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Debate Highlights Two Different Takes On AG's Office

A scren capture from the September 20, 2020 debate between Montana Attorney General candidates Austin Knudsen (L) and Raph Graybill (R). The moderator is Mike Dennison (center).
A scren capture from the September 20, 2020 debate between Montana Attorney General candidates Austin Knudsen (L) and Raph Graybill (R). The moderator is Mike Dennison (center).

Montana’s two attorney general candidates sparred in Sunday’s debate, showcasing the sharp contrast between how the Republican and the Democrat each view the elected position.

The position is currently held by Tim Fox, who is terming out of the office. The attorney general oversees the Montana Department of Justice, which prosecutes criminals, protects consumers and represents the state in court.

Candidate Raph Graybill, a Democrat from Great Falls, serves as chief legal counsel to Gov. Steve Bullock. He said the attorney general should be a watchdog advocate, protecting things such as health care access.

Republican candidate Austin Knudsen, Culbertson, is a Roosevelt County attorney and former Speaker of the Montana House. He believes the attorney general’s office should be focused on addressing drug use, related violent crime and acting as the state’s chief law enforcement officer.

“And this is why Montanans should pick me: I’m an experienced prosecutor, I’ve got the background and the drive to do this,” Knudsen said.

His platform centered on tackling Montana’s “tremendous” meth problem, an issue Knudsen blamed for a rise in violent crime.

According to Montana Board of Crime Control data, the number of violent crimes committed annually rose 33% from 2014 to 2018. The number of meth-use-related crimes was up 100% in that same time period.

While Knudsen focused on crime, Graybill planned to be an attorney general who advocates for Montana residents in court.

It’s work Graybill said he has done as Bullock’s legal counsel, a job that had him litigating cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, Montana’s supreme court and various federal courts.

“It’s going to take an experienced advocate – who’s actually done the kind of work that attorney generals do – to go to court, fight for our values and to win,” Graybill said.

He cited healthcare as an example, saying he would fight against a lawsuit backed by the Trump administration that would do away with the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. That case is set to go before the U.S. Supreme Court in November.

According to Graybill, health law provides thousands of Montana jobs, keeps rural hospitals afloat and expands health care access.

“I will fight every single day to stop that lawsuit and to keep Montanans healthy,” Graybill said.

Knudsen responded that he did not know of anyone who’d seen lower premiums from the Affordable Care Act. He reiterated the belief that the attorney general should be addressing violent crime and not health care.

“People are not talking about the Affordable Care Act when I’m talking about the Attorney General’s office,” he said. “They’re just not.”

Knudsen stated that 90% to 95% of the criminal cases he sees as a northeast-Montana prosecutor are related to meth. His plan to curb meth use would “cut funding out of the bureaucracy in Helena” and funnel money to law enforcement in the field.

“The Mexican drug cartels are here in Montana, and they are the ones driving this methamphetamine crisis,” Knudsen said.

In 2019, a Missoula detective told MTPR that most meth in Montana does come from Mexico.

Graybill said cutting funding at the Department of Justice that could affect law enforcement operations is a dangerous idea. He added that curbing meth use requires a three-prong approach of enforcing the law, treating people with addiction and preventing future use.

“If you just talk about one, you’re not serious about fixing this problem,” Graybill said.

Knudsen responded that he would not cut law enforcement funding, just bureaucracy.
Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.