Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Lautenschlager dies Former state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager dies of cancer.
Democrat’s public service career spanned 3 decades
Former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, the only woman to hold the post, has died from cancer at age 62.
A mother of five, whose public service career spanned three decades, Lautenschlager died early Saturday surrounded by family at her home in Fond du Lac, her husband, Bill Rippl, said.
In addition to attorney general, Lautenschlager, a Democrat, also served as a state representative, a local district attorney and the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin.
“She was a trailblazer for many women in Wisconsin politics, a loyal friend and true-blue Democrat,” state Sen. Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) said in a statement, one of several issued Saturday as news of Lautenschlager’s death circulated on social media.
“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,” Shilling said.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack called Lautenschlager “a leader in the law” who continued to serve the state after leaving office.
And former Gov. Jim Doyle said she “devoted her life and remarkable talents to public service.”
“She was a trailblazer and a champion for the people of Wisconsin, a state she dearly loved,” Doyle said.
A native of Fond du Lac, Lautenschlager graduated from Lake Forest College in Illinois in 1977 and earned her law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1980.
She served as Winnebago County district attorney from 1985 to 1988, again, the first woman elected to that post. She was elected to represent the Fond du Lac area in the state Assembly in 1988, ousting 32-year incumbent Earl McEssy. And she served until 1993 when she made an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Congress, narrowly losing to Republican incumbent Rep. Tom Petri.
Lautenschlager served as attorney general from 2003 to 2007. In July 2016, she was appointed as the first commissioner of the newly formed Ethics Commission, from which she later resigned.
As attorney general, she took office on the heels of the legislative caucus scandal in which five lawmakers were charged with campaigning on state time.
Lautenschlager crafted a deal that allowed those under investigation to bill taxpayers for their legal fees, but it required that to end once an individual was charged and reimbursement in the event of a conviction.
As she ran for re-election in 2006, Lautenschlager pointed to successes under her leadership. Among them: creating a Public Integrity Unit to enforce open records and open meetings laws, suing drug manufacturers over allegations of overcharging and fighting the spread of methamphetamines.
She proudly called herself an “activ-
ist attorney general.”
In the courtroom, Lautenschlager led the prosecution in two high-profile cases. As a U.S. attorney in 1996, she got a conviction of Steven Oliver, who kidnapped a 13-year-old girl and led authorities on a national chase for 31⁄2 months.
She returned to the courtroom as attorney general in 2005 to successfully lead the prosecution in the murder trial of Chai Soua Vang. The Minnesota truck driver killed six people and wounded two others on a hunting trip in northern Wisconsin in 2004.
Republicans, as well as Democrats, issued statements regarding Lautenschlager’s death.
Gov. Scott Walker tweeted his condolences and called her “a dedicated and passionate public servant.”
“While we may not have always agreed politically, Peg was a passionate advocate for Wisconsin during her 30 years serving our state,” said Brad Courtney, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
Attorney General Brad Schimel issued a statement saying he did not know her well but knew, through colleagues at the Department of Justice, that she 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,” he said.
Lautenschlager’s son, Josh Kaul, is now running to unseat Schimel, a Republican.
Efforts to reach Kaul about his mother’s death were not immediately successful.
Those who worked with Lautenschlager described her as high energy and passionate. At times she carried three cellphones with her — one for work, one for her election campaign and one for personal use.
“She was just relentless. I am an old farm boy and thought that I worked hard, but work-wise she buried me,” said Michael Bauer, a former assistant attorney general.
Bauer drove Lautenschlager to chemotherapy appointments after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004.
“Those treatments would take three or four hours and she would always bring work along with her. She worked 80 percent of the time while getting chemo,” Bauer recalled.
At attorney general, Lautenschlager opposed a 2006 Wisconsin referendum to invalidate same-sex marriages.
“She said it was the civil rights issue of our time and that she was not going to be on the wrong side of it,” Bauer said.
“Whether it was personal or political, she would fight for what she believed in,” he added.
Her career was not without controversy. In 2004, Lautenschlager pleaded guilty in Dodge County to a charge of operating a vehicle while intoxicated, first offense, after she drove a state-owned car into a ditch. In the aftermath, she apologized for the incident and took responsibility for her actions.
On that night, Lautenschlager said, she had consumed two glasses of wine and fell asleep at the wheel while driving home.
She spoke of having to call her college-age sons and her parents, telling her 13-year-old daughter and having to be picked up by her husband. She also talked about the empathetic response she had from well-wishers who “glibly” spoke of their own experiences of drinking and getting behind the wheel.
“We cannot tolerate a continued attitude of this sort,” she said.
Also in 2004, the state Ethics Board found that Lautenschlager failed to reimburse the state $672 for mileage logged during more than a year in office, when she commuted from her home to the Capitol in her state vehicle. She repaid the state, as well as a $250 penalty.
While Lautenschlager made some mistakes, colleagues said, she wouldn’t compromise her principles.
“She was a public official with conviction and determination,” former Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said in a statement.
“I think that she epitomized what public service is all about. She gave her all to her position,” said Dan Bach, a former deputy attorney general.
“She was an excellent lawyer in terms of her analytical abilities. And I think that everybody who knew Peg knew that she brought a lot of passion to her position and that it came straight from the heart,” Bach said.
Lautenschlager was a former member of the Democratic National Committee and many government and civic organizations including the Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse, Big Brothers and Big Sisters and Girl Scouts.
In a 2002 Journal Sentinel interview, she credited her parents, teachers and former Gov. Tony Earl as role models. She also admired Janet Reno, the first woman to become U.S. attorney general and her boss for eight years.
“Janet Reno always taught me that in management, you credit those who are working with you for the good things that happen, and if they tried hard, but something went awry, you should always stand up and take responsibility,” Lautenschlager said.
Colleagues remembered her sense of humor, too, and the fact that she placed her family as her No. 1 priority.
“Her house was always bustling with electric enthusiasm,” said Scot Ross, executive director of the political group One Wisconsin Now. Ross was the communications director for her 2002 attorney general campaign.
Bauer recalled one road trip with Lautenschlager when, in a five-minute period, she answered a phone call about the Department of Justice suing pharmaceutical companies and a call from her daughter asking for help with a pancake recipe.
“That’s the way she was. She worked morning, noon and night ... but she also loved to cook and she loved crafts,” Bauer said.
Lautenschlager felt strongly about women’s equality and the importance of being a role model, saying in the 2002 profile that “being the first woman to serve as attorney general is not just a great honor ... but also an awesome responsibility.”
Still, she said, she longed for the day when gender wouldn’t matter.
“It frightens me when somebody says, ‘Oh, I voted for you; I always vote for a woman,’ as much as it does when somebody says, ‘I’d never vote for you; I couldn’t see a woman holding that position,’” she said.