With 24 years practicing law, Teresa Hensley, Democratic candidate for Missouri attorney general, says her time in the courtroom is one of the biggest factors that sets her apart from her opponent.
Hensley has been an attorney for 24 years, working in private practice for 14 years before being elected as Cass County Prosecutor in 2005, a role she had for 10 years. Local voters may recognize her from the 2014 ballot when she challenged Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler for the 4th Congressional District seat.
Hensley will be facing Republican Josh Hawley, who is a law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia and graduated from Yale Law School in 2006, in the Nov. 8 general election. This marks Hawley’s first time running for political office.
The two candidates differ on what they believe is the primary role of the attorney general. Hensley said the primary role is to serve as the top prosecutor in Missouri, which she believes should require Missouri courtroom experience.
“In the last 60 days, (the attorney general’s office) has done cases like murder cases and child sex abuse cases, tax fraud, consumer fraud — all cases I did as prosecutor,” Hensley said. “As prosecutor I hired, supervised and trained attorneys to go into trial and as prosecutor I had 21 murder convictions out of 21, over 500 sexual assault, domestic violence and child sex abuse convictions, which I think is significant.
“I think the top prosecutor of the state of Missouri is the people’s attorney and it ought to be your job to be the voice for those who are the most vulnerable — seniors and women and children — and that’s what I did as prosecutor.”
Hawley says the primary role is “to defend Missourians from an overreaching government and uphold criminal convictions won by local prosecutors that are on appeal,” according to a recent article from the Kansas City Star.
“We do differ (on what the primary role is) because clearly the attorney general’s office is the top prosecutor of the state of Missouri. It’s not where someone should go to learn this job,” Hensley said. “My opponent sees this office as somewhere to push his own personal, political views. This is a law office, first and foremost, with over 180 lawyers in that office going to court day in and day out around the state of Missouri. This is an office that requires someone with some significant experience and my opponent talks about what he would do with this office because he has no experience. He’s never been in a Missouri courtroom, he’s never represented a Missouri client. So if you have no experience you’re going to talk about ways you would redefine this office when you don’t know what this office does.”
Hensley said she would work with Missouri legislators to help reform ethics in Jefferson City, a large topic of discussion over the past few years. She said the attorney general’s office “seeks justice, and it should seek justice fairly and equally for all.”
“When my opponent can take $3.5 million from one person, it appears one person wants to own the attorney general’s office,” Hensley said. “I have $2 million from 2,000 sources. That should matter to Missourians. … I have thousands of people supporting me, not just a couple.”
During her time as Cass County Prosecutor, Hensley said she helped with prevention programs in the community, such as women’s and merchant safety and senior scams. She also worked with task forces, such as arson, child abuse and domestic violence, to implement best practices in law enforcement, health care and other agencies that may work a case. She said those task forces contributed to making it possible for her office to achieve numerous convictions.
If elected, Hensley said she wants to continue that work in supporting best practices, especially with sexual abuse cases.
“We’ve failed to give (best practice in sexual abuse cases) the attention it needs,” she said.
Hensley said although as Cass County Prosecutor she’s sent many people “who committed heinous crimes” to prison with court convictions, she also believes in alternative programs to provide help to people with mental health issues or to rehabilitate those with substance abuse issues, and keep them out of prison.
“We’ve seen (alternative programs) are successful,” Hensley said. “I’d like to not fill up our prisons when we could have these alternative programs, like the drug court you have (in Pettis County).”
Hensley continuously emphasized the need for experience in the attorney general’s office during her interview Wednesday with the Democrat, noting that her experience in the courtroom is what sets her apart.
“If elected, I’ll be the first woman attorney general (in Missouri), but I have the experience to do this job,” she said. “I was able to start the Cass County Prosecutor’s job on day one because of my private practice experience. I’ll be able to do the attorney general’s job on day one.”
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-530-0138 or on Twitter @NicoleRCooke.