2020 Primary Preview: Attorney General Race

May 22, 2020

Montana’s term-limited Attorney General, Tim Fox, is seeking the Republican party’s gubernatorial nomination. Two Democrats and two Republicans are now jockeying for Fox’s open seat.

Edward O’Brien has this preview of the two contested primary races for the state’s next chief legal officer.

Montana’s Attorney General primary contests feature four candidates, all with government and legal experience who bring competing visions and priorities for the office.

Montana Capitol.
Credit William Marcus / Montana Public Radio

The state Attorney General has several responsibilities including representing state agencies in lawsuits and lending legal assistance to local county attorneys – particularly in complex or homicide cases.

Republican Jon Bennion is outgoing AG Tim Fox’s chief Deputy Attorney General.

"I’m not going to need any on-the-job training before I take this office. I’ll be ready on day one."

Bennion says he has deep understanding of criminal and constitutional law as well as consumer protection and natural resource issues. He praises Tim Fox’s leadership, but says the AG’s office needs to intervene more in natural resources cases, like supporting some logging projects held up by lawsuits by environmental groups:

"Where groups have sued to stop responsible forest management. I’d like to see us get more involved in more of those cases."

Bennion adds he won’t hesitate to fight against what he describes as "government overreach."

"For example, Washington State has tried to close its ports to Montana and Wyoming coal. We filed a lawsuit in the U.S Supreme Court saying that’s a violation of the U.S Commerce Clause. It [government overreach] can happen with other states, the federal government and it can happen at the local level. I’m the only one with experience on constitutional issues. My primary opponent isn’t even licensed to practice in the U.S. Supreme Court."

He’s referring to Republican Roosevelt County Attorney Austin Knudsen.

"Jon’s a very nice guy, but he’s never really practiced law," Knudsen says. "He’s spent seven years as a lobbyist in Helena and he’s had eight years now, working for the Department of Justice in Helena as a bureaucrat. That’s just a fact. Experience is the biggest difference between Jon and I."

Knudsen served as Speaker of the Montana House during the 2015 and 2017 Legislatures. He’s made drugs and drug-related crimes a centerpiece of his campaign.

"I would say a full 90 percent of my caseload right now in the Roosevelt County Attorney’s office is dealing with meth and the related issues that go with it. I’m very used to dealing with law enforcement and the various drug task forces. I’m used to prosecuting these people. It’s what I do. Bottom line, that’s what the state of Montana needs in the Attorney General’s office, an aggressive conservative leader; and I’m that person."

Knudsen says the Attorney General's office under Tim Fox’s leadership prioritized that agency’s budget over those of local law enforcement agencies.

"I want to cut some of that budget in Helena. I want to get that funding out to the front lines, to the sheriffs’ offices, to the local police departments and to your local prosecutors who are actually dealing with this problem every day. Spending more money in Helena, just does not work."

The Democratic primary race for Attorney General pits attorney and Missoula state lawmaker, Kimberly Dudik against Raph Graybill, Gov. Steve Bullock’s chief legal counsel.

Dudik says she’s particularly proud of her efforts to help develop a first of its kind pilot project giving greater support to people represented by public defenders.

"This is a groundbreaking project, trying to help people deal with underlying issues that cause them to be involved in the criminal justice system. On top of that I’ve done other things such as work with our tribal communities on dealing with missing and murdered indigenous people, stopping human trafficking and also dealing with child sexual abuse; trying to prevent it and hold offenders accountable."

Dudik says she’s also concerned about Montana’s growing meth-related violent crime rate. She wants to help create comprehensive drug-crime and addiction action plans.

"I’m the candidate proposing having an official office of Native American affairs to collaborate with our tribal communities to truly deal with these issues that have been ignored for entirely too long."

Both Democratic candidates assert the depth and breadth of their respective resumes gives them the advantage over their opponent.

Dudik has worked as an attorney, assistant attorney general, a nurse and a four-term state legislator.

"I’ve been an attorney now for 18 years. He’s been an attorney for less than five. I’m the only one with frontline experience bringing charges and ensuring safety when criminal laws have been violated, ensuring citizens are taken care of. He has none of that experience."

Dudik’s primary opponent, Raph Graybill doesn’t see it that way. Graybill says true legal experience is defined by the kinds of cases an attorney tackles.

"I’ve had two cases in the U.S. Supreme Court in the last two years," Graybill says. "I’ve gone up against the U.S. Department of Justice and the Trump administration and won. You saw us in our fight against the tobacco industry in Montana in a very contentious case. It’s in those kinds of cases and from that background of advocacy that I come to this race."

Like Dudik, Graybill says Montana’s Attorney General plays a pivotal role in health care fairness and pricing.

"You hear routinely in other states, state Attorneys General going after drug companies who engage in delay schemes to try to keep generics off the market, or drug companies who work together to inflate drug prices. We can do something about that here in Montana. We can put money back in people’s pockets, but it requires the political choice to make it a real priority again."

Graybill wants the AG’s office to conduct annual drug price reviews to prevent price gouging. He also says the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Expansion are both constitutional, and if elected, would fully support them.

Graybill says he’s prepared to use the legal system to help improve Montanans lives.

"I think anyone who doesn’t see that as the core of the Attorney General’s role – anyone who sees this office as just another opportunity to hold office and issue press releases misses the boat, misses the point of this office and what makes it so unique and so special."

Roy Davis of Helena is running unopposed on the Green Party ticket for Attorney General.