Friday, Apr 27, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Mich. attorney general hopeful long on ideas, short on funds

 KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Mark Totten didn’t think much about politics in the 1980s, when he was growing up in this classic Midwestern town, halfway between Detroit and Chicago.

His parents and grandparents were Republicans, so he thought of himself as one too. His parents were divorced and there wasn’t much money, so he mowed lawns and delivered papers. He thought during high school that he might want to go to seminary and become a Baptist minister.

Today, at 40, he is still very much a part of Kalamazoo. He lives there and until recently served on the school board. Most Sundays, he and his wife, Kristin, take their two small children to church, and then for a family hike.

They look like the extremely straight arrows they are. Except some things have changed dramatically.

Mr. Totten is a high-powered lawyer, who managed to earn a law degree and a Ph.D. in ethics from Yale University — at the same time. His wife also is an attorney, who mainly represents children with disabilities. He’s served as an assistant federal prosecutor and clerk to a federal judge.

Now, he is a professor at Michigan State University’s college of law, and wants a new job.

Mr. Totten is running for state attorney general — as a Democrat. Republicans, he said, no longer represent his values.

Being the state’s top attorney would be “my dream job,” he said over lunch last week. “I want this office to be what it once was — the people’s lawyer. That means keeping the people safe — from violent crime, but also the crime that happens in corporate boardrooms. Things need to change.”

He knows that won’t be easy. Michigan’s current attorney general, Bill Schuette, is heavily favored to win another term. He is expected to have a campaign war chest of millions of dollars.

Mr. Totten, who is not independently wealthy, has raised less than $200,000. He won’t have to struggle for the Democratic nomination; in Michigan, candidates for attorney general are not picked in a primary, but in a late summer state convention.

Neither man is expected to face a challenge. In Mr. Totten’s case, nobody else seems to want the nomination. The last time an incumbent Michigan attorney general was defeated was in 1954. These days, challengers usually just go through the motions.

Mr. Totten, however, is playing to win. “We’ve never had an attorney general like Bill Schuette,” Mr. Totten said. “From Day One [he] has used his office to serve his party, his patrons, and his political career.”

That may sound like standard campaign rhetoric, but the incumbent attorney general has been accused frequently of excessive partisanship by even independent observers.

And last week was clearly embarrassing for him. Attorney General Schuette directed a major effort in federal court to defend Michigan’s refusal to allow same-sex marriages or adoptions.

U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, a conservative appointed by President Ronald Reagan, decisively ruled against him.

Following the lead of federal judges in several other states, Judge Friedman predictably said on March 21 that Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional.

But he didn’t stop there. In a remarkable opinion, the judge appeared to excoriate the attorney general’s case as that of a legal incompetent. The judge said one state witness was “entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.”

The judge added that the others who testified for Mr. Schuette “clearly represented a fringe viewpoint that is rejected by the vast majority of their colleagues across a variety of social science fields.”

Mr. Totten thinks if he can get voters to look at the attorney general’s record in other areas, they are bound to agree that they need a change. He said that as attorney general, he would push for strengthening Michigan’s Consumer Protection Act, which has been largely gutted by the state Supreme Court.

He also vows to investigate banks that were involved in predatory and discriminatory lending, and to push for a repeal of the state’s “outrageous” drug immunity law, which was enacted to protect major pharmaceutical companies. As it now stands, Mr. Totten said, “Michigan is the only state that says if you are harmed or killed by an approved drug, you or your survivors are helpless to do anything.”

That law, he likes to tell outraged audiences, was pushed through in 1995 by then-state Senator Schuette.

Mr. Totten has a platform, a remarkable record, and ideas. The question is whether he can get enough money to reach voters.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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