UW-Madison professor enters attorney general race

MADISON – A political science professor is seeking to challenge Attorney General Josh Kaul in the 2022 election to be Wisconsin’s top attorney. 

Ryan Owens, 44, who has taught law and political science courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the last 10 years, is the second Republican to announce a run against the Democratic incumbent.

Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney announced his run earlier this month. 

Owens, who lives in the Madison suburb of Middleton, enters the race as an atypical attorney general candidate — one who has not worked as a prosecutor. He said his background as an attorney and professor doesn’t put him at a disadvantage.

“It’s not about how many people you’ve prosecuted, it’s about what you’re going to do to protect the state of Wisconsin,” Owens said.

“I’m a unique candidate as most people would observe — I’m a conservative Republican professor, which is not something we typically see. I am the dad of a special needs kid, which has taught us to find successes in places we might not otherwise have thought of.”

Owens said state government’s response under Democratic leadership to the coronavirus pandemic and destruction during protests in 2020 prompted him to launch a campaign.

“We have a tremendous leadership deficit in this state right now,” Owens said in an interview. “What worries me is it has now turned into a freedom deficit and I’m running because I think Wisconsin deserves better.”

Owens said the arson and property damage during protests in Kenosha following the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer, and the destruction of a Wisconsin State Capitol statue of abolitionist Hans Christian Heg in the wake of the death of George Floyd by a police officer, were key to his decision to run.

“Looters had cut down the statue of Hans Christian Heg, decapitated it, dragged it through the streets, and dumped it in the lake, and where was our attorney general when this kind of stuff was happening?” Owens said.

Kaul at the time called the actions “deeply disturbing” and “unacceptable.”

“While peaceful protest can be and has been a catalyst for progress, vandalism and violence are tools of destruction, not instruments of change,” Kaul tweeted on June 24. 

Kaul urged lawmakers to overhaul policing and proposed funding a hate crime hotline, expanding de-escalation and implicit bias training, growing community policing programs, and preventing disciplinary records from being sealed when an officer seeks employment. 

Kaul oversees the Department of Justice, which oversaw an investigation into the shooting of Blake. In the wake of Blake’s shooting, violence erupted in Kenosha resulting in burned buildings and a fatal shooting by Kyle Rittenhouse, an Illinois teenager who is charged with killing two people and wounding a third during the third night of protesting.

Kaul held a news conference in Kenosha following the Rittenhouse shooting and issued a statement saying, “The violence and destruction that took place in Kenosha last night was despicable.”

Owens said Kaul should have condemned the destruction and violence sooner than Aug. 26 and didn’t do enough in Madison earlier in the summer to “tamp down that unrest or signal to the public that we need to respect the rule of law or our law enforcement community.”

In a statement, Kaul’s campaign spokeswoman Sondra Milkie said Kaul “has led on critical public safety issues, from working to address gun violence and make our schools safer, to fighting the opioid epidemic, to strengthening Wisconsin’s response to sexual assault.”

“He’s stood up for public health and access to affordable health care and worked to protect clean water,” she said. 

Owens worked at Harvard University before being hired at UW-Madison, where he also earned his undergraduate and law degrees. He stepped down as the director of UW-Madison’s Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership in February and plans to continue teaching. 

He also holds Ph.D. and master’s degrees in political science from Washington University in St. Louis.

Owens will face Toney in a Republican primary in early 2022. In a statement, Toney said he welcomes Owens to the race.

“I look forward to letting the voters hear about our records — his in the classroom and mine in the courtroom. I’m the prosecutor in the county where the Republican Party was founded in Ripon,” Toney said. “My roots run deep in the Republican Party, and law enforcement and the voters will have a clear choice in the primary.” 

Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.