Interview, Mark Totten, Michigan Democrats — September 25, 2014 at 10:03 am

INTERVIEW: Democratic candidate for Attorney General Mark Totten – “I will be the ‘People’s Lawyer'”


We’ve covered the Attorney General race in Michigan fairly extensively here at Eclectablog. In addition to reporting on the candidacy of Democrat Mark Totten, a former prosecutor for the Department of Justice and law professor at Michigan State University, I have written extensively about the extremism of our current AG, Republican Bill Schuette. As I have demonstrated quite vividly before, Bill Schuette is Michigan’s version of Virginia’s outrageous left-wing extremist former AG Ken Cuccinelli.

Schuette’s currently trying to convince voters that Totten has put no criminals behind bars as an attorney, a lie betrayed by the facts, as you will see in this interview. The irony in Schuette’s disingenuous attack is that he himself had done very little work in front of a judge or jury himself before being elected to the AG position in 2010. In the two and half decades prior to that he had spent six of them as a U.S. Congressman in Washington, D.C., three of them as the Director of Michigan Department of Agriculture, nine of them as a state Senator, and six of them as a Judge for the Michigan Court of Appeals. Schuette’s hypocrisy on this topic is as galling as it is laughable.

Bill Schuette might benefit, in fact, from taking Totten’s “Lawyers and Ethics” class at MSU’s law school.

Tony Trupiano did a great job recently talking about the character of Mark Totten. Last weekend I sat down with Totten for an interview. We talked about his qualifications, his positions, and his goals for the position he refers to as “The People’s Lawyer”.

You can learn more about his campaign at his website

One more thing: Totten is being massively outspent by Schuette who has already poured $1.3 million into his reelection campaign:

Attorney General Bill Schuette is swamping his opponent Democrat Mark Totten in campaign cash, raising more than $253,000 in the weeks surrounding the political party conventions in August and ending the reporting period with an impressive re-election war chest of $1.9 million for the final weeks of the campaign.

Totten, who has stayed within a few points of Schuette in many recent polls, only raised $73,201 during the same time period, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Michigan Secretary of State, and has far less — $171,395 in cash on hand — for the rest of the campaign.

Despite this lopsided spending, Totten is still tied with Schuette in two recent polls and actually ahead of him in a third one done by USA Today. Please consider making a contribution to help him fight back against the lies and distortions of the Schuette campaign which are sure to be flooding onto the airwaves in the last five weeks of this campaign. You can make a donation HERE.

So, let’s start out by talking about your history in Michigan and how you got to where you are today.

I was born and raised here in Michigan. I grew up in Kalamazoo and my mom was a single parent, first grade teacher in the public schools. She’s recently retired, in fact. She raised my twin brother and I on her own.

I had a pretty clear sense early on that, if I was going to go college, I was probably going to have to pay for it myself. So, I started working when I was young and was always pretty committed to saving money. At first it was mowing lawns, then delivering papers. I was working at the downtown library and eventually worked during the summers and, in high school, working the third shift at Meijers stocking groceries on the overnight shift. At one point I was tempted to go out and buy a car. A lot of my friends had one but, for some reason, I just didn’t feel comfortable with that and so I decided not to.

I paid my way through college and went out to Yale University and got my law degree and a PhD. in Ethics. Kristin and I knew we wanted to get back home to raise our family but we had some opportunities in Washington, D.C. so we headed down there and I was serving in the Justice Department. After that, I moved down the road and clerked for a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit. It was fascinating because that was at the height of a lot of the national security cases in the wake of 9/11 which were winding through that court. I had a security clearance and worked on a lot of those cases along with my judge.

After that, we came back home to Michigan to raise our family. I’ve got a five-year old son named Jake and my daughter Grace is seven years old. My wife Kristin is an attorney as well. She is an strong advocate for foster kids and for children with disabilities in schools, to make sure that they get the services that they’re supposed to get.

Since we’ve come back I’ve been teaching at Michigan State University at the law school. I have been privileged to train the next generation of prosecutors, public defenders, and judges. My focus is criminal law. I have also been serving as a federal prosecutor which has been a real privilege, again, to protect the public from a lot of criminals. From drug dealers, from armed criminals, protecting women from domestic abusers, seniors from predatory lenders, children from child sex predators, and others, as well.

Tell me a little about the Attorney General position itself. Is the AG someone who goes before the courts or is it somebody who is organizing that to happen with a staff of people who do that? Does the AG stand in front of a court and argue cases or is it more of an administrative role? How would you characterize the position?

There is a whole group of staff attorneys who are doing the day-to-day work of going before the court to represent the government and represent the people of the state. The Attorney General is very much setting the agenda. There are some cases, say, where the state is a defendant so the AG has to defend against those cases. Oftentimes they’re fairly clear cut. Sometimes agencies just need advice and counsel. It’s not a case, they just need some direction from their lawyer and the AG serves as a lawyer.

In other areas the AG has some discretion to figure out how their going to spend their time and the resources that have been entrusted to them. If the AG is doing their job, they’re doing that to figure out where they can most help people. As is always the case with prosecution, you have to pick your battles. You have to figure out where you can be most effective. There are limited resources and there is a lot of wrongdoing going on. So, the AG has some discretion to figure out where they can best protect people.

When did you decide to run for Attorney General?

I decided to run for AG in early 2013 and we announced later that summer.

What made you decide to run? Was there some crystallizing moment or was it an evolutionary process?

Well, I had lived in Michigan for nearly my whole life and was raising a family here. And I looked at how things were going in here and was not happy with what I saw. I saw Bill Schuette using the office to advance his own right wing agenda rather than to protect the citizens of Michigan. My approach to life has been strongly influenced by my faith and I have always told my kids, based on that, “If you can do something to make things better, you should.” So that’s why I decided to run.

You know, the justice system is complicated and it costs a lot of money. Some victims of crimes in our state can’t afford to hire lawyers that charge hundreds of dollars an hour. Just to be represented at one hearing can cost you $1,000 or more. The people of Michigan need to know that they have someone on their side with the AG, not someone, like Bill Schuette, who is too often working against them. The Attorney General should be “the People’s Lawyer” and I will be the “People’s Lawyer”.

I feel that I have the skills to be the type of Attorney General Michigan deserves. My experience is largely protecting people from criminals – both armed criminals and economic or financial criminals who prey on vulnerable people like seniors.

I’m not like Bill Schuette. I don’t have experience trying to deny orphans a loving home with two gay parents. I don’t have experience making sure that drug companies aren’t liable when their products injure or even kill someone who uses them. I don’t have experience fighting to make sure that Michigan families shouldn’t be able to have the $5,000 tax credit that the Affordable Care Act provides to them.

The experience that I have has put actual criminals in jail and changed our rules and policies to make it easier to see that justice is served in Michigan.

Your opponent, Bill Schuette, claims that you aren’t qualified because you haven’t spent enough time arguing cases in a court room. This is despite the fact that in the 26 years before he was elected as Attorney General, he spent his time as a U.S. Congressman, the director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture, as a state senator, and a stint behind the bench as a judge in the Michigan Court of Appeals. How do you respond to that?

There are a lot of people in jail who wish Bill Schuette’s lies about my record were true. I’ve taken on some tough cases over the years. I’ve protected the public from armed criminals and drug dealers. I’ve protected women from domestic abusers. I’ve protected senior from predatory lenders. I’ve protected children from sexual predators.

Let me give you some examples:

Timothy Sims would like to think that Schuette’s lies about my record are true. This is a guy who was producing child pornography and, in a sense, was trying to “rent” kids to people who sexually abused them. I’m incredibly proud that we put Sims behind bars, for probably the rest of his life, but also that we incredibly strengthened the law against child pornographers, particularly given some of the technology that has changed so that pretty much anybody can produce child pornography using hidden cameras. This case strengthened the law such that families all across Michigan now have better protection.

Randy Sanford beat his wife and threw her against the wall. He’s serving time and the law protecting women against domestic abusers is stronger because of a case that I won.

There’s a guy in Grand Rapids, Eric Wendlandt, who was engaged in predatory lending, a practice that happened all across this state at the heart of the economic crisis who is also serving time because of his attempt to rip-off senior citizens and people who didn’t have a lot of money and were already in a bad situation.

Those are some folks who would like to believe that what Schuette is saying is true. But, I have had the opportunity to protect the public in all of these ways and I’m going to bring this same set of values into office, as well.

The tough part for you has been getting your name out there. A lot of people still simply don’t know who you are yet. Why is that, do you think, and what can you do in these last 45 days of this election to get your name out there?

I think that’s the case for a lot of candidates and the way you do that is to get your name out on TV, explain who you are, explain your vision for the office, and talk about your record. In the past 18 months I’ve been to nearly every county in Michigan, talking to voters, and put well over 30,000 miles on my old Ford in the process. But we’re actively raising the support that we need to do that and we’ll have the resources we need to win.

It certainly hasn’t been from a lack of effort on your part. You’ve written op-eds in the major newspapers, you’ve been to nearly every county in the state. Do you think maybe it’s just a case of most people not paying attention to the election until the last few weeks?

I don’t think there’s anything surprising or out of the ordinary here. People don’t really start paying attention to the election until the last month or so. Most people don’t know a lot about who the AG is or what the AG does. They know more about their governor and certainly their president, less about the Attorney General even though it’s an awfully important position. So a lot happens in the last part of the race. We’re working as hard as we can to have the resources that we need to win it.

What would be your top priorities as “the people’s lawyer” as you call the AG position?

It’s a couple of things. First of all, it’s protecting the public from violent crime. As a former federal prosecutor, I’ve taken on tough cases. I protected the public from armed criminals, children from sexual predators, women from domestic abusers, and I’m going to continue to play that role as Attorney General and keep families in our state safe.

At the same time, the crimes that harm our families don’t always happen on city streets. Sometimes they happen on Wall Street and corporate board rooms and we need an Attorney General who is tough enough to take on those criminals, as well. So that means taking on companies who pay women less than men for the same work. It means protecting veterans who, while they were away serving our country, found themselves or their families victims of predatory lending and other scams that were meant to take advantage of them. It means trying to reverse Michigan’s drug immunity law. Thanks to Bill Schuette, who was the primary force behind the passage of that law, Michigan is the ONLY state in the nation that says, if you are harmed or killed by a pharmaceutical drug, by a prescription drug, you are helpless to do anything about it in the courts. That’s wrong and it’s left a lot of victims without any voice in our state. It was a handout to corporations from the beginning and I’m going to help lead the charge to reverse that law that my opponent passed.

Would you see yourself being an advocate like Eric Schneiderman in New York who has really gone after Wall Street banks?

Schneiderman, of course, is right in New York so he has special powers to go after Wall Street. But there has been a group of very proactive Attorneys General around the nation who have gone after those who were responsible for what happened from Main Street to Wall Street. It can’t just be taking on some of the smaller players. There were some very large institutions who were responsible for what happened, especially on Wall Street. So working with other Attorneys General as needed, I’m going to be part of protecting Michigan families and holding wrongdoers accountable.

You mentioned that the AG has some discretion with how resources are utilized on behalf of the citizens of Michigan. One of the things that Bill Schuette has chosen to do is to spend tax dollars and the resources of his department appealing a federal court judge’s ruling that Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional and that same-sex couples cannot jointly adopt children. Is that a situation where he could have chosen NOT to do that? And talk a little bit about your feelings on his decision TO do that.

Well, look, let’s be clear about what Bill Schuette has been doing. He’s been at this for a while and he’s been waging a crusade against foster kids. Keep in mind that these are some of Michigan’s most vulnerable children. He’s effectively arguing that they would be better off as orphans than to have two gay parents. I couldn’t more fundamentally disagree with Bill Schuette on this.

There’s nothing about our state constitution that compels him to argue that these kids would be better off as orphans and I think that this very clearly demonstrates the difference in values that are at stake in this race.

You were actually introduced by April DeBoer, the plaintiff in this case, at the Michigan Democratic Party Nominating Convention last month, right?

I was, yeah. April and Jayne are friends. I’ve had the opportunity for my family to spend time with their family. I think it’s helpful to remember the background of this case. These are two nurses who have adopted highly special needs kids. At least two of them were abandoned by their parents. These are not the kids who people are running to adopt. These are exactly the kinds of kids who, without some sort of intervention, will age out of the foster care system. They’ll never have a permanent home. There are 800 kids every year who age out of Michigan’s foster care system and are never adopted. They never have parents to care of them.

Bill Schuette is trying to increase that number by trying to make it as difficult as possible for some of these kids to be adopted by loving parents. You couldn’t find two parents who are more loving and are more willing to take care of kids than April and Jayne.

Bill Schuette is on the wrong side of this fight.

Why do you think you are competitive in this race right now?

You heard me say this at the convention: Bill Schuette has said many times that he is running on his record and that is a fight that I welcome because I think that, if Michigan voters know what he has done, they will never return him to office.

If Michigan voters know that he was the primary force behind passage Michigan’s drug immunity law, that because of Bill Schuette, families or individuals who are harmed or even killed by prescription drugs can never recover damages in the court, can never get justice, I think they’ll have a sense of where Bill Schuette’s values are and they’ll never return him to office.

I think that if voters know that he voted against the Family Medical Leave Act, that he went on the floor of Congress arguing that it’s “dangerous”, and that he voted against expanding daycare for children, they’ll never return him to office.

If they know that he was the most active Attorney General in the nation on behalf of Hobby Lobby arguing that corporations should be able to deny female employees coverage for contraceptives, they’ll never return him to office.

If they know that he used taxpayer resources and his time as Attorney General, when he should be protecting us from violent criminals, to go to Washington, D.C. and ask as a federal court to deny Michigan families tax credits to purchase health insurance, they’ll never return him to office.

Bill Schuette has been waging one extreme crusade after another that has left every family less safe and he’s been doing it to pursue his own partisan agenda. That represents what is wrong with Michigan and national politics today. You’ve got politicians like Bill Schuette who are far more interested in scoring political points than protecting Michigan families.

That has to stop.

We’re incredibly encouraged. There were three polls that came out last week, two that showed this race in a dead heat. USA Today‘s poll shows me winning by 7 points. Bill Schuette should not be in that position after 30 years in government. He should be ten points ahead, not trailing me at this point.

Earlier this week on Monday, former Governor Bill Milliken endorsed my campaign. There’s a reason Bill Milliken, a former Republican governor of the State of Michigan, endorsed me for Attorney General and it’s because Bill Schuette is out of touch with Michigan families and Michigan values.

When people think of Gov. Milliken, they think of two things. They think about where he was on the issues: protecting our Great Lakes, standing up for women’s rights, protecting civil rights, so many areas where he lead, reaching out to people from both parties.

The second thing they think about with Gov. Milliken is his approach to politics. He was not a partisan guy. Gov. Milliken was more interested in solving problems than trying to score cheap political points. He was a problem solver! He realized that being in office creates an immense responsibility to try to fix people’s problems. People don’t want politicians who are in it for themselves and Gov. Milliken represents, so much, what people want in their public servants.

I’ll end where I started: there’s a reason that Gov. Milliken endorsed me. It’s because Bill Schuette represents the exact opposite: He’s wrong on the issues and he’s more interested in pushing his own partisan agenda than protecting Michigan citizens.

[Photos by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]