringing a lawsuit targeting Obama Care, or the Affordable Care Act. Is that a priority?

Peterson: If you are talking about some lawsuit because it has a lot of flash to it but really doesn’t have a lot of merit to it, I believe in the attorney-client relationship with the State of Nebraska, that’s not really what I do. I would not use anything simply for a media (opportunity). Because as an attorney I have a duty to make that analysis and in good faith decide whether the state has an interest. (Nebraskans) are very protective of our state rights, so if I see any lawsuit that encroached beyond the federal constitutional authority, that is something that is kind of in my DNA to defend what we are in Nebraska as far as stewarding our own land and water and other encroachments. I'm a strong believer in state’s rights.”

What areas of criminal justice do you feel need attention?

Peterson: I think more and more people are becoming aware of the fact that human trafficking, sex trafficking occurs in our country. The Department of Justice says it’s now the number 2 crime industry. It does exist in Nebraska. Frankly, Nebraska laws are way too weak. It doesn’t make sense to go after the 15-16 year old girl, or boy, who gets lured into this. It makes sense to go after the leadership. If you go after those people, the law in Nebraska is way too weak.

What illegal drug currently poses the largest threat to Nebraska?

Peterson: I would like to review the abuse of pharmaceutical drugs, the opiate type drugs that just create terrible addiction issues. I think there is some concern about how they are distributed and availability in second-hand markets of selling that stuff. But without question every county attorney I have spoken said the issue they are dealing with in the drug scene is meth. The effects are so destructive. So much of the meth is coming from Mexico, so you work closely with the U.S. Attorney. That really comes from the top as far as the working relationship and making it clear we work together to get this done. That’s where the attorney general takes the lead.

Mike Hilgers (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Mike HIlgers of Omaha, age 35, obtained his undergraduate degree at Baylor University in Texas and attended the University of Chicago Law School where he earned his degree in law. He worked as a law clerk in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Hilgers now handles civil cases in state and federal court as the co-founder of the law firm Gober-Hilgers. He currently lives in Lincoln with his wife and daughter.

Why run for attorney general?

HIlgers: It’s a good question and in fact that’s what my wife said. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old baby girl. I’ve got my own law practice that’s been very successful. I have another daughter on the way. In some ways it wasn’t the best time. But the reality is it’s a very important time in Nebraska and in our country’s history where there is a real threat to families and our way of life, because I see a threat to the rule of law. We are a nation founded on the idea that we are ruled by laws, not man, not kings or queens. What I see today from Washington D.C. unelected bureaucrats from the EPA, HHS, IRS. I see a real threat to the rule of law and I see that the attorney general is the last line of defense to that encroachment.

To some degree all the Republican candidates have used their campaigns to complain about the federal government. What makes you unique?

HIlgers: One is a specific plan. I have talked to people about what to do on day one. On day one I would file a lawsuit against the implementation of the employer mandate in Obamacare. When Obamacare was drafted under the statute the employer mandate was only tied to whether or not a state ran a statewide exchange. Nebraska decided not to. There should be no employer mandate in Nebraska. The IRS passed a rule applying it anyway. That’s being challenged in Oklahoma and elsewhere. Nebraska ought to file that lawsuit.

What is your position on the death penalty?

HIlgers: I am in favor of the death penalty. It’s probably the most weighty responsibility of state government and it has discharged in a way that makes sure not one innocent person goes through that process.

Since Nebraska has been unsuccessful in carrying out the death penalty, what would you do differently as attorney general to move the process forward?

HIlgers: Once you have good consistent law from the judges and the courts, a lot of these issues take care of themselves pretty easily. The drugs have been a bottleneck and that calls for a legislative solution. There must be a reason why we haven’t gotten the drugs whether that is a lack of emphasis or simply a lack of legislative change, I can’t speak to that, but as attorney general, we will work to try and eliminate those road blocks.

Which illegal drug or controlled substance is the biggest issue in the state of Nebraska?

HIlgers: You are seeing legalized marijuana in Colorado. You are seeing in the panhandle cer5tainly a significant impact on our county attorneys, and sheriffs and troopers and law enforcement personnel dealing with both the trafficking of those drugs on I-80 but also the increase in crime due to the increase in drug use. We need to gear up for that challenge. The attorney general works in conjunction (with local law enforcement) to make sure they have the resources they need to combat that. At the same time there is a collaborative effort with the either the state of Colorado or a multi-state lobbying effort to see what other avenues we need to take to foreclose the secondary impacts on Nebraska.

Brian Buescher (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

Brian Buescher, age 39, was born in Deweese, Nebraska. Obtaining his undergraduate degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he later attended Georgetown University Law Center for his degree in law. A private practice attorney who leads the agribusiness litigation team at a large Omaha-based firm, Buescher has been active in Republican Party politics at the local and state level. He lives in Omaha with his wife and four children.

Why are you running for the office of attorney general?

Buescher: I’ve got a pretty long history of political involvement but the big reason is as an attorney I am an agri-business lawyer. What I do is represent farmers and ranchers in a variety of disputes and I have repeatedly been up against the federal government on a variety of issues. I believe in the last five years particularly the federal government has been more aggressive in regulating farmers and ranchers. In my view the federal government is trying to take more control over regulatory authority and take it away from the states. I believe that is wrong. I believe it is time for the attorney general to push back. Given I have specific experience doing that, I believe I am the person to do it.

You have singled out “Obamacare” or the Affordable Care Act. With it in place now is there concern Nebraskans might not want to spend the money to file a federal court challenge? 

Buescher: I do not believe it is appropriate to just go out and file another law suit against Obamacare without due consideration.  I do think Nebraskans want Obamacare challenged to the extent you can do so and to the extent there is a good chance you can win. I think there are some out there who say well we are just going to file another lawsuit and we are going to do it the first day we are in. Well I have actually sued the federal government before and you have to make sure you have a good chance to win. Losing could hurt you more than filing the lawsuit. That being said, I do think there is room challenge Obamacare. I am not convinced this minute there necessarily has to be a lawsuit filed, but we have to push back.

What reforms in the criminal justice system are of significant interest to you?

Buescher: On issue that is very important to me is Nebraska’s “good time” law. I had a chance for a very brief time to be a full-time city and county prosecutor here in Douglas County and I learned there are criminals out there who have been convicted of a violent crime four or five times who are still entitled to a 50 percent reduction in their sentences because of Nebraska’s law. That really is a problem for me. That needs to stop. I will take the lead in addressing that issue.

You have said you favor the death penalty. Nebraska has not been successful in implementing the use of lethal injection since it’s been selected as our method of execution. What needs to be done differently?

Buescher: Other states have found a way to do it. I believe we may need a tweak in the law to let Nebraskans deal with this issue. We just haven’t got it resolved. I don’t have the magic potion to get this figured out sitting here today. But if we need to get back to the Legislature to get state law changed to make it easier to get the material needed to enforce the penalty then we should do so.

What drug, or controlled substance, do you consider to be the most significant threat to the state?

Buescher: Meth is a very difficult drug and we need to be very vigilant in enforcing the law because it is so addictive and it is so destructive and it is a drug that can be manufactured here in the state and that is something that concerns me greatly. I will also tell you I have been out in western Nebraska by the Colorado border, I have talked to many law enforcement individuals and they are very concerned about the marijuana law in Colorado. We need to make sure our law enforcement officers have the adequate help they need to prosecute those cases because their volume has gone up dramatically.

Pete Pirsch (Photo by David Hughes, NET)

Pete Pirsch, age 44, was born in Omaha, Nebraska and attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln for his undergraduate and law degree. Pirsch was a criminal prosecutor and then in the Legislature as the state senator in 2006 where he sat on the banking, commerce, insurance and revenue committees. Pirsch lives in his hometown Omaha currently with his wife and four children.

What makes you qualified for the office of attorney general?

Pirsch: I prosecuted crimes throughout Douglas County; crimes as varied as violent crimes, certain sexual assaults, drunk driving, prostitution, a large variety of crimes. So it was an excellent background to gain the insight and understanding of so many of our criminal statutes. Having it occur in (Douglas County), the busiest courthouse in Nebraska, has given me an opportunity to get to know what is working and not working in our criminal justice system.

What is your position on the death penalty?

Pirsch: I support the death penalty and that’s what my record demonstrates. I’ve been quite clear on the floor of the Legislature that is because the evidence, objective scientific evidence, shows that it is a deterrent to preventing future murder of innocent life in Nebraska and I do believe that is important.

How would you overcome the obstacles that have kept the state from successfully carrying out an execution since the introduction of lethal injection?

Pirsch: We’ll have to roll with the individual issues as they come up. Right now we are dealing with the availability, or lack-there-of, the three-drug cocktail that has been previously used to enact the penalty. There is nothing that is going to present a brick wall with respect to this particular legal issue that has arisen. There are ways and methods that will be, can be, devised to use some compounds to enact the penalty. It will be a never ending process. The attorney general will have to deal with those objections as they come in one at a time.

What illegal drug currently poses the largest threat to Nebraska?

Pirsch: As a prosecutor, I have seen how (methamphetamine) has ravaged the users and it is such a seductive drug. But what I am especially worried about is prescription drug abuse and that is more and more being recognized on a national level. I think having an effective prescription drug monitoring program, that you can’t go shopping around and having different physicians filling different prescriptions for you, each physician unaware of the other prescriptions. That will be a continuing challenge for the attorney general. I think it is incumbent of the attorney general to work with the Legislature to find a meaningful way to address that.

Discuss how you would view prison overcrowding and the impact of sentencing on the jail population.

Pirsch: I’ve served as chairman of the Legislature’s task force on sentencing and recidivism and on the Nebraska Community Corrections Council as well.  We need to start with the premise that Nebraskans want those violent criminals that continue to pose a safety risk to their family, incapacitated. When it comes to prisoners who are in there because we don’t necessarily fear them but we are mad at them, law violators, many of them are junkies, they may reengage, and break the law then we need to see if we can design more cost effective methods so we are not penalizing the taxpayers and devising methods that they are paying for a greater share of their rehabilitation and make steps to make sure they do not re-visit our court system.

(Editors Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Mike Hilger's age. Mr. Hilger was 35 at the time of publication)



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