Politics & Government

McConnell ally trading elbows with state senator in GOP primary for attorney general

Kentucky Republicans have a choice in the May 21 primary for attorney general — two staunch conservatives who both say they would support President Donald Trump on border security and defend anti-abortion laws passed by the legislature while ending the legal battles with the governor waged by the current attorney general, Democrat Andy Beshear.

However, while they offer similar platforms, Wil Schroder and Daniel Cameron took different paths to get here.

Schroder, 36, is the son and namesake of a late Kentucky Supreme Court justice. He spent six years prosecuting felonies as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Campbell County before his 2014 election to the state Senate, where he’s now chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

Cameron, 33, was legal counsel for Kentucky’s Republican godfather, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, from 2015 to 2017. Then he left Washington to become a lawyer and lobbyist back home in Louisville. His first lobbying assignment was working with McConnell to legalize industrial hemp in last year’s federal farm bill.

As Kentucky’s chief law enforcement officer, the attorney general is paid $126,484 a year to oversee a $36 million office with many different duties, including representing the commonwealth in court, supporting locally elected prosecutors and undertaking certain kinds of criminal investigations.

Beshear, the incumbent, is foregoing a second term to run in the Democratic primary for governor. The only Democrat vying to succeed him, Greg Stumbo, a former attorney general and state House speaker, automatically has his party’s nomination for the fall election.

Cameron enjoys a big financial advantage over Schroder. He’s backed by many of McConnell’s deep-pocketed campaign donors, such as coal industry executives with Alliance Resource Partners and other McConnell aides turned lobbyists, such as Hunter Bates, William Piper and Brett Hale. Late last month, Cameron reported having raised $286,921 to Schroder’s $135,311.

Also, a “dark money” group based in Washington called the Judicial Crisis Network, which is supportive of McConnell’s work on federal judicial confirmations, reports spending $350,000 to independently assist Cameron with television advertising. Schroder says the group also filed requests under the state’s Open Records Act for police reports at houses where he has lived around Northern Kentucky, hoping to find information that could be used to discredit him.

“I’m campaigning against Daniel and yet I’m fund-raising against Mitch,” Schroder said in an interview at his state Capitol office.

“But message trumps money,” Schroder said. “We have the conservative message. The song ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ comes to mind when you talk about his candidacy. He’s never been in a courtroom, he’s never been a prosecutor, he doesn’t have those sorts of credentials. So they’re gonna need every bit of money they have to promote him, and then they need to have this super PAC come in, as well.”

Speaking by phone between campaign events, Cameron acknowledged that he has no prosecuting experience. But he said that’s not what the job he’s seeking requires. What he does offer, he said, is a network of friendships with officials in Washington and around the state.

“If you want to be the commonwealth’s or county attorney and prosecute cases, then you can certainly go do that,” Cameron said.

“But this office is about advocating,” Cameron said. “The office of attorney general does not prosecute criminal cases. He is there to be an advocate for our prosecutors and make sure they have the dollars they need to prosecute criminal cases, to have the boots on the ground. I think I have the relationships I need with our state and federal partners to lead the office effectively into the next decade.”

The two Republicans have thrown sharp elbows at each other in recent days.

In a mailer sent to the homes of GOP voters, Cameron attacked Schroder for years ago having been a registered Democrat before switching parties. Schroder is “now disguised as a ‘Republican,’” the Cameron mailer said. A photo-shopped image showed Schroder holding up an enormous trophy that read: “Best Democrat.”

In a response ad, Schroder shoots a gun into a television and accuses Cameron of “running a shameful negative campaign.” He adds that he’s the only candidate with crime-fighting experience in the primary, and that he’s a father and a husband. Cameron is divorced and has no children.

A rising Frankfort career

Schroder already has one tough election in his past. In 2014, he prevailed in a three-way Republican primary and beat a Democrat to win the state Senate district that represents Campbell, Pendleton and Bracken counties. He was more comfortably returned to office last fall with 57 percent of the vote.

Having campaigned on Northern Kentucky’s heroin epidemic, Schroder got himself assigned to the House-Senate committee that crafted a compromise on 2015 legislation toughening penalties for drug trafficking and expanding the treatment options available to addicts.

He also successfully sponsored a 2017 bill to extend the length of time for sex crime victims to sue their attackers. And he was a leading proponent of the repeal of Kentucky’s prevailing wage law that required higher pay on public construction projects, a long-sought victory for conservatives in Frankfort.

“Wil was the guy there at 10 o’clock at night reading the bills and popping his head into leadership’s offices, asking questions,” said state Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown. “That’s why we didn’t hesitate this year to make him the chairman of State and Local Government, which is our biggest policy committee.”

FRANKFORT, March 6 -- Ted Sandmann, (left) father of Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann, sits with Sen. Wil Schroder, R-Wilder, as Schroder presents Senate Bill 240, a bill that would prohibit disseminating personally identifying information on the Internet about a minor with the intent to intimidate, abuse, threaten, harass, or frighten. Mr. Sandmann testified in favor of the bill. LRC Public Information

As attorney general, Schroder said he would take divisive politics out of the office. Kentuckians are tired of seeing Beshear suing their governor and their General Assembly rather than standing beside them in court, he said.

“The big thing that comes to mind is defending pro-life legislation,” Schroder said. “My voting record in the Senate is 100 percent pro-life. I like to tell people, you know, we could have 138 legislators in agreement on a pro-life bill. But if we don’t have an attorney general that’s willing to defend it, it’s really not going to matter.”

But as the state’s lawyer, would he challenge a Republican governor or a Republican-majority legislature if he thought they were legally in error? Yes, he said.

“I’ve stood up to Senate leadership when I’ve disagreed with them, and I’ve stood up to the governor when I disagreed with him,” Schroder said. “As attorney general, my compass for decision-making wouldn’t be my own personal feelings or the political winds, it would be what the constitution says and what the law says. If the General Assembly is going down the wrong path, then I’ll step in and say something. If the governor is breaking the law, regardless of what party he’s in, I’ll say so.”

In private life, Schroder practices public finance law at Dinsmore & Shohl, helping city and county governments to pay for projects by issuing bonds.

He said he has tried to avoid conflicts of interest with his work on the Senate State and Local Government Committee, not always perfectly. In 2018, he sponsored a bill that would make it easier in several ways for local governments to issue bonds. This year, one of his colleagues, Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, handled that bill instead, getting it signed into law.

The Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties wanted that legislation, Schroder said.

“This year, in order to avoid any appearance problems, I took a step back from that bill,” he said.

In Mitch McConnell’s orbit

Cameron has mentors in high places, all in the orbit of Mitch McConnell.

As a University of Louisville law student, he interned in McConnell’s Senate office under the watch of the senator’s then-legal counsel Russell Coleman, who today is U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, based in Louisville. Following graduation, he clerked for another former McConnell aide, U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove, in Frankfort and London.

He returned to work for McConnell himself, helping to confirm conservative judges to the federal bench — possibly the senator’s highest priority. When law enforcement in Kentucky called McConnell in Washington for help, as legal counsel, Cameron usually was the person who picked up the phone.

“He was a great resource for us and, I’m sure, for the senator as well,” said Vic Brown, director of the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which was established by the federal government.

“He stayed up to speed with the ground-level state of the drug epidemic here in Kentucky,” Brown said. “Some people just do what they have to do to get their job done. But he went above and beyond to really understand the complicated issues involved in what we’re facing.”

In 2017, Cameron followed the well-trod path from McConnell’s office to a legal/lobbying career, trading on his valuable relationship with Washington’s top lawmaker.

The U.S. Hemp Roundtable hired Cameron and Jonathan Miller, a former Democratic Kentucky politician, to make sure hemp legalization stayed in the farm bill as it slowly moved through Congress. Cameron provided updates for the hemp companies on what McConnell planned. On their website, the companies noted that Cameron had a close relationship with McConnell; they posted a photograph of both men grinning together at a U of L football game.

Daniel Cameron and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell at a University of Louisville football game U.S. Hemp Roundtable

“Daniel’s focus was mostly on working with Senator McConnell and other members of the Kentucky delegation and making sure that all of the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed,” Miller said in a recent interview.

Cameron confirmed that McConnell encouraged him to run for attorney general this year. But he said the senator was only one of many whom he consulted.

“I talked to a lot of people. I talked to my mom, the senator, a lot of good friends about jumping into this race,” Cameron said. “Look, we lost 1,565 individuals to drug overdoses based on the most recent numbers from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. I want to essentially be a part of that conversation, and in my judgment, the best way to do that is from the attorney general’s office.”

When he’s not lobbying, Cameron practices corporate law at Frost Brown Todd in Louisville, representing lenders and other businesses accused in lawsuits of violating consumer protection laws. However, Cameron said he could change sides as the attorney general, who is supposed to be the consumer’s watchdog in court.

“I have no allegiances,” Cameron said. “I would certainly work on behalf of consumers in being a watchdog. The fact that I know the laws — be it the Consumer Protection Act or the Fair Credit Reporting Act or the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act — anything in the consumer related area, I will certainly work hard on behalf of Kentuckians to make sure they are getting a fair shake.”

Wil Schroder II

Born: June 29, 1982

Residence: Wilder

Education: University of Kentucky, bachelor’s of arts; Northern Kentucky University, law degree

Personal: Married, two children

Occupation: Attorney with Dinsmore & Shohl

Elected offices held: State senator, 2015-present

Daniel Cameron

Born: Nov. 22, 1985

Residence: Louisville

Education: University of Louisville, bachelor’s of political science and law degree

Personal: Divorced, no children

Occupation: Attorney with Frost Brown Todd, lobbyist with CivicPoint

Elected offices held: None