The two candidates in the attorney general’s race hurled accusations at each other in a fiery debate which included claims that one lacked experience in criminal cases and the other wanted to financially gut the Department of Justice.
Republican Austin Knudsen and Democrat Raph Graybill squared off in a 30-minute verbal tussle on “Face the State,” which was broadcast on TV Sunday on MTN. Reporter Mike Dennison served as moderator.
Knudsen, who had served two legislative sessions as House speaker, is now Roosevelt County attorney and lives in Culbertson. Graybill, a Great Falls native, is now chief legal counsel for Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
Both candidates are fifth-generation Montanans.
Election Day for the open seat is Nov. 3. The current attorney general, Republican Tim Fox, cannot seek another four years because of term limits. The Department of Justice has more than 900 employees statewide. They perform public safety, prosecute criminals, protect consumers, represent the state in court, register vehicles, licensing drivers and regulate gambling,
Knudsen said the attorney general serves as the top law enforcement official in the state. He noted it oversees the Montana Highway Patrol, Department of Criminal Investigation and crime labs.
He touted his current experience as a prosecuting attorney.
“Prosecuting criminals is what I do every day for a living,” he said. “I put drug dealers in jail.”
He said Montana has a “tremendous methamphetamine problem that is driving up all violent crime across the state.”
He said there has been a 36% increase in violent crime in the past 10 years.
Graybill said the attorney general should be an advocate for the people and is someone who can make decisions that affect people’s daily lives. He said there is a “dangerous, extremist lawsuit” that would kill the Affordable Care Act. He said it would bring the end to 10,000 jobs in Montana and hurt rural hospitals.
Graybill said he opposes the lawsuit and Knudsen supports it.
It was noted that Graybill has practiced law for about five years and was asked if he was experienced enough for the office.
Graybill said the race had two young lawyers who had very different visions of the office. He said he was the only candidate who routinely litigates in the U.S. Supreme Court, argued and won.
“I do the kind of work the attorney general does,” Graybill said.
Knudsen said Graybill has been in “a cubicle” in Bullock’s office for three years. He said he has never represented a farmer, rancher, small business or had a jury trial. He said Graybill has “zero” experience with law enforcement or prosecuting a criminal.
Later in the debate he said Graybill “is not ready for this job.”
Knudsen again discussed methamphetamines in Montana, calling it “a statewide epidemic.”
“COVID-19 is a serious problem. But our real epidemic is methamphetamine in Montana,” he said.
Knudsen said 95% of his cases in Roosevelt County are methamphetamine or meth-related. He said the Mexican drug cartels are driving the crisis in Montana.
“One-hundred percent of the meth, of the heroin, of the fentanyl is coming into Montana from Mexico,” he said.
Knudsen said he wants to cut bureaucracy in Helena and get the money to law enforcement on the front lines fighting this problem.
Graybill said Knudsen’s repeated calls to cut funding to the Montana Department of Justice was “crazy.”
“If you want to be serious about fighting the drug cartels in Montana you don’t cut the highway patrol,” he said. “You don’t cut DCI, you don’t cut the crime lab.”
Graybill said to solve the meth problem you need to not only concentrate on enforcement but on treatment and prevention as well.
“If you are just talking about one you are not serious about fixing this problem,” he said.
Graybill said while in college he worked for the New York City Police Department as an auxiliary officer for four years, wore a uniform and a bullet-proof vest.
“I know the challenges, the sacrifices our law enforcement officers make and I will have their backs as attorney general,” he said, noting he has been endorsed by law enforcement and firefighters across the state.
He said Knudsen was advocating to “defund” the Department of Justice and wants to take away increases made by Republican Attorney General Tim Fox.
“Well, I have the receipts,” Graybill said, adding the money went to the crime lab, the law enforcement academy and to fund five officers in the Bakken oil fields the highway patrol and sex crimes prosecutors.
“I think it would be a disaster for public safety if you cut those services,” he said, adding he would empower the department for real public safety.
Knudsen said he would not cut the highway patrol, criminal investigation division or state crime lab.
“That is just fake news, I never said that,” he said, adding he wants to cut bureaucracy, of which there is “a ton.”
Candidates were allowed to ask a question of each other.
Graybill asked Knudsen about closing access to a veterans park in Culbertson in a legal dispute in which Knudsen’s family is involved. He said the veterans have said that Knudsen verbally accosted them in 2016, when he was speaker of the state House.
“Is this true, or are these vets liars?” Graybill asked.
Knudsen said he is not party the lawsuit, but said he is aware of it and what his family’s issues are. He said his family bought the property in 1991. He said the issue goes back for several landowners. He said they have never denied veterans to access.
“I am a proponent of public lands,” he said. “As a member of the land board I am going to support of public lands because that is important to Montana.”
Graybill said Knudsen was vice president of the trust suing the veterans and the veterans have sworn to the court he has verbally accosted them in 2016.
“I think it’s disgraceful,” he said, adding the fact he denied it during the debate has let the public know what he will do about access to public land as attorney general.
Knudsen asked Graybill about a former chief adviser for Bullock being involved in sexual harassment allegations and went on to other jobs.
“Did you advise Gov. Bullock to cover up the story about these sexual harassment allegations?” Knudsen asked. “And are you covering up any other allegations we are going to learn about down the road?”
Graybill said the staff member left the office long before he worked for Bullock.
He talked about taking the federal government to court and winning, and winning lawsuits for public land and against big tobacco. And he said he is proud of the work the governor is doing regarding COVID-19.
“We’re doing good work to make Montana safe,” Graybill said. “We are trying to find solutions.”
He said Knudsen’s experience does not match up.
Knudsen said Graybill’s answer of “no” made sense regarding the chief adviser, as it was before Graybill joined Bullock’s staff. But he said he was Bullock’s adviser in 2019 when the story came out and was in the office in some conversations.
Knudsen was asked as a land board member if he supported the Habitat Montana program in which the state gets private land in state ownership for public access.
Knudsen said he was not opposed to Habitat Montana, but had problems with how the money had been spent. He said it was being used by private ranches in Montana at inflated prices. He said there were a couple of egregious examples and felt the money was used as payback to Democrat donors.
Graybill said Knudsen said during the debate he supports Habitat Montana but voted in the Legislature to gut its funding.
He said he worked with a family of Republicans in Wibaux who were victimized by extremist politicians who tried to kill their efforts to give the state access.
“We went to court and we won,” Graybill said, adding he would do the same as attorney general.
Knudsen was asked about comments in which he said the Affordable Care Act has done more harm than good in Montana and if he would try to abolish it.
“I’ve yet to talk to one person in Montana who has told me that the quality of care has gone up and the cost of their insurance premiums, for health insurance, have gone down,” he said. “That’s proof right there what the Affordable Care Act has done for Montana.”
He said people are not talking about the Affordable Care Act when he talks to them about the attorney general’s office.
“People are concerned about the crime rate, people are concerned about the 30% increase in violent crime in the last 10 years. People are concerned about methamphetamine and drug traffickers in their home community.”
“As far as what legislation I’ll push, that’s the legislative prerogative. I’m not interested in getting into the Legislature’s sandbox and telling them what they should or shouldn’t do.”
He said the attorney general’s job was to enforce the law.
Graybill said he was proud to stand with Republican Attorney General Tim Fox who said he would not join the lawsuit. He said to kill the Affordable Care Act would take away 10,000 jobs and close rural hospitals.
“The Affordable Care Act is a crucial tool in our state to make us healthier and make safer and Austin’s plan to kill it would be a disaster,” he said.
The candidates also discussed “dark money,” in which the donor in elections is not disclosed and the source of the money is unknown. Knudsen has opposed a law that would crack down on dark money in politics.
Knudsen said the law posed serious fundamental constitutional problems regarding the First Amendment freedom of speech issues. He said he was passionate about standing up for constitutional rights.
Graybill said dark money groups come to Montana because they think they can buy elections. He said will continue to fight for dark money laws.
Knudsen, in his closing statement, again said Graybill was inexperienced when it came to jury trials, working with law enforcement or prosecuting a drug dealer.
He said it was a drive-by shooting outside his children’s school in Culbertson that made him decide to step up and become a criminal prosecutor.
“It’s time somebody in the attorney general’s office put the focus back on the No. 1 priority,” he said. “That’s not taking care of bureaucrats in Helena. That’s taking care of our kids and our communities all across the state of Montana.”
He said Graybill “just doesn’t get it.”
Graybill said the race has given Montanans a “stark choice between extremism and independence.”
“I’m running to be an independent watchdog,” he said, “I am the only candidate running for attorney general who has done the work of the attorney general. I have gone to court to fight for you and to win.”
He said Knudsen is trying to rewrite his history and has been running on a platform to defund the Montana Department of Justice.
Graybill said if Knudsen wins, and the Affordable Care Act repeal passes, it could take away health care for people with preexisting conditions.
“It’s fundamentally wrong,” he said. “We rejected it as a nation 10 years ago and we should reject it now.”
Graybill said as attorney general he would fight every day to make Montana safer, more prosperous and a better place to live.”
Reporter Phil Drake is our eye on the state capitol. For tips, suggestions or comment, he can be reached at 406-231-9021 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To support his work, subscribe today and get a special offer.
See for yourself
The debate is posted on MTN television stations. Go to https://www.krtv.com/.