Former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager — the first woman to hold the position — died Saturday, after a long battle with cancer. She was 62.
A Fond du Lac native, Lautenschlager had a career full of "firsts." Nearly two decades before she was elected to head the state Department of Justice in 2002, Lautenschlager was the first woman elected to serve as district attorney for Winnebago County in 1985.
Most recently, she was selected as the first commissioner of the state's newly formed Ethics Commission, a position from which she resigned shortly before her son, Josh Kaul, announced his plans to run for Attorney General.
Democratic former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, who served from 2003 until 2011, described Lautenschlager as a "bold visionary who emboldened other women" and someone who "led with authority and integrity."
"She was all about public service of the highest level, and about family and friends," Lawton said. "She had an extraordinary will to live and an amazing joie de vivre. Nothing is going to be quite as much fun without her."
Lautenschlager was elected to the state Assembly in 1989 and appointed U.S. Attorney for the Western District of the state in 1993. In 1992, she gave then U.S. Rep. Tom Petri the closest race of his career; Petri won re-election by six points.
First diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, Lautenschlager as attorney general opted not to wear a wig during chemotherapy. In a 2004 Capital Times interview, she said her experience with the disease helped draw her attention to what she saw as a need for better health care access throughout the state.
In 2006, then-Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk challenged Lautenschlager in the Democratic primary, defeating her by six points. The race hinged in part on Lautenschlager's 2004 drunken driving conviction. Falk went on to lose the general election to Republican J.B. Van Hollen.
"She was a trailblazer for many women in Wisconsin politics, a loyal friend and true blue Democrat," said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, in a statement. "Peg was a trusted political mentor to many and was always willing to lend her insight, advice and enthusiasm to friends and family across the state."
As the news of her death spread on Saturday, it was made clear that Lautenschlager was a mentor and role model to the Democratic women who followed in her footsteps. In a 2012 interview with the Oshkosh Northwestern, former state Sen. Jessica King, D-Oshkosh, described Lautenschlager as someone who "broke a lot of glass ceilings" for women in politics.
"As a young girl growing up in Fond du Lac, I knew Peg as a trailblazer, a person of purpose. She had the perfect balance of toughness and strength," King said in an email. "As a young lawyer, I knew Peg to be a fierce advocate for equality, fairness, opportunity, and the rule of law. When she befriended me, I gained a loyal and selfless mentor. With her guidance, I became a stronger lawyer, candidate, legislator, and mother. Peg’s butterfly effect will be felt forever as the ripple of progress."
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said in a statement that he had known Lautenschlager since he was a toddler — "because she reminded me and everyone else in the room every single time we were together."
"As a friend, Peg always took the time to listen and provide feedback and was the same person in public as she was in private," Hintz said. "Peg was so down-to-earth and real, it could be easy for some to overlook how brilliant she was. I will carry with me the lessons I learned from Peg throughout my career. Wisconsin has lost a giant and she will be dearly missed."
In an email, Falk said Lautenschlager will be missed by many.
"My heart especially goes out to her family and friends. Peg devoted her entire career to public service and was a tremendous fighter for social justice for us Wisconsin citizens," she said.
Attorney General Brad Schimel said in a statement that while he did not know Lautenschlager well, he has learned about her from those who used to work with her at DOJ.
"Peg was passionate about her beliefs, cared deeply about her colleagues, and adored her family. I appreciate her many decades of public service and commitment to Wisconsin. She hired many of the fine public servants who now work at DOJ on behalf of the people of Wisconsin and her dedication lives on through their daily work," Schimel said.
Lautenschlager's career was marked by commitments to environmental and consumer protections, voters' rights and access to health care. As attorney general, she created a "Public Integrity Unit" within the DOJ to investigate misconduct by public officials and enforce the state's open records and open meetings laws.
In a rare move for an attorney general, Lautenschlager led the criminal prosecution against Chai Soua Vang, a truck driver convicted of first-degree murder in the 2004 shooting deaths of six deer hunters in Sawyer County. Vang was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Lautenschlager was mother to three children and two stepchildren and wife to retired police officer Bill Rippl.
This story will be updated.