Michigan Republican Attorney General candidate Tom Leonard says bringing more accountability to state and local governments, providing resources to prosecute elder abuse and improving mental health treatment for offenders are his priorities should he become Attorney General.
Leonard currently serves as the Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives. He spent six years in the state legislature after working as an assistant Attorney General under Mike Cox. Before that, he worked as a drug prosecutor in Genesee County.
Who is Tom Leonard
Residence: DeWitt Charter Township
Current job: Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives
Philosophy: “I am going to be a rule-of-law attorney general. I will ensure that the U.S. and the state constitution are both being upheld, but also the laws of this state as they are passed by our legislature and signed by our governor.”
Leonard spoke with Bridge Magazine about what his first order of business would be if elected to follow Bill Schuette as Attorney General and how he’d choose whether to join lawsuits against the federal government. He also responds to criticism over his friendship with rocker and conservative provocateur Ted Nugent. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Bridge: What do you see as your top two or three priorities as Attorney General?
Leonard: In no particular order, first, Attorney General Schuette has put a Public Integrity unit within the attorney general's office. This is something that I want to see expanded, and I want to appoint a state integrity officer that would oversee this unit. That Public Integrity unit would continue to prosecute corrupt politicians, but I want to see it expanded (so it) is holding government on all levels accountable.
For instance, there’ll be times during my coffee hours that I hear from constituents that feel like their local government is stonewalling them on FOIA (the state Freedom of Information Act) or they are violating the Open Meetings Act. I want to make certain that there is a state integrity officer that they can come to to hold government accountable.
Second, when I was in the prosecutor's office in Genesee County, we started a first-of-its-kind elder abuse task force. It had one prosecutor, two investigators, we had support staff, we had a hotline put in place and it was very, very successful. I want to put something like that within the Attorney General's office. I want to see something like that go statewide. I want to make certain that any prosecutor in the state of Michigan, if they have (an elder abuse case) that they feel should be prosecuted, they've got an avenue or they got somewhere to go to, and that those cases are not falling through the cracks.
And then third, I want to continue the focus we have had on mental health in the state of Michigan. I believe it's way too important. Nearly 25 percent of our prison population suffers from mental illness. And when they do, the cost of that inmate goes from about $38,000 per year to well over $100,000 per year. (Many local prosecutors are) fans of treatment courts, I believe we need to continue to expand treatment courts. I want to be there to assist our local prosecutors to ensure that we are never in a situation where we can’t expand these treatment courts throughout the state. I think by doing that it's not only the right thing to do, but I think in the long run, it will cut down on prison costs.
Bridge: Attorney General Schuette devoted much 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?
Leonard: I am going to be a rule-of-law attorney general. I will ensure that the U.S. and the state constitution are both being upheld, but also the laws of this state as they are passed by our legislature and signed by our governor. If I were to get involved in a lawsuit to contradict what the federal government's doing, that would be my litmus test. Has the federal government put something in place that is violating the laws of this state or violating the state or U.S. Constitution?
Bridge: Can you give an example of a suit you would join?
Leonard: Obviously this is a big hypothetical, but let me give you an example. Several months ago, the Trump administration and Jeff Sessions had said that they were going to come down hard on federal prosecuting marijuana cases. If the Trump administration decided to do that, and by doing so they were going to violate or put into jeopardy our Medical Marijuana Act as it was passed by this legislature, certainly that is something that I would have to consider stepping in. Because the federal government would be coming in to do something that was going to violate a state law that was passed by the legislature. Certainly that is something that you'd have to consider bringing a lawsuit in federal court.
Bridge: Who is a state Attorney General, either here or in another state, that you most admire and why?
Leonard: There's a few that I've known and I've gotten to respect them as people. Leslie Rutledge from Arkansas. I've only met her a couple times, but this is one of the toughest people you'll ever meet. She's not only the Attorney General of Arkansas, she's not only doing a great job, but she also chairs the Republican Attorney General's Association. She also just recently had her first child and this is somebody who is just tough. She's doing a great job for Arkansas. She's out there. She's working hard every day. Certainly somebody I admire and respect.
Bridge: What would you say to Democratic voters as to why you would also represent their interests in the Attorney General's office?
Leonard: The Attorney General's office is no place for politics. You need a rule-of-law attorney general, and that is what I intend to do. There was a very contentious election back in 1990 and John Engler, the Republican, became governor, ousted a sitting Democrat. And there was a current Democrat Attorney General by the name of Frank Kelley that had been there for a couple decades. Obviously they were on opposite sides of the aisle.
Within days of Governor Engler becoming governor, he walked over to the Attorney General's office to meet Attorney General Kelley. Attorney General Kelley walked up, extended his hand and said, ‘Governor, we’re from different parties, we may not agree on issues, I may have worked against you. But from this day forward, I am your attorney. And I don't ever want you to be afraid to call me for help, because that's what I intend to do. I intend to do the same thing as the state's next Attorney General, whether or not there's a Republican or a Democrat in that office.’
Bridge: Frank Kelley was someone who was known for having this consumer protection angle in office. Is that something that you feel like would be important to bring back as a priority?
Leonard: Absolutely, consumer protection has to be a top priority. You know, it seems like every AG that goes out, they've put their footprint on the office. With AG Kelley, it was consumer protection. With Attorney General Cox, it was going after deadbeat dads. When you look at Attorney General Schuette, he's put a big focus on human trafficking. There are so many issues that are important with the Attorney General's office, and they're all going to be strong priorities. But when I go out, I want folks to look at me and say, this is somebody that stepped up and was an advocate for the mentally ill.
Bridge: If Roe v. Wade is overturned at the federal level, would you as the top law enforcement officer enforce the current abortion laws in Michigan?
Leonard: I will be a rule-of-law Attorney General and whatever law is on the books, I will enforce it. So if Roe v. Wade is overturned and the current law is still there, it will be enforced. If the legislature and the governor decide to amend that law or change it, then that new law will be enforced.
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?
Leonard: We have a plan in place (for how to approach Line 5) and there will be something that will be coming that will become public very soon. Editor’s note: That plan was released by Gov. Rick Snyder on Oct. 3, one week after this interview took place. Here is Leonard’s statement on the plan.
The Attorney General has to protect our natural resources, and there is no resource that we have that is more precious to the state of Michigan than our Great Lakes. So we need to do something with Line 5. We need to tell Enbridge the time for excuses is over.
However, coming in and saying that we're going to shut this thing down in one day to me is dangerous. Nearly 70 percent of the Michiganders in the Upper Peninsula draw their propane off of this line. We cannot come in just to score political talking points and say we're going to shut something down and leave tens of thousands of our residents without the ability to heat their homes. So certainly, we've got to put a plan in place, which will be announced very soon.
We're going a little bit out of the scope of the Attorney General, but I believe the answer would be putting a tunnel in place. Making certain that we've got something there that will keep that line secure.
In terms of Flint, the last thing I want to do as a former prosecutor is say what a current prosecutor should or shouldn't be doing when there's an ongoing and pending litigation. Clearly the independent prosecutor Todd Flood, the current Attorney General, they likely have information in front of them that you and I are not privy to, that may not come out until later. What I will tell you is this: When I become the state's next Attorney General, within days I will be sitting down with my top deputies, I will be combing through those files, learning everything that they have in front of them right now, and taking what I believe is the best course of action forward to resolve this.
Bridge: We talked earlier about civility in Michigan politics. You have talked about your opponent's (Democrat Dana Nessel’s) ad about being able to prosecute sexual harassment better because she doesn't have a penis. One concern Democrats have raised about you is your relationship with Ted Nugent. Can you respond to people's concern about receiving an endorsement from someone who has threatened to kill former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?
Leonard: Ted Nugent is a friend of mine. This is somebody that I truly believe loves the state. I believe he loves the Constitution. I'm not going to answer to everything that every one of my friends does or says. What I can tell you is the difference between the first argument and the second is: With the first, Dana Nessel has said it directly, and she's the one that wants to be the state's next Attorney General. Ted Nugent's not running to be the state's Attorney General. When you look at my past and my history and the way that I've treated people, the way I've conducted myself, it is much differently than that of Dana Nessel.