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State attorney general debate

Republican state Attorney General Brad Schimel, left, and Democratic challenger Josh Kauk await the start of Friday's Wisconsin Public Television debate.

Democratic attorney general candidate Josh Kaul went on the attack during his first debate with Republican incumbent Brad Schimel on Friday, hoping to make up ground after polls show him trailing the veteran prosecutor less than a month before Election Day.

Kaul hammered away at Schimel for taking too long to test thousands of unanalyzed sexual assault kits that had sat on police station and hospital shelves for decades. The state Department of Justice got a pair of federal grants to start testing in 2015 but the work wasn’t completed until last month. Schimel has said it took time to inventory the kits and find private labs with the capacity to perform testing.

Kaul kept going back to the kits throughout the hourlong debate, accusing Schimel of letting dangerous criminals roam the streets unidentified. At one point, Kaul asked Schimel directly how many people in Wisconsin have been charged with a crime as a result of the testing.

Schimel didn’t answer, instead touting himself as an advocate for sexual assault victims and declaring that he solved a 25-year-old problem in three years.

“We got this mission accomplished,” Schimel said.

Schimel worked to make Kaul look like a woefully inexperienced outsider, contrasting his 25 years as a prosecutor in Waukesha County with Kaul’s four years as an assistant federal prosecutor in Baltimore.

Schimel claimed to have worked 16,000 cases as a Waukesha County prosecutor. Kaul, on the other hand, was assigned only 25 cases during his stint in Baltimore and made closing arguments to a jury only three times, according to Schimel.

Kaul seemed stunned, saying Schimel’s numbers were wrong and he had no idea where he found them. Schimel pressed him, demanding to know how many times he had made closing arguments.

“More than three,” Kaul said, but he didn’t offer a number.

Kaul has been battering Schimel for months for not doing enough to curb opioid abuse in Wisconsin, noting nearly 900 people died from overdoses in 2017. Schimel has countered that prevention and treatment rather than arrests are the way out of the crisis, and continually holds up DOJ’s “Dose of Reality” public awareness campaign as a national model for promoting prevention.

Kaul said during the debate that the opioid problem has only gotten worse on Schimel’s watch. He jabbed the attorney general for not joining other states in suing pharmaceutical companies for allegedly using deceptive marketing practices to sell opioid-based painkillers.

When a moderator asked him why the state hasn’t sued, Schimel incorrectly answered that the state is involved in a lawsuit. He walked that back in the next breath, explaining Wisconsin is involved in a multi-state investigation of the pharmaceutical industry.

Kaul jumped on the mischaracterization.

“It’s just false that Wisconsin is involved in a lawsuit,” Kaul said.

Schimel said he’s not opposed to medical marijuana if science can show it helps alleviate patients’ pain. He doesn’t support legalizing recreational use, though, saying Wisconsin already has enough impaired drivers on the road.

Kaul said he supports legalizing medical marijuana to help people deal with pain and provide the state with new revenue.

Kaul attacked Schimel for stating he would train teachers in gun safety if they want to go armed in school, calling that an “alarming idea.” He also criticized Schimel for missing a self-imposed deadline for handing out $100 million in grants for school security upgrades — Schimel had promised to get the money out before the start of the school year but DOJ expects to award the last of the grants this month — and for suggesting doing away with gun-free school zones.

Schimel countered that he would support local decisions to arm teachers and he would train them to use their firearms safely. He said gun-free school zones punish law-abiding citizens and signs and stickers aren’t going to deter school shooters.

Kaul and Schimel are set to meet Sunday evening at Marquette University for their second debate. They will meet again Tuesday afternoon in Milwaukee for their third and final debate before the Nov. 6 election.

The two had been were scheduled to meet Oct. 26 in Green Bay for a debate hosted by UW-Madison’s Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership, but the center announced online Thursday that the debate has been canceled because a gubernatorial debate and a World Series game are scheduled for that same evening.

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