General Confusion 

Attorney General’s race can be a tough pick for undecided voters

Call it ballot fatigue, but in an election year when high-profile races like those for the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and the governor’s office have dominated statewide news coverage, Montana voters may be forgiven for not knowing what differentiates the two candidates for attorney general (AG). Traditionally, attorney general races have not been fought and won by emphasizing partisan distinctions. Like candidates for state Supreme Court, AG candidates tend to mouth similar positions regarding their strict adherence to case law and legal precedent, the rules of the court, the intentions of the Legislature and the importance of remaining fair, impartial and above political reproach. With so many other races to consider this year, some newspaper editorial boards have even told the candidates that they will not write endorsements for this attorney general’s race.

But Montana’s attorney general office is not inconsequential. With AGs having negotiated a landmark settlement in their lawsuit against the tobacco industry, the offices of attorney general nationally have drawn more political attention, clout and money. For example, this year the Republican National Committee formed an arm called the Republican Attorneys General Association, whose aim it is to increase the representation of Republicans serving in those offices.

Democrats will likely tell you that Democratic AGs tend to be more activist, bringing more environmental suits against polluters and more anti-trust suits against big business. Republicans will likely tell you that Republican attorneys general tend to be more staunch defenders of personal property rights and individual liberties against big government encroachment.

Wherever the political lines are drawn, by Election Day many Montana voters will still have only the vaguest notion of what their attorney general does, let alone which candidate they should vote for.

In Montana, the attorney general is the highest legal officer in the state, overseeing the Department of Justice and the state’s 56 county attorneys. Empowered to both write and interpret state law, the attorney general can issue legal opinions that are legally binding (unless overturned by the courts or the Legislature) on subjects as diverse as what taxes county commissioners can levy, what treatments doctors can prescribe pursuant to their licenses, and what land parcels are exempt from subdivision regulations.

As the state’s chief legal officer, the attorney general represents the state in any constitutional challenges to state law or other major litigation and can launch criminal investigations at the request of federal, state or local law enforcement agencies. The attorney general’s office oversees such diverse functions as the Montana Highway Patrol, the Motor Vehicle Division, Gambling Control and Forensics and Criminal Investigations.

The attorney general also serves as a member of both the Board of Examiners and the State Land Board, overseeing more than 5 million acres of publicly owned land. The office also ensures that policies dealing with relations between state government and the Indian tribes are handled uniformly and in accordance with all applicable state and federal laws.

Since Attorney General Joe Mazurek is ineligible to run for reelection due to term limits, Montana voters will be asked this November to choose between Democratic candidate Mike McGrath and Republican candidate Jim Rice. Spotting differences between the two candidates is perhaps easier when comparing their levels of experience rather than their stances on particular issues, though some philosophical distinctions do emerge.

McGrath, 52, has served 18 years as county attorney for Lewis and Clark County, was president of the Montana County Attorneys Association, and is currently a member of the Attorney General’s Law Enforcement Advisory Council, the Montana Youth Justice Council, and the board of directors for Montana Association of Counties. McGrath has also served on the Governor’s Criminal Justice and Corrections Advisory Council, the Montana Council for Families and the Montana Board of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.

Rice, 42, is a Helena civil attorney and former state legislator who served three terms in the House of Representatives. In 1993 he was named House Majority Whip and in 1996 was appointed Chairman of the Board of Personnel Appeals by Governor Marc Racicot.

In the area of crime control and prevention, McGrath and Rice both identify the proliferation of methamphetamine labs as a major law enforcement and fiscal challenge facing the state. Both support efforts to have Montana designated as a High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal designation that would allow Montana counties to obtain enforcement and clean-up funds from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Their differences on crime control come down more to emphases and priorities, rather than major philosophical distinctions.

“I tend to emphasize crime prevention, and think that’s the next direction the law enforcement community should take,” McGrath told the Independent in a recent interview. “He [Rice] is not talking about prevention. What I mean by prevention is changing or adopting policies that are directed not only at solving crime but preventing crime by being more aggressive in family violence cases, child abuse cases, and dealing with emotionally disturbed children.”

In contrast, Rice places less emphasis on domestic and child abuse issues, saying, “I think the methamphetamine problem is the greatest threat to public safety that there is in our state.” Rice does not dismiss the importance of child and domestic abuse cases, but he draws causal links between meth use and child abuse, saying that by attacking the drug abuse problem he can get at the heart of the problem of child abuse and neglect as well.

The two candidates were difficult to distinguish on the subject of school violence, where both spoke at length about prevention and mentoring programs, as well as allowing communities to decide at the local level how to address school security and safety issues.

On the issue of how to best use public lands, however, their distinctions became more acute.

“My first criteria would be, is this proposed use able to secure full market value?” said McGrath, listing what his priorities would be on the Land Board. “Second would be whether this proposed use causes damage to the land, either at the present time or causes damage that affects future generations. And the third criteria would be whether or not there’s an ability to obtain public access in conjunction with the proposed use.”

McGrath spoke at greater length about environmental concerns than did Rice, a stance which probably earned him the endorsement of the Montana Conservation Voters.

In contrast, Rice’s position favors more economic development with respect to public lands, mostly regarding timber and mining, while still keeping an eye on environmental concerns.

“I take a more planning-oriented approach than my opponent does,” Rice explained, citing his years in private legal practice as an advantage over his challenger. “I am very open to proposed economic development on public lands.”

In the area of consumer fraud prevention, Rice sees that job as a law enforcement function better suited for the Department of Justice, rather than the Commerce Department, where it is now. In contrast, McGrath expressed his view that the state auditor’s office may be better suited to handle many of those responsibilities, since much of the fraud perpetuated in Montana comes in the form of securities and insurance scams, which the auditor’s office already oversees.

Each candidate was asked his position on admitting to the Montana Bar the controversial World Church of the Creator leader Matt Hale, an Illinois attorney whose overtly racist views have prevented his admission to the Illinois Bar. McGrath said that he would actively oppose Hale’s admission, saying that Hale’s beliefs about Jews and non-white races draw his character into question and would preclude him from obeying an oath to uphold and defend the state and federal constitutions. Rice’s stance, however, was more accommodating.

“Freedom comes with certain risks,” Rice said. “I don’t believe in trying to block someone from doing something on the grounds that he has really ugly beliefs. His activities may in fact disqualify him anyway, but assuming he had a clean record and he had outspoken beliefs about racism and so forth, I would say he should have the opportunity to practice.”

On the issue of job experience, Rice emphasizes his time both in the Legislature and in the private sector, saying that he has had more direct experience not only with writing laws but complying with them as a private attorney.

In contrast, McGrath emphasizes his public work experience, as well as his support from the public sector, citing endorsements from the Montana County Attorneys Association, the teacher’s union MEA-MFT, the Montana Public Employees Association, the AFL-CIO and Montana NARAL.

Rice has received endorsements from Gov. Marc Racicot, the Montana Association of Realtors, Montana Right to Life and the National Rifle Association.

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Democratic attorney general candidate Mike McGrath, on crime control: “I tend to emphasize crime prevention, and think that’s the next direction the law enforcement community should take.”

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