Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio interviewed Montana's statewide general election candidates.
Raph Graybill is the 2020 Democratic candidate for Attorney General. Graybill is the current chief counsel to Gov. Steve Bullock. He spoke with Montana Public Radio’s Corin Cates-Carney about how advocacy plays into the role of the state’s top legal officer, investing in “just reinvestment,” and depolarizing the board that manages state trust lands.
Corin Cates-Carney: Ralph Graybill is the Democratic candidate for Attorney General. Thank you for taking the time.
Raph Graybill: Thank you, Corin.
Corin Cates-Carney: For voters who aren't familiar with you, can you please give us a brief introduction?
Raph Graybill: Sure. my name is Raph Graybill. I'm a fifth generation Montana and I grew up in Great Falls, proud product of public schools in Great Falls. Got a great education, was able to go to law school and went into, worked in Billings at the federal courts there. And for the last three and a half years I have had the honor of working for you, the people of Montana as Gov. Bullock's chief legal counsel here in Helena.
Corin Cates-Carney: In your campaign you've often stated that Montana needs an attorney general that's an advocate for Montanans in the courtroom. And I'm hoping you can explain a little bit more about what that means and why that's a core part of your message to voters.
Raph Graybill: Well, it really originates in the Montana Constitution. Our 1972 Constitution says that the attorney general is the chief legal officer of the state. And what I think our founders were getting at there is that you can have all the laws in the world but they remain just words on paper unless you have an advocate willing to go to court, to pick fights with special interests, to give those laws force and meaning in our lives. And at its core that's what the attorney general does when the attorney general's being most successful in serving the people of Montana. I'm the only candidate running for this office who routinely does that, who's gone to the U.S. Supreme Court to fight for things like our public schools and public education, who's gone to federal court to stand up for vote by mail and for safety during this COVID outbreak, who's gone to the Montana Supreme Court and fought and won for our public lands that make Montana so special and unique. I think that's what Montanans are looking for in an attorney general.
Corin Cates-Carney: And you mentioned a few things there about some of the legal work you've done. If elected as attorney general, what are some of those issues or policies you see yourself advocating for?
Raph Graybill: Right now the most important issue is health care. Health care really is on the ballot this year and it's on the ballot in this race. Many folks know this, but there is a lawsuit going on right now that Republican AGs have brought across the country that's trying to get rid of the health care law, the Affordable Care Act. And what that would mean in Montana is that we'd lose 10,000 jobs, rip health care away from almost anyone that has a preexisting condition, something we decided as a country 10 years ago is a terrible policy we did away with. Well, my opponent, Austin Knudsen, says the entire reason he's running for attorney general is to join that lawsuit and support that lawsuit. I've been traveling the state of Montana, talking to leaders in health care about what their communities would lose if the Affordable Care Act goes away. Just yesterday, I was in Missoula where they said that all of their investments in mental health would go away if the Affordable Care Act lawsuit succeeds. They said that they might lose their status as a level two trauma center. And that's some of the biggest hospital networks in the state. You get down to smaller towns in Montana and it could be the difference between having a rural hospital or not.
Corin Cates-Carney: Okay, you mentioned the Affordable Care Act there. The ACA, also sometimes referred to as Obamacare is the program that subsidizes Montana's Medicaid expansion program, which gives health coverage around more than 86,000 Montanans. As you mentioned, also guarantees coverage for people with preexisting conditions. With that program, it's been involved with pretty fierce political fights, both at the national level and in Montana. You know, some people have called to repeal it. As an advocate as attorney general, how would you advocate for people who might not agree with you on this and say, you know, this policy really should be something going away?
Raph Graybill: You know, when I, when I talk to Montanans as I travel around the state and you kind of take away the TV ads and you take away some of the worst of the political system, we're all looking for similar things. We're looking for a good future for our kids, and everyone's looking for good stable, reliable health care. I mean, I've never met a single person in Montana who wants the local rural hospital to close. I was in Havre last week. They said, if this lawsuit goes through they'll close down a third of their beds and the clinic in Chinook could just completely go away. And so I think a key part of advocacy by the attorney general is certainly listening to voices across the state. But, you know, really telling people about the stakes of political decisions. This lawsuit is a political stunt. That's how it started, but it has very real consequences for our communities in Montana. Give you an example. Up in Havre they will lose their dialysis unit if this lawsuit goes through. Now, the lawsuit might sound good to talk about on cable news, but if you live in Havre you now have to drive to Great Falls, two hours down and two hours back every other day, that's a real effect on someone's life. And it will be state attorneys general that are driving the bus on this thing. And we should stop it.
Corin Cates-Carney: And while there's a lot of similarities in what maybe we all want to accomplish, you know, having health care, affordable health care, it seems like there are political battles about how we get there and the policy that gets us there. When taking advocacy positions on policy or laws, and if elected as attorney general, how would you go about making sure that those issues you're really advocating for are what the rest of Montana, the majority of Montana wants to see, instead of your own values and personal political beliefs being represented?
Raph Graybill: Well, that's a great question. And I think that's really the essence of what elections are about and why elections provide an important degree of accountability. This entire election I've run on a platform of protecting health care and not just defending health care, but actually affirmatively, going out and finding ways to make health care more accessible and more affordable, finding real ways to take on the inflation of prescription drug prices, which is something AGs have done successfully in other states. My opponent has been very open about his support to repeal the Affordable Care Act and rip away health care. He's been very open about other extreme positions like defunding the state Department of Justice, which will be catastrophic for state public safety. And it's through elections and through interviews like this we articulate what we believe and what we stand for, that voters develop a meaningful choice and we develop a mandate.
Corin Cates-Carney: One issue that Montana faces is overcrowding in county jails and at the state prison. How could you address this as attorney general? And do you think fewer people in Montana should be locked up, incarcerated?
Raph Graybill: Yeah, I am strenuously against the idea of warehousing people, particularly people who, you know, their encounter with the criminal justice system is, you know, related to substance abuse or mental health. And I think if you talk to law enforcement in Montana, they'll tell you the same thing. They'll tell you that arresting someone for meth possession, tossing him in for, you know, a few months and then releasing them, doesn't get at the underlying problem of meth addiction. And, you know, I'm very supportive of the efforts, of the bipartisan efforts in Montana, about three and a half, four years ago to try to decriminalize certain things. We haven't really followed through in this state with the investment side of what's called justice reinvestment. And as attorney general, I really want to help drive our conversation. You know, we're going to be strong on enforcement. We're going to be strong against drug traffickers. I don't think anyone disagrees on that. But you also have to have a serious conversation about what do we do in Montana to provide meaningful treatment options. What do we do to provide meaningful access to preventive services. And this actually goes back to the Affordable Care Act lawsuit yet another time. I go talk to public safety advocates, they say if we lose access to the Affordable Care Act we lose access to some of our best front line tools on prevention, on treatment that helps pay for that and get people to help that they need. I think anyone that's selling you an approach to the meth problem in Montana in particular that is only focused on enforcement isn't serious about solving the problem.
Corin Cates-Carney: And you mentioned you don't want to warehouse people in jails and prison. Do you think fewer people should be locked up? Does Montana need to reduce those numbers?
Raph Graybill: Well, I think we certainly need to figure out why jail holds are so high. I mean, they're down considerably compared to where they were four years ago. I do not support building additional prisons. I don't support additional, you know, contracting to private prisons. I do think that we can, you know, we can move some people out of regional detention centers and into DOC custody if we really did meaningfully invest in re-entry programs and meaningfully invest in treatment programs. But where we are now where there's a lot of churn and a lot of, just, people, on hold, I don't think that's a good place.
Corin Cates-Carney: Protests this summer called for reforms in police and criminal justice systems across the country following the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans. How should Montana's next top law enforcement officer, attorney general, view this reckoning seen in the United States this summer when it comes to the criminal justice system?
Raph Graybill: Well, I think the Montana Constitution provides some help here as well. The Montana Constitution has a constitutional right to individual dignity. That's something that other states don't have. That's very unique about Montana. And often when I'm thinking about a tough legal problem or a tough political problem I go back to the Constitution into that right of individual dignity and think about what kind of guidance can that provide. And I think that would really guide my approach as attorney general. I think the attorney general has an important role to play in working to achieve fairness and justice in the criminal justice system. Having independent investigations on use of force issues. I will say I do not support the, some of the, movement that's come out of this around defunding the police. That is not the solution in Montana. If you talk to communities across our state, they're not asking for less law enforcement. What they're asking for is real investment in mental health, in treatment and in access to those services. I fundamentally reject the zero sum premise of defund the police. It's a mistake. And I think in Montana, we can be serious about going to the Legislature and asking for real investments in treatment and in prevention. I don't think getting rid of police departments is the way to get there.
Corin Cates-Carney: As attorney general, you’d be one of five statewide elected officials that would sit on the Montana Land Board, which manages state trust lands. What would be some of your priorities for managing those lands and how would you accomplish those goals?
Raph Graybill: Well, we have to get back to the balanced bipartisan approach that served us well for so many decades in Montana. It really was around the 2016 election with the addition of some of these more extreme voices on the Land Board that that entity changed. I mean obviously the primary goal of the Land Board is to provide for the public school trust fund. That's very important. Protecting open spaces and public access and public lands is very important in Montana. And we were able to strike a good balance by putting politics aside, having Democrats and Republicans work together for many decades in the state. It has been through the rise of political extremism, particularly, among some of my friends in the opposing party, that's caused us to kind of get away from that balance. They actually, the reason I decided to run for this office, Corin, was a lawsuit where we had to sue over a Land Board issue where these political extremists on the Land Board were trying to shut down a program that simultaneously helped private landowners and helped public access. And it was so backwards. So we had to sue them to get this problem done. That prompted me to say, we can do a lot better. We can do better in the attorney general's office and we can do better on the Land Board. That was the decision by the Land Board to try to tie up the Habitat Montana Program. Habitat Montana is, you know, if you get a hunting or fishing license in Montana, that money goes into a program called Habitat Montana that helps buy or helps finance conservation easements so that private farmers and ranchers in our state can put their land into a conservation easement, continue their family legacy of farming and ranching, and then we, the public, get access to hunt, to fish, to recreate there. And oftentimes, as was the case in the issue that really came to a head at the courts, it unlocked additional acreage of public land. And it was a win, win, win kind of program that only ran into issues because of political extremists and folks didn't like the word conservation. And we ended up having to sue them. We sued them at the Supreme Court and we beat them,
Corin Cates-Carney: When talking about land issues. I've heard the “extremist” title being thrown out in different ways. You know, we hear about environmental extremists used by some. You use an extremist in a different way here. How does that kind of language help bridge that divide you mentioned?
Raph Graybill: Well, I, you know, I'm really proud of my work, particularly with the Legislature, of putting politics aside to work with Democrats and Republicans on common values to make things work better. Helped pass a bill working with Republicans last session that banned foreign companies and foreign governments from spending money in Montana's elections, which shockingly was not banned until last year in Montana. Worked to extend disclosure laws for dark money groups trying to put third parties on the ballot. And in all those experiences, working across the aisle, we found common ground and we were able to put aside maybe our political backgrounds and agree on common goals. I'd want to take that same approach to being on the Land Board and to being attorney general more broadly. What I see as unproductive is when people are so devoted to an ideology that doesn't represent how Montanans feel or think, then it gets in the way of good public policy of, I think, with getting things done. And I think, again, this ridiculous lawsuit that would say to the 429,000 Montanans, like almost one and two of us, who have a preexisting condition, an insurance company should get to take your care away. That, to me, is ideology getting in the way of what is really good, really sound public policy.
Corin Cates-Carney: You're facing Republican Austin Knudsen in the general election. You brought him up a few times so far, but what's the elevator pitch for why Montanans should choose you instead of Knudsen this November?
Raph Graybill: I'm running to protect our health care, to fight for our loved ones who have struggled with cancer, with their weight, with diabetes, with addiction, to make sure they have access to health care. Austin Knudsen says the reason he's running is to rip that coverage away. I have fought for our public lands in court and I have won. Austin Knudsen is literally suing a group of veterans in his hometown to block their public access. This race is a true choice between independent legal advice between a candidate like me running to be an independent watchdog for our rights, and someone like Austin Knudsen who is impossible to work with, who has been rejected by his fellow Republicans as too extreme and just isn't ready, just doesn't have the experience to be Montana's next attorney general.
Corin Cates-Carney: You mentioned that health care is a big issue for you and what you'd want to be an advocate for Montanans in court, specifically protection of the Affordable Care Act. Are there other issues outside of health care that you see yourself taking as aggressive a stance on?
Raph Graybill: Absolutely. I think that we need to be sure we're advocating for our public lands and public access. I've proposed adding an assistant attorney general that's focused exclusively on resolving access disputes in Montana. I'd like to provide continued advocacy on the issue that got me involved in government in the first place: campaign finance reform. You know, this year, the Koch brothers announced they're going to spend more money, more dark money, in elections than ever. And the Montana AG has historically played an important role there. And I mentioned this earlier but on the issue of prescription drug costs you're going to hear politicians up and down the ballot talking about prescription drug costs, but those people in America that are actually making progress, actually recovering money and lowering prices, it's state attorneys general. And I will use the force and power of the attorney general's office to launch investigations into price fixing, price gouging and other illegal conduct by these big drug companies that take money away from us, that steal from Montanans. Austin Knudsen says he won't do anything about that. Well, I will, and I will on day one.
Corin Cates-Carney: When it comes up of putting your record next to Austin Knudsen for voters, as I've seen in some previous debates and in some campaign ads, there's debate of, you know, what kind of experience Montana's next attorney general should have, and what experience do you have that makes you the best candidate for the job. You know, specifically talking about legal experience and working within the court system and law enforcement.
Raph Graybill: I am the only candidate in this race who has put on a blue uniform and a bulletproof vest and worked alongside law enforcement officers. I was an NYPD auxiliary officer for four years. I'm the only candidate running for attorney general who's ever litigated at the U.S. Supreme Court, who has ever argued at the Montana Supreme Court, who showed up at federal court in the last nine years. That's the kind of work our attorney general does. And when you think about hiring a lawyer in your own life, you don't ask, 'who's the most politically extreme person I can hire?' You ask questions like, 'is this person independent? Will they fight for me? Can I trust them? Do they have a record of winning on the issues that matter?' That's the experience I bring to the attorney general's office.
By contrast Austin was a prosecutor for all of four months before he ran for attorney general. And his track record as a prosecutor, he couldn't convict a guy that killed 15 horses in Eastern Montana. He screwed up a death penalty case and he's just not ready. And, you know, he wears a, you know, he talks tough in his ads, but if you really examine his record he simply doesn't have the experience required to be Montana's next attorney general.
Corin Cates-Carney: What other issues are important to your campaign that voters should know about?
Raph Graybill: I would say this: I'd say that the Constitution of your state entitles you to an advocate, and the rights that you are guaranteed by the Constitution only take on meaning if you have an advocate willing to pick the fights. And I think at its core, that's what the attorney general is. And do you want to hire someone that you trust to fight for you who will be an independent advocate for your rights. That's what motivated me to run for this race. And that's why I'd appreciate your vote.
Corin Cates-Carney: Raph Graybill is the democratic candidate for attorney general. Thanks for taking the time.
Raph Graybill: Thank you, Corin.