Michigan's attorney general race feisty till end

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The Michigan attorney general race has become an aggressive, competitive battle between a well-financed incumbent and a surging newcomer in the final days of the election campaign.

The contest for the state's top attorney normally doesn't get much attention, but the verbal fisticuffs between Republican Bill Schuette and Democrat Mark Totten have become sharp with more television ads and growing interest given Schuette's possible aspirations for higher office such as governor.

The state attorney general deals with an array of legal issues ranging from crime victim rights to consumer to environmental protections and insurance fraud.

Schuette's camp has been relentless in calling Totten, a Michigan State Law professor, dishonest and a resume exaggerator.

The attorney general dismisses Totten's claim that he was a federal prosecutor in west Michigan because he spent scant time in the courtroom and in office.

Totten says Schuette follows the bidding of the GOP, is out of step in opposing gay marital rights and has not been effective in representing the interests of all Michiganians.

Despite being ahead in polls throughout the campaign, Schuette said in a recent interview that he is not overlooking Totten.

"I don't care who it is, whether you run for governor or attorney general, every race in Michigan on a statewide basis is competitive," Schuette said. "We're a purple state. You have to earn it every day. I earn it every day. I earned it four years ago. And you earn it four years later with a record and experience second to none."

Schuette: I speak for victims

Schuette said he is a voice for victims by helping create a human trafficking commission and defending the pensions of cops and firefighters in Detroit during the city's bankruptcy.

He has defended the state's constitutional amendment that prohibits gay marriage in court despite some federal court rulings that it violates the U.S. Constitution.

"The Constitution is not like a buffet line at some restaurant where you can pick and choose which item you might wish," Schuette told reporters earlier this year when he launched his re-election bid for a second four-year term. "I took an oath to defend the Constitution, and I'm consistent."

Quoting a prosecutor who endorsed him recently, Schuette said that if "Professor Totten is a prosecutor, then Austin Powers is a Secret Service agent."

"The fact is I've been in a courtroom for six years as a judge, served four years as an attorney general," Schuette said. "I don't suffer from resume inflation."

Totten, who worked for about two years as a volunteer attorney in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Grand Rapids, has dismissed Schuette's charges as desperate because he has been a divisive attorney general.

He has criticized Schuette's appeal in a gay marriage and adoption case as a waste of taxpayer money because the attorney general is unlikely to prevail.

"He's been choosing issues that I think score points with the far right of his party," Totten said in a recent interview. "And I think that's the wrong approach.

"I'm running because I want to give Michigan families what they deserve and that is a lawyer who is going to protect them," he said. "If people are threatened by harm, if somebody's trying to rip them off or threaten their family and they don't have a lawyer, good luck getting justice because it's a very complicated legal system."

Totten aims to be like Kelley

The Democrat said he wants to pursue cases against predatory lenders and lobby for restoration in the Legislature of consumer protection laws. His idol whom he wants to emulate — former longtime state Attorney General Frank Kelley.

"Obviously the AG is not running around taking everybody's case, but when there are harms that affect large numbers of people, people deserve an attorney general who's going to stand up and fight for them, who's going to use incredible discretion of that office of limited resources to bring cases that matter and protect people," he said.

The cash advantage goes to Schuette, who reported just over $1 million left in money to spend in the final days of the campaign against Totten.

The Democrat, however, raised $340,000 to Schuette's $434,000 during the last reporting period between mid-September and October.

In a Detroit News-WDIV-TV (Local 4) poll made public this week, Schuette is holding on to a 37.8 percent-33.5 percent lead over Totten, with 21 percent still undecided about whom they will support in the race. The poll has a margin of error of plus-minus four percentage points.

"This is a race to keep your eyes on," said pollster Richard Czuba, president of the Chicago-based Glengariff Group.

Undecided voters could decide the race, Czuba said, given the high undecided vote between Schuette and Totten.

Totten has sought to define Schuette as a right-wing ideologue, which may be an area he could exploit among independent voters, more than a third of whom remain undecided, Czuba said.

Linda Herchenroeder, 65, of Redford, participated in the poll and said she was initially going to vote for Schuette because she hasn't really heard anything bad about him.

But she was troubled to learn of Schuette's allegations that Totten was not a federal prosecutor. She has a relative who was unpaid in an Ohio prosecutor's office and she considered him to be a prosecutor.

"I do believe he was a prosecutor just because he didn't get paid for it," she said. "I do not like when people lie like that. ... If you can't win on your record and on your honesty," Herchenroeder said, "then you don't have my vote."


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About the candidates

Bill Schuette

Age: 61

Hometown: Midland

Experience: Attorney general, 2010-present; state Court of Appeals judge, 2002-10; state senator, 1995-2002; Michigan Department of Agriculture, 1991-94; congressman, 1985-90

Mark Totten

Age: 40

Hometown: Kalamazoo

Experience: Michigan State University law professor, 2008-present; special assistant U.S. attorney in west Michigan, 2011-13; clerk, Judge Thomas Griffith, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit; staff attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, 2006-07