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Wisconsin attorney general candidates clash in debate

two men in suits stand behind podiums. a sign over their heads says "STATE BAR OF WISCONSIN." A sign in between them says "CAMPAIGN 2022."
On Thursday, the Wisconsin attorney general candidates Josh Kaul (left) and Eric Toney (right) met in Madison for a debate.

In the race for attorney general, candidates Josh Kaul and Eric Toney went head-to-head in a debate on Thursday, disagreeing on just about everything.

It was their second bout, sponsored by the State Bar of Wisconsin in Madison, along with WISC-TV in Madison and WisPolitics.com.

Democrat Kaul is vying for a second term. Toney, the Republican challenger, is in his tenth year as the Fond du Lac County district attorney.

The attorney general is the top authority for enforcing state laws, and they operate with a great deal of discretion, choosing which cases and arenas to prioritize. The winner will shape how the state prosecutes cases related to everything from crime and abortion to health care and the environment.

The candidates argued over public safety, which they’ve both said is their top priority.

“People don’t feel safe in their homes,” Toney said. “They don’t feel safe in their vehicles. They won’t let their kids go to parks because they’re afraid of stray bullets.”

Toney touted his many endorsements from sheriffs across the state. He criticized how Kaul has handled the Department of Justice, accusing him of slow case-processing times and nearly 25% staffing shortages in the DOJ’s Division of Criminal Investigation.

In early October, WisPolitics.com reported that DOJ data shows a 10% vacancy rate for the division’s special agents, much less than the shortages Toney claims.

“You can’t have our state’s top cop knowing that what he’s saying is false and continuing to repeat it,” Kaul said. “That would be an awful position for a state to be in, and yet that is what Mr. Toney is doing.”

Kaul criticized Toney for being light on solutions when it comes to crime.

The two also clashed over abortion. Kaul is leading a suit to bring down Wisconsin’s abortion ban, and pledged not to enforce the 1849 law. Toney said he will enforce the ban.

“We need an attorney general that’s not going to pick and choose when to enforce the rule of law, even if they disagree, because that’s what we expect in the courtroom,” Toney said.

Earlier this month, Toney suggested that district attorneys could be allowed to cross county lines and enforce the abortion ban in neighboring counties if those counties elected not to.

“We need to give our attorney general the authority to prosecute,” he said in the interview with PBS Wisconsin. “They already have the technical authority to investigate it. And I think another approach would be allowing for adjoining counties to be able to investigate and enforce that abortion ban in Wisconsin.”

He walked that back in the debate, saying he had used that as an “analogy” and he “never expressly advocated for it.”

Kaul said Toney’s pledge to enforce the ban amounts to a “far right, radical agenda,” as well as a misuse of DOJ resources. The job, he said, is making decisions about what to prosecute.

“We always have to make decisions about where we’re putting our resources,” Kaul said. “I believe they should go to investigating and prosecuting homicides, sexual assaults, drug-trafficking cases — the most serious crimes in the state.”

Asked whether he would continue Kaul’s ongoing suit against companies for PFAS, or forever chemicals, contamination, Toney didn’t make any specific promises.

“I’m not going to pre-judge some cases that I haven’t had a chance to look at all of the information, but I will protect our environment,” Toney said.

>> Peshtigo and Marinette residents still looking for solutions for PFAS-contaminated private wells

One thing the two can agree on? They’ll both accept the outcome of the election.

The time for that is coming up. Early voting is now underway, with less than 2 weeks until Election Day.

How to vote, who the candidates are and what's at stake.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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