Chris Graveline: Why Michigan needs an Independent Attorney General

Chris Graveline’s ongoing lawsuit against state elections officials could create a new standard that would make it easier for Independent candidates to get on the ballot. He said more Independents in races could reduce political polarization. (Photo courtesy of Chris Graveline)

Update: Here’s who has endorsed the 2018 Michigan Attorney General candidates

Independent Attorney General candidate Chris Graveline came to the November ballot in a nontraditional way: via lawsuit.

Graveline served in the U.S. Army, worked for the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuting the Abu Ghraib prison abuse cases and eventually led the organized crime unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit. He said he quit that job to run as an Independent for Attorney General to reduce partisanship in the office, but he failed to get the 30,000 signatures necessary to make the ballot.

Who is Chris Graveline

Affiliation: Independent

Age: 45

Residence: Berkley

Most recent job: Assistant United States Attorney

Philosophy: “I think the most important priority is to get partisanship out of the Attorney General's office… Government is supposed to be doing the work of all people regardless of political party.”

In late August, a U.S. District Judge determined that minimum-signature requirement was unconstitutionally high and granted him a preliminary injunction so he could appear on the ballot. He spoke with Bridge about why he fought to run, how he’d tackle the state’s big issues and why Michiganders should pick an Independent as state Attorney General. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Bridge: What do you see as your most important priorities as Attorney General?

Graveline: I think the most important priority is to get partisanship out of the Attorney General's office. I think that both parties have identified the Office of Attorney General throughout the United States as being a very important and powerful positions to further their particular political goals, and they've taken the political discourse out of the political arena and now have turned it into the courtroom.

Related: Republicans outraise Democrats in bids for Michigan statewide offices

For example, many attorney generals came together and sued the tobacco companies back in the ‘90s, got a fairly large settlement to help offset medical costs. Now what you're seeing is the two parties are not working together across party lines to accomplish those types of goals.

Now, they're banding together and pursuing the party's goals. The current Attorney General (Bill Schuette) and the Republican Attorney General's Association, for example, sued the Obama administration over the Affordable Care Act and over EPA regulations simply to thwart what the Democrats were trying to do. Now the Democrats, they have banded together and formed the Democratic Attorney General's Association and already have sued the Trump administration (around) 134 times, once again simply thwart what's going on the federal government.

Who's doing the work of the people? Is that really what governments are set up to do? Government is supposed to be doing the work of all people regardless of political party and when you use the resources of the Attorney General's office to sue on behalf of the political parties, essentially, what that has become are the paid law firms for either the Republicans or the Democrats. I find that to be unacceptable.

Bridge: Why run as an Independent? What would an Independent AG look like for voters?

Graveline: The biggest difference it would be for voters would be a re-emphasis on the actual job. So many times, the parties identify this position as one in which to put candidates forward who they hope will potentially run for governor someday. I'm not running for governor. I'm running to actually be the Attorney General.

(The job requires partnering with local law enforcement), so one of my first priorities is after meeting the staff and figuring out where we are with various investigations, I would endeavor to travel to every one of the counties in the state and meet with the local officials there to talk about what resources do they lack? What are the individualized, localized problems and where could this Attorney General's Office fit into that? So what you would see from Chris Graveline being the Attorney General is an emphasis on where can we help with violent crime in our urban cities? Where can we help in fighting the opioid crisis? A re-emphasis on consumer protection.

Bridge: Would you say that you lean more liberal or conservative in your personal beliefs?

Graveline: I'm a political moderate. I mean, are there things that I agree with the Republican party? Yes. Are there things I agree with the Democratic party? Yes. Have I voted for Republicans before? Yes. Have I voted for Democrats before? Yes. Generally speaking, my philosophy has been look at the office, look at the two candidates running, who's making the best argument and who do I think can actually do the job the best.

Bridge: What would you say to voters who do align with either the Democratic or Republican parties about how you would represent their interests in the AG’s office?

Graveline: I think it's what I'm presenting to the voters of the state of Michigan is a philosophical argument about how should government run. If you believe that the attorney general's office should be there to further your political party’s agenda, you'll have candidates on the ballot in which to vote for.

Why should they trust that I can do this? I have 20 years of experience of doing this. I have been a public servant my entire career. I started off with seven years in the Army, transitioned into the Wayne County prosecutor's office, was brought back to Washington, D.C. to the Department of Justice to be a human rights prosecutor, and I've been an assistant United States attorney in the city of Detroit for the last nine years. I have a proven track record of accomplishments of handling large investigations. I believe that anyone who takes a look at my record will see that I am an even-handed, fair prosecutor who uses innovative means to accomplish the goal.

Bridge: AG Schuette devoted a lot of his office's resources to contesting policies of the Obama administration. Dana Nessel has talked about aggressively doing the same against the Trump administration. What's your view on deciding when to sue, or join in a suit, against the federal government? What kind of process would you use to make those decisions?

Graveline: People have asked me, ‘Who do you take your cue from on how would you run the attorney general's office?’ I thought Frank Kelley did an outstanding job as our attorney general.

And he laid out three principles. One, is it a sufficiently serious matter for which the Attorney General's office should get involved? And what he meant by that is, does it affect a number of people within the state and not just an issue of local concern. Two, will it set sound legal precedent? And three, does it vindicate some important interest within the state of Michigan? I would use those same three principles in determining whether I joined lawsuits and whether to bring lawsuits on behalf of the state of Michigan.

Bridge: A U.S. District judge recently granted you a preliminary injunction in your case challenging the state’s election law requiring 30,000 signatures to get on the ballot. Now that you will be on the ballot, what are you hoping to accomplish with the suit as it progresses?

Graveline: Now (the lawsuit) will go back to the district court here in Detroit and we will seek to have the preliminary injunction turned into a permanent injunction. At that point, the court will determine whether her ruling applies to all independent candidates going forward. Then it'll be up to (the judge) whether she'll keep it at 5,000 (signatures required).

Over the last decade, I think many voters have expressed, how did we get here? How do we get to the place where we have to pick between the lesser of two evils, whoever the two parties put up? This law is one of the ways we get there.

When you allow the two parties to cement in the status quo, you are left with whatever they want to serve you, and that's been dissatisfying to a lot of people now for a long time. If the parties don't have to ever worry about a political moderate running in between (their candidates), all they have to do is put up whatever candidate they want, and then whip up their bases, and then the election becomes who can turn out their bases.

Then the people in the center have to figure out who they dislike less and vote for that person. I would hope that knowing that there's the potential for an Independent, a political moderate, would perhaps have a moderating effect on who the parties choose in putting up their candidates.

Bridge: U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade was an early supporter of yours and political observers have said you likely would split votes with (Democrat) Dana Nessel. Would you have any regrets if you help to put (Republican) Tom Leonard in office?

Graveline: Let's put it this way — hopefully, I take a lot of votes away from Dana Nessel. And hopefully I take a lot of votes away from Tom Leonard. I think the argument that this should be a nonpartisan office is the best of the arguments when you take a look at what the role of the Attorney General should be. If you take a look at my resume, of the three candidates, I think I have the strongest resume.

I think I can appeal to both Democratic voters and Republican voters. I think my background is unique: I grew up in mid Michigan, I married into a farming family, I still bale hay every summer. I'm the only (military) veteran in this race. I think those are all attributes that can appeal to Republican voters. I have worked in the city of Detroit as a prosecutor. I understand urban issues. My last five years, I spent every day trying to think of ways to drop the homicide rate in the city of Detroit. I think that has a lot of appeal to Democratic voters as well.

Bridge: Line 5 and the Flint water crisis are two issues that would likely fall into the lap of the next Attorney General. How would you tackle these issues? And does an Attorney General really have the power to shut Line 5 down?

Graveline: Let's start with the Flint water crisis. I'm very cautious about saying much about what types of decisions I would make. I've handled high-profile cases before; While I was in the army, I prosecuted the Abu Ghraib prison abuse cases. I know from experience that what you read in the papers is about 25 percent of what's actually known by the investigators. So without (reviewing existing case files), I can't say I would have done this or that with the Flint water crisis.

I can say this, I think that the amount of money spent by bringing in the outside prosecutors is way too much money. I mean, the contract is for approximately $4.9 million. I would have preferred to see the Attorney General, if he decided that conflict-free counsel was necessary, that he reach out to another county prosecutor within the state and ask that county prosecutor to actually do the investigation. Then, as the Attorney General, you could have offered that county prosecutor four or five assistant attorney generals to go to that county prosecutor's office to do the work of the county. That saves taxpayers money and is far more efficient than just spending $5 million to bring in outside counsel.

On Line 5, I think it’s a complicated issue. It's an oversimplification to just say shut it down today. The Attorney General can revoke the easement. I believe federal law also applies in the federal Pipeline Safety Act. I think you have to get in and see all the facts. There are many facets and I think just saying “let it be” or “shut it down tomorrow" are too easy and, quite frankly, just soundbites.

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Fri, 10/05/2018 - 9:38am

I appreciate that there's a third party option, even if I think it's ultimately a wasted vote. What I don't appreciate is not having any idea where his priorities lie. Don't just say that the Republicans and Democrats each have some good ideas; we need to know what they are. Does he agree with the Republicans stance on the drug war? Does he believe in pursuing environmental justice? Will he sue on behalf of workers?

Chris Graveline
Fri, 10/05/2018 - 11:51am

If elected, my priorities would be:

1) ending the practice of using the Attorney General's Office to enter partisan lawsuits
2) ensuring that the Attorney General's Office provides local law enforcement organizations additional resources to address persistent problems within Michigan: violent crime, human trafficking, the opioid trade, and identity theft.
3) add manpower to the consumer protection division and become far more active in this field than the last several Attorney Generals.

I believe in enforcing the laws that are on the books. I'm not sure exactly what is meant by the "Republican stance on the drug war" or "pursuing enviromental justice." I will enforce all of the laws, including narcotic laws in cases serious enough to fall within the Attorney General Office's purview. I will ensure that enviromental protections are followed and we strive to deliver a cleaner, healthier Michigan to our children and grandchildren. I believe it is important to note here that I am not taking or seeking any issue-advocacy PAC endorsements or money. Consequently, I am the candidate with "no strings attached" when it comes to enforcing laws as they apply to our citizens or businesses.

In terms of suing on behalf of workers, it will depend on the situation. I will follow the principles that Frank Kelley laid out in terms of when to join lawsuits as I articulated in the article.

Finally, I would like to address that a vote for me is a wasted vote. Please compare the three candidates for this office carefully with a view toward choosing a person with the experience, demeanor, and ability to run a 500 person law firm whose job will be to represent all of Michigan's citizens regardless of political party. I am a very competitive candidate when using the actual job description of the office. The question is whether we as citizens are willing to look past party labels to the underlying vision and attributes of the candidates when making the selection as to who will be the next Michigan Attorney General.

John Q. Public
Fri, 10/05/2018 - 2:07pm

I'm already planning to vote for you, so take this in the proper spirit: It's a really, really poor look when a candidate for the office doesn't get the plural form of "attorney general" correct in his writings. Take care not to do that again.

Ideas General
Sun, 11/04/2018 - 12:33pm

As someone who teaches linguistics and phonetics, and has a firm grasp on spelling and grammar, I have to say that I find nothing more irrelevant than whether or not he says "attorneys general" or "attorney generals." It's a really, really poor look for voters when they concentrate on issues like this!

John Strassi
Mon, 10/08/2018 - 3:30pm

Okay, I don't normally comment, but I really have to express some incredulity here. I agree with the first poster that this studious neutrality is no real position on the issues. No "partisan lawsuits", you say? Partisan by what measure? If you won't join with another state AG in a lawsuit because they are D or R, you are effectively saying no multi-state suits. Even if you try to be more nuanced than that, we live in a federal system! It functions in part because of the tension between the state and federal governments and the branches thereof. Part of that process is yes, lawsuits, especially when there are real constitutional issues (see: emoluments) getting litigated by AGs right now. If you won't engage in a worthy lawsuit because it's "too partisan" then you're refusing to stand up for Michiganders and putting the appearance of your own neutrality before the welfare of your constituents.

Next, "I will enforce all the laws" is a nonsense promise and you ought to know it. The AG, like any enforcer, has discretion, purview, and, emphasis well meant, POLITICAL INFLUENCE. If a law isn't working, or if it's enforcement falls unfairly on some people, or if it falls short in enforcement, the AG has a voice they need to use for the good of their constituents. Are you saying the AG has no role in the process of governing outside of being a prosecutor? I mean, maybe that's your stance, and it's certainly a neutral one, but then why have an elected AG at all? Let alone one with term limits? This constitutional role of the AG is to represent the people, and that means you have to take a stand and show some leadership on the issues of the day.

Finally, I appreciate your mention of consumer protection, and that's great that you want to bring more emphasis on it. But what are you going to do about Smith v Globe Life Ins Co? That case gutted Michigan's Consumer Protection Act and really limited the viability of most cases. Hiring all the attorneys in Michigan won't fix a state supreme court decision. Working with the Legislature might, but as noted above by placing such emphasis on being neutral and non-partisan you are surrendering a whole host of tools in the toolkit. If you won't play politics, then why should the Legislature listen to you and fix the MCPA?

John Q. Public
Fri, 10/05/2018 - 2:10pm

I have never, ever considered a vote for the candidate I prefer to be a wasted one regardless of how poor his chance of victory. Better to vote for what or whom you want and lose than what or whom you don't and win. A vote is an affirmation of what it is that you want. Too many people vote to keep someone out rather that put someone in. If you don't like either Nessel or Leonard, the proper choices are to vote for someone else, or leave the oval unfilled. I think Graveline is the best option for AG. It'd be stupid--and a waste--for me to cast my ballot for someone else.

George Moroz
Fri, 10/05/2018 - 4:14pm

Not voting, or voting for a candidate in a general election that stands little, if any chance, of being elected has consequences. Remember 2016. We sometimes need to vote to prevent the worst from happening.

John Q. Public
Sat, 10/06/2018 - 7:48pm

Whether Trump or Clinton won mattered little to me. Same holds for Nessel and Leonard. All we get is a different brand of putrid. Voting for no one but who the Democratic and Republican Parties try to force-feed us regardless of how poorly they represent us has consequences, too. I used to do what you apparently recommend, and it hasn't worked out too well in getting the kind of government I want.

Wed, 10/10/2018 - 12:00am

Clinton is finally heading to jail, hopefully with her fake husband. The GOP did not force-feed us Trump; they did everything they could to stop him in the primary and the general election. Likewise putting Leonard in the same camp as Nessel is the worst part of this smooth-talking campaign that sued the state to judicially bypass our laws to get on the ballot to supposedly want to uphold laws.

Briscoe Mange
Sun, 10/28/2018 - 5:17pm

Absolutely right. Many of us almost listened to the media and fake polls and almost didn't vote as Hillary was allegedly a shoe in. Good thing we didn't listen.

Paul Jordan
Sat, 10/06/2018 - 8:07am

He sounds pretty good. An Attorney General that, for a change, actually wants just to be a good attorney general would be a refreshing change.

Steve Dobkowski, Jr.
Sat, 10/06/2018 - 1:15pm

I spent 55 years as a Michigan Democratic activist before I left the Party in 2015. I left the Party because I am "Pro-LIfe." I could not continue supporting a Party which believes it is good Public Policy to kill children before they have a chance to be born. I am voting for Chris Graveline for Attorney General because he and I are "Pro-Life."

Sun, 10/07/2018 - 9:39am

You were an activist for 55 years, all the while fundamentally disagreeing with one of the most important and most contested planks of the Democratic platform?

Ben W. Washburn
Sat, 10/06/2018 - 3:07pm

My once close associate, Jennifer Granholm, may have unintentionally set a deleterious example in going on to become our Governor. I personally don't recall when she abused the powers of that office, as Mr. Schuette has done far more than once, in order to make a splash to run for the Governorship. But, hey, maybe she did, and I conveniently don't recall.

Anyhow, I served as the legal and policy counsel to the Wayne County Commission for 25 years, and Chris Graveline's comments are precisely the line that I tried to hoe. I also knew Frank Kelley, and think that even though a strong Democrat, that he took an independent's view of his mission.

Chris Graveline certainly has my support.