Of all state government posts, the office of attorney general may offer the holder of the position the most flexibility.
Will you run the Department of Justice with a laser focus on the state's criminal justice issues — an epidemic of methamphetamine as well as other drug problems and an increased rate of violent crime — while vowing to cut a bloated bureaucracy? Or will you be the people's lawyer, a legal watchdog fighting for Montana's families while maintaining public safety?
Those are the competing visions of the job we get from Republican Austin Knudsen and Democrat Raph Graybill.
There's a lot to unpack here. Knudsen, currently the Roosevelt County Attorney and formerly Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives, is dead right when he calls out methamphetamine as one of the biggest threats Montana faces today. It is blighting our communities, urban and rural, in so many ways — driving a rise in property crime and an even more disturbing increase in child abuse and neglect, poisoning high schools, perpetuating poverty, driving a drop in the percentage of available work force that can pass a drug test.
How he would act to stem that tide is another matter.
Knudsen admits that the Attorney General does not have control over local jurisdictions where the war against methamphetamine is being played out. But he says he'll first find money by cutting down "bloated Helena bureaucracy" in the Department of Justice and then using his relationship with Republicans who control the Legislature to ferry that cash to county prosecutors to fight the drug war.
That process seems dubious at best.
First of all, we are concerned about what Knudsen would cut from Justice. We do not want fewer troopers on the highways. We do not want fewer resources for the state crime lab. Or the state medical examiner's office. We do not want less state attention paid to missing and murdered indigenous women and men. We do not want to see the Natural Resource Damage Program lose valuable funding and personnel.
Second of all, we don't think the "send the money to the counties" approach makes a lot of sense. Lobbying the Legislature to send less money to the Department of Justice and more to county attorneys does not to us seem like part of the attorney general's job description. And we don't necessarily think that putting more funding in the offices of local prosecutors is the best way to attack the issue. In terms of law enforcement, we would think collaborating closely with the anti-cartel efforts of the Drug Enforcement Administration might be a better strategy.
Also, coalition-building didn't seem to be a Knudsen strong point when, as Speaker of the House, he fought battle after battle with Gov. Steve Bullock, refusing to collaborate and compromise on infrastructure and other key measures — things the moderate wing of his party finally got done after he left.
Graybill lacks Knudsen's legislative experience. He lacks Knudsen's prosecutorial experience. But he has certainly fought big courtroom battles and we think he is well-equipped to pursue the pro-consumer legal battles that could help Montanans and the state budget — battles that do not seem to be a priority to his opponent.
Graybill's approach to the methamphetamine problem seems more promising. He says he would focus on mental-health services and addiction treatment and drug courts, which have been effective. The state's mental-health services are sparse, and drug problems and high suicide rates are at least in part a reflection of that.
It should be pointed out that for many in the state, mental-health and addiction-treatment services hinge on Medicaid expansion, which depends on the Affordable Care Act, which Knudsen opposes.
We believe Knudsen is far more suited to the job he has now than to the one he seeks. and we think Graybill has a broader, more innovative approach to public safety in the state.
For attorney general, The Montana Standard endorses Raph Graybill.