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
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.
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.