By Griffen Smith Community News Service, UM School of Journalism
As Attorney General Tim Fox vacates his seat early next year, two newcomers to statewide political races are battling to become Montana’s top lawyer and laying out distinct choices for voters.
The spirited race pits Republican Austin Knudsen, a former Montana House speaker and now Roosevelt County attorney, against Great Falls Democrat Raph Graybill, Gov. Steve Bullock’s chief lawyer.
The attorney general is the state’s highest legal authority, overseeing the Montana Department of Justice, which encompasses the Montana Highway Patrol and the Montana State Crime Lab, and assists counties in criminal prosecutions. It also oversees vehicle and drivers’ licensing, advocates for consumers, runs the state law enforcement academy and monitors sexual and violent offenders.
Graybill said his top priorities will be to help defend attacks against the federal Affordable Care Act and expand public access to public lands. Knudsen said he’ll lead the fight against crime and illegal drugs in Montana.
Knudsen also said he’ll work to save taxpayers money in providing the Justice Department’s services.
“I want to come in as a fiscal conservative, and I want to get aggressive about really reducing bureaucracy,” Knudsen said. “I want to take funding out of what I consider some bloated areas in the overall Department of Justice budget, and I think we can revert that money and get it out to counties to fight crime.”
Knudsen, 40, is Roosevelt County’s elected chief attorney and prosecutor, a job he won in 2018. He is a former state representative from his hometown of Culbertson, and he served as House speaker from 2015 to 2017. He has degrees from Montana State University and the University of Montana law school.
He said violent crime in Montana has risen since 2013 due largely to illegal drugs. He vowed to track down and prosecute the black market drug sales, especially in rural areas where law enforcement is sometimes sparse. He emphasized that he’s the only candidate in the race who has prosecuted crimes.
Graybill, 31, is from Great Falls. He went to Columbia, Yale Law School and Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He worked as a lawyer for the Susman Godfrey firm in Billings before joining the Bullock administration as chief legal counsel in 2017.
Graybill said as AG he would defend Montanan’s access to healthcare. He supports the Legislature’s 2019 decision to expand Medicaid, the state-federal program that serves the state’s poor and disabled. He would also defend parts of the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, that offer Montanan’s access to health insurance.
“Montana fought very hard to expand the Medicaid program in 2015, again in 2019, that gives health care to almost 100,000 Montanans,” Graybill said.
He said he would join other states’ attorneys general in arguing against a national lawsuit contesting Obamacare’s mandate requiring that everyone have healthcare insurance. That case is scheduled for arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court shortly after the election.
As Montana’s house speaker, Knudsen opposed Medicaid expansion and the federal ACA. He said the state will suffer from the increased state spending on healthcare.
“Nobody wants to talk about the long term, and that is federal funding is going to go away and we’re still going to have this larger population that we’ve said we’re going to cover,” Knudsen said. “That truly has potential to bankrupt the state.”
According to state officials, the federal government covers 90% of Montana’s Medicaid expansion program costs.
Another issue in the race is the extent to which the attorney general should get involved in national legal controversies. Graybill, as the governor’s chief attorney, has argued cases before the U.S. and Montana supreme courts. He said he would defend Montanans in any venue.
“Ordinary people might have rights on paper or rights written in law, but oftentimes they need an advocate in the legal system to make those rights take on meaning, pick up the course and take on power,” Graybill said.
He cited the need to help Montanan’s who can’t afford overpriced medicine from pharmaceutical companies. A 2017 state report found that prescription drugs make up over 20% of Montana residents’ medical bills.
Knudsen said he understands the attorney general’s role in being a voice for Montanans, but he added he would not get involved in national policy unless it directly affected Montana.
“I’m interested in protecting Montana citizens’ individual freedoms and rights, and if there is an opportunity to protect those rights by getting involved in federal litigation, then we certainly will do that,” Knudsen said. “People need to know that they’re safe and that their communities are safe and that their families are safe.”
Both Graybill and Knudsen have been successful fundraisers, with Graybill having the edge. As of Sept. 15, Graybill reported having $242,868 cash to spend on the race. Knudsen had about $166,566.
Graybill received endorsements from the Montana Federation of Public Employees and Montana Conservation voters, while Knudsen picked up an endorsement from the National Rifle Association.