Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel and his Democratic opponent, Josh Kaul, outlined their views on a series of issues facing the state during their first debate Friday night.
The debate was held at Wisconsin Public Television studios in Madison. Schimel and Kaul sat across from each other at a table and responded to questions from the moderators, Wisconsin Public Television host Frederica Freyberg and Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson, along with several voters from across the state.
With the election four weeks away, both candidates emphasized their respective pedigrees, Schimel as law enforcement’s choice with the endorsement of 64 Democratic and Republican sheriffs across the state, and Kaul, who served as a federal prosecutor in Baltimore.
A Marquette University Law School poll released this week showed Schimel ahead of Kaul by four percentage points.
Some highlights from Friday's debate:
On the backlog of sexual assault kits in Wisconsin: Was there a delay in getting kits tested? Why?
The candidates dispute the state's record on this.
Brad Schimel says there was no delay and that there are a variety of reasons why law enforcement agencies statewide would not have tested kits from decades ago. When the state was awarded two federal grants, it got the job done, he said.
"I’m proud of our work at the Department of Justice because we got it done. A 25-year-old problem got solved in less than three years. Every kit is tested. In Wisconsin, this mission is accomplished," Schimel said. He noted the state helped created a distinct sexual assault nurse examiner and a victim-centric assault kit program.
"We now have the most comprehensive sexual assault nurse examiner program in the Midwest. Here in Wisconsin on top of all the work we did to solve the testing problem, we put in place procedures to make sure this doesn’t happen again," he said.
Kaul said Schimel mishandled the kits, waiting more than a year to test kits after the state had received millions in federal grant money to do so. He also hammered Schimel on the lack of prosecutions that have come from new kit results.
"Our attorney general has mishandled this,” he said. “While progress has finally been made, the result of the delay and getting these kits tested is there is a delay in getting justice for survivors of sexual assault."
Kaul said he fundamentally disagrees that the mission is accomplished.
“The goal here is not just to test these kits, it’s to get justice," he said. "There is a lot of work left to get justice.”
On the Department of Justice under Schimel spending $10,000 in public money on commemorative law enforcement coins and other promotional materials: Was that a good use of public money?
Schimel defended the purchase of the coins and said they were a meaningful way to support law enforcement officers who often have very difficult jobs.
"They appreciate these coins," he said. "Those people all earn these challenge coins...law enforcement officers don't consider these fake coins. They are a big deal to them and it is important we support them in these difficult times."
Schimel said the coins were distinct from other promotional materials that were purchased, like stress balls and fortune cookies that were stopped when he found out about it.
"I don't monitor every purchase that happens. We discovered this was happening and clamped down on it," he said.
Kaul said the money could have been spent better on other initiatives.
"While that money was spent, only nine of the kits in our backlog of untested rape kits," he said. "To me that is the definition of misplaced priorities."
On Roe v. Wade: If the federal law permitting abortion is overturned by the United States Supreme Court, how would the Attorney General approach Wisconsin's laws restricting abortion?
Both candidates said they are committed to defending Wisconsin's laws but Kaul said he would conduct a legal analysis to see if the state's laws are defensible. He said he thinks the state Legislature should repeal its law.
Schimel emphasized his job is to defend the laws the Legislature passes whether he agrees with them or not.
"Make no mistake, those laws or that agency or official will be defended in court," he said. "It will just mean that money will be spent to hire an outside lawyer to do that."
On when the Attorney General should sue the federal government: When, specifically, is that appropriate?
Both candidates agree on the criteria: when a federal law is unconstitutional or otherwise illegal or is causing harm to Wisconsin residents. But they disagree on how that criteria is applied or interpreted across a series of issues.
Kaul said Schimel should have joined lawsuits going after for-profit colleges and threats to net neutrality and criticized his leading of a lawsuit that would invalidate the federal Affordable Care Act. That suit, if successful, would hurt Wisconsinites, and he said he would withdraw from it if elected.
"Health insurance companies would once again be allowed to deny coverage to people on the basis of preexisting conditions ... if the major provisions of the Affordable Care Act are struck down, more than 30 million Americans will become uninsured," he said.
Schimel said he is leading on the Obamacare lawsuit because the health care act is unconstitutional and has resulted in increased premiums for Wisconsin residents.
"Obamacare has been a string of broken promises. Rates were supposed to go down, they went up by 42 percent on average in Wisconsin," he said. "It makes more sense to get this done now and let Wisconsin put back in place the processes we had before Obamacare destroyed our state system."
On the opioid epidemic: What does the state need to do, has it done enough?
Schimel highlighted a series of successful programs the DOJ has implemented during his tenure, including a drug take-back program, increasing the number of diversion and drug treatment courts to 51, and his "Dose of Reality" education campaign about over-prescription and abuse, which he said is now being used in several other states.
He said he has put more drug agents in the field and increases the number of regional prosecutors addressing the issue.
"We wrote and obtained the largest methamphetamine and heroin enforcement grant in the nation," he said. "I know from my experience, we won't arrest our way out of this drug epidemic. We need a comprehensive approach."
Schimel said he has not signed on to a multi-state lawsuit going after pharmaceutical companies who manufacture opiates, instead opting for a multi-state investigation, which he said will yield more evidence and information from drug companies and will ultimately be more effective in getting a settlement.
Kaul said the state should join the lawsuit and needs to do more to fight the epidemic, expand treatment programs and go after large-scale drug traffickers.
"It's not correct that Wisconsin is leading the nation in fighting the opioid epidemic," he said. "We've gotten worse compared to our overdose rate. We need new leadership."
On marijuana: Should it be legalized for medical purposes?
Schimel opposes legalizing marijuana for recreational use and said the state should "follow the science" when it comes to using marijuana medically.
He said he is not opposed to legalizing medical marijuana but said the FDA currently does not endorse the practice and it is not legal.
Kaul supports legalizing medical marijuana, noting that it is also "potentially a good source of revenue for Wisconsin."
"There are people who face serious issues with chronic pain. If they can get relief from medical marijuana, they should have that option."