Josh Kaul has served as Wisconsin’s attorney general since 2019. He is running for reelection and discusses his stance on critical issues.
Cherita Booker, UpNorthNews Reporter: Can you talk a little bit about what the attorney general does and why it’s such an important position?
Josh Kaul, Attorney General: The attorney general is our ‘top cop.’ The AG oversees the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which has over 700 employees. It works on a number of different functions related to public safety and the law. We have a division of criminal investigation that investigates crimes of statewide importance.
We have a number of attorneys who represent the state in all different kinds of legal cases, including criminal prosecutions, criminal appeals, environmental protection cases, consumer protection cases, and constitutional cases involving our rights.
We also have our division of law enforcement services, which works to improve and enhance the work that law enforcement agencies are able to do around the states through training, and by getting grants and administering other programs. We have the state crime labs. We also have an office of school safety that works to make schools in Wisconsin safer and an office of open government that promotes transparency in government. We have an office of crime victim services that works with victims of crime. Also as AG, I work to promote changes to the legal system that can help make our communities safer and stronger. I’m proud to have done that in a lot of different ways during my time as attorney general.
Cherita: You’ve been outspoken about your defense of reproductive freedom, and you filed a lawsuit seeking to strike down Wisconsin’s 173 year old abortion ban. Why is this issue so important to you?
Josh: This is an issue that is important to people across the state of Wisconsin because of the US Supreme Court’s decision. Women in Wisconsin are less free, less equal, and less safe than they were just a few months ago in this state. We have a draconian 19th century abortion criminal ban on the books that has no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, and even only to protect the health of the mother, if it says it’s necessary to save the life of the mother. That’s what the statute says. This is impacting women in Wisconsin right now.
Cherita: In what ways?
Josh: There was one woman who had to bleed for 10 days before doctors were able to intervene and provide the medical care that was needed. One OBGYN told me not long ago that there are now people who come in with pregnancies that they had planned, which used to be a joyous event. I remember those appointments with my kids, when you see the ultrasound and you count their fingers and their toes. She said now sometimes people come in and they’re terrified. They’re terrified about what’s going to happen if there’s a complication they weren’t expecting, and they’re going to need medical intervention. So we need to fight back against this restrictive, draconian ban and restore access to safe and legal abortion in Wisconsin. I’m leading the fight in court to block the enforcement of that 19th century ban. I called for the Legislature to repeal that ban.
Cherita: So it’s fair to say that you will not enforce that ban?
Josh: I’ve been clear that we’re not going to shift our resources at the Wisconsin Department of Justice that go to things like investigating and prosecuting some of the most serious crimes in Wisconsin. We’re not going to shift those to investigating and prosecuting people for abortions. Now, my opponent has a completely different view. He said he would withdraw from our lawsuit on day one in office and help keep that draconian ban in place. He’s also been clear that he’s eager to enforce that ban, which means putting nurses or doctors or even a family member who drives somebody to a clinic behind bars for something that for almost 50 years had been understood to be a constitutional right. I think that is wrong. I think it is bad for Wisconsinites and I’m going to keep fighting against it.
Cherita: Public safety is obviously a big issue for voters. Can you talk a little bit about what your priorities are around this area?
Josh: Public safety is my top priority as attorney general. At the Wisconsin Department of Justice, we have investigated and prosecuted some of the most serious crimes in the state of Wisconsin. I was a federal prosecutor in Baltimore and I prosecuted large scale drug traffickers, gang members, and murderers to work to make communities safer. As attorney general, under my leadership, the Department of Justice has put people behind bars for homicides for sex offenses, for internet crimes against children, and for drug trafficking among many other offenses. It’s critical that we are ensuring that people who commit serious crimes end up behind bars.
I’ve also proposed a public safety plan that can strengthen our community, the Safer Wisconsin plan, which would invest in communities across the state. We also need to crack down on gun violence. I have been a strong proponent for common sense gun safety measures like universal background checks that get rid of the loopholes that we have in our system.
Cherita: While on the topic of public safety, how do you plan to balance holding people who break the law accountable without resorting to incarcerating people en masse?
I think we need to strengthen our bail system as well. As a federal prosecutor, the system I worked under focused on danger and risk of flight. I’d like to see a system that does that so that the people who are being detained prior to trial are the people who are the most dangerous and who put our communities at risk. I also think there are a lot of changes we could make that would make our system both safer, but also fairer, so strengthening our bail system is one example of that. Also, continuing to invest in treatment and diversion programs so that if somebody ends up in the justice system because of mental illness or because of substance use disorder, we’re addressing the cause of that problem so they don’t end up reoffending and back in the justice system. We’ve also got to work to make sure that people who are leaving incarceration don’t reoffend that makes our communities less safe.
We can make other changes as well like investing in community policing, which helps strengthen relationships between law enforcement and the communities in which they serve. There’s a lot we can be doing. We’ve also worked to fight the opioid epidemic by going after ‘Big Pharma’ for its role in the opioid crisis and fought to get legislation passed. That’s going to help stop Wisconsin from having a future backlog of untested sexual assault kits.
Cherita: What accomplishments are you most proud of during your first term as attorney general?
Josh: I’m proud that when I ran for office in 2018, the issues that I talked about are the issues that we have delivered on during my time in office. That’s despite Republican obstructionism that literally started before the governor and I were sworn into office. It’s despite a pandemic. I talked about public safety being my top priority, and we have delivered on issue after issue putting dangerous criminals behind bars, strengthening our sexual assault laws, holding Big Pharma accountable for its role in the opioid epidemic, and getting dollars to communities in the state of Wisconsin. We’ve also strengthened our environmental enforcement and ensure that polluters are held accountable when they break the law. We’ve worked to make our schools safer through school safety handbooks, the creation of a 24/7 tip line, and other changes that we have made. In addition to that, we got Wisconsin out of the lawsuit that was trying to end the Affordable Care Act and its protections for people with a preexisting condition. On issue after issue, we’ve gotten results for Wisconsinites.
Cherita: Some candidates have said freedom is on the ballot this November. Do you agree or disagree?
Josh: I do agree. This is the first election we’re going to have after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. People are going to think of this election for years to come as the election that came after Roe was overturned. There is going to be one of two messages sent. One message that could be sent is that people’s rights can be taken away, their freedoms can be taken away, and they’re not going to respond at the polls. That’s not a message that I want to see sent. It’s not a message that I think we’re going to see sent. The other message is if you take the freedoms of Wisconsinites away, you’re gonna see that reflected in the ballot box because voters will vote you out of office. I think there is a groundswell of support for people who want to protect reproductive freedom.
That’s not the only freedom that’s at stake either. Our freedom to vote has been under attack as well. I’m proud during my time in office to have defended against efforts to deactivate tens of thousands of Wisconsinites from the voter rolls. I joined other states and challenged the postal service when it tried to slow down the mail prior to the 2020 election. After the 2020 election, my office defended the will of the voters; we won in every case. I’m proud to have stood up to Michael Gableman and his fake investigation into the 2020 elections. Again, that’s a clear differentiator in our race.
My opponent has embraced the support of Michael Gableman, and he supported his fake investigation. He’s alleged that election officials broke the law and should be removed from office. I think we need an attorney general who we can count on to stand up for our freedom to vote and the will of the voters, not somebody who is going to fan the flames of these conspiracy theories and attacks on our democracy.
Cherita: We’ve seen Republicans in Wisconsin spend nearly two years now casting doubt on the 2020 election–what are the long term consequences of those actions and the Gableman investigation?
Josh: These kinds of bogus investigations are baselessly eroding confidence in our democracy. On top of spreading these conspiracy theories and undermining faith in our system of government, it’s also cost us a lot of money. The Gableman investigation cost over a million dollars in taxpayer money. I called for it to be shut down almost a year ago now, and while Robin Vos did eventually shut it down, it went on far, far too long. The truth of the matter is we have free and fair and safe and secure elections in Wisconsin. We had a statewide recount after 2016. We had a recount of our two largest counties after 2020. There were audits that were conducted by the Legislative Audit Bureau, and other reviews have been conducted. What those have shown time after time is that the results of our elections reflect the will of the voters. So these claims that there is something wrong with our election are false.
Cherita: What is the tangible impact on Wisconsinites lives if elections are not trusted, and/or Republicans succeed in overturning elections?
Unfortunately, when those conspiracy theories are spread, some people see them out there and they assume if they’re coming from a source that has the support of officials like Republicans in the legislature, that they might be credible. The truth is that they’re not credible. We need to rely on the results of our elections so that our democracy can function effectively. We need to be proud of our democracy and stand up for it because the truth is that we have a phenomenal system that works. It works because we have outstanding election officials across the state who work day in and day out to make sure that our results reflect the will of the voters.
Cherita: How would you protect Wisconsinites right to vote and know their vote won’t be overturned by politicians?
Josh: We’re gonna keep doing what we have been doing as long as I’m attorney general. Prior to the 2020 election, there were efforts to make it harder for people to vote. There was this effort to deactivate voters from the rolls. We defended against that. I personally argued that case in the state Supreme Court, and we won. Those tens of thousands of voters remained on the rolls. We also made sure to hold the postal service accountable so that ballots would be received on time. After the election, we stood up for the will of the voters in court. I was clear with the public then and will continue to be clear that our system is free and fair and our elections are safe and secure.
But it’s important to note that one of those cases before our state Supreme Court was decided four to three. If that had been decided four to three the other way, the results of our presidential election in Wisconsin would have been thrown into chaos. Now I stood up for the will of the voters, and I stood up for the rule of law. Imagine if we’d had an attorney general who falsely claimed there was widespread fraud or falsely claimed that election laws had been violated. You don’t have to be that imaginative, because my opponent has embraced Michael Gableman and his investigation that undermined faith in our elections. He’s claimed that election officials broke the law and should be removed from office. We don’t need an attorney general who’s going to try to create chaos in our election system. We need somebody who’s going to stand up for the will of the voters and ensure that they keep the power in our system, not politicians, partisans, or elected officials.
Cherita: Your opponent, Republican Eric Toney, has charged five voters over registering to vote using a rented mailbox at a UPS Store. One of those voters has said the ordeal makes her never want to vote again. Do you have any thoughts on Toney’s prosecutions?
Josh: I don’t want to speak to specific cases, but what I can say is this: Prosecutors need to use discretion because we have limited resources. They should focus their resources on the things that most impact public safety. If there is a serious case of voter fraud, it absolutely should be prosecuted. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with situations where somebody has made an inadvertent mistake, using prosecutorial resources on something like that, among other things, means you’re not using those resources to hold people accountable for homicides or for drug trafficking or sexual assaults. This is a pattern we’ve seen with my opponent. I am focused on investigating and prosecuting the most serious crimes, and I have put drug traffickers, murderers, and sex offenders behind bars. I don’t want to see those resources shifted to going after people for abortions or bogus claims of election fraud. They need to go to keeping our communities safe.
Cherita: Can you speak directly to the voters and tell them why their vote matters?
Josh: The vote of every American matters because our vote is our voice in our government. The votes that people cast around this country shape the direction and the future of this country. It’s part of what makes America so great. But in Wisconsin, your vote really matters because we have very, very close elections. I won in 2018 by 0.65%. One of the remarkable things about that is that it’s not that unusual in Wisconsin. Four of our last six presidential elections were decided by less than one percentage point. Governor Evers won in 2018 by just a little over one percentage point. We are a state that often has small margins. I expect we’re going to have very close elections again in 2022, but the impact of those small margins is huge. It’s huge when it comes to our freedoms. It’s huge when it comes to public safety. And it’s huge when it comes to protecting clean air and clean water in our communities. So it is critical that every Wisconsinite who’s eligible exercises their right to vote.
Cherita: What do you do when you’re not working or campaigning? Tell us something fun about Josh Kaul.
Josh: I have two boys. They’re eight and five. One just started third grade and one started kindergarten this year. So if I’m not serving as attorney general or campaigning, I’m often hanging out with them and taking them to activities. They’re involved in lots of different things and are a true true joy.