As part of Michigan Radio’s ongoing election coverage, Morning Edition and Stateside are featuring interviews with candidates hoping to be the next attorney general.
Republican candidate Tom Leonard is currently the speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives. He has also served in the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office and as the state’s assistant attorney general.
On mental health reform
DOUG TRIBOU: You’ve made mental health reform a key issue in your campaign. In Genesee County, you worked in the state’s first mental health court. In the House, you created a task force to improve mental health treatment in the state. What would you do as attorney general?
TOM LEONARD: My first job out of law school, I had the opportunity to clerk for the probate judge in Genesse County – her name is Jenny Barkey – and she started this mental health court to get people treatment when they need treatment versus being in prison. When you look at our jails and our prisons, they shouldn’t be for sick people, they should be for dangerous people.
When I became speaker of the House, I began to look at our corrections budget. Right now we spend nearly $2 billion per year to incarcerate nearly 40,000 individuals, but what a lot of people don’t know is the fact that nearly 25% of our prison population suffers from some type of mental illness. I want to ensure that we’re working with our local prosecutors to ensure that there’s never an excuse not to have a treatment court in their county or expand them because they don’t have bodies in the courtroom. If one of our local prosecutors is struggling doing that, I’m going to make certain that we get somebody in there to help them.
On Line 5
TRIBOU: Yesterday we spoke to Dana Nessel. She said she would file an injunction to shut down Line 5 based on the idea that Enbridge Energy’s oil and gas pipeline has violated its easement with the state. What would you do about Line 5 as attorney general?
LEONARD: I have been working on this with the governor over the past year and we have obtained real results. It was announced a couple of weeks ago that Enbridge was going to be on the hook to pay the full $400 million to build a tunnel that’s going to keep our Great Lakes safe, but when you look at that position of just shut it down, that is very, very dangerous.
The one thing that she fails to mention is that tens of thousands of our Michiganders and our residents in the Upper Peninsula actually draw their propane off of that line. I want to see real results to protect our Great Lakes. I don’t want to come in with just political talking points that would essentially, if you were to adopt her plan, would tell tens of thousands of residents in the Upper Peninsula that they’re going to have no way of heating their homes this January. That is wrong. That is dangerous and that is not the right position that we ought to have.
TRIBOU: One of the ballot questions that will be decided November 6 would legalize recreational marijuana if it passes. You’ve said that you’re personally against legalization. How would you deal with that conflict?
LEONARD: The office is not about what my personal political views are. The office is about enforcing the laws as written by the legislature, or in this case the people of the state of Michigan. If it passes, it will be upheld and it will be enforced.
TRIBOU: What are your concerns as a former prosecutor about legalization of marijuana? What led you to be against that?
LEONARD: Well just talking to individuals from Colorado, for instance since the legalization of marijuana passed there, homeowners insurance rates are on the rise, auto insurance rates are on the rise, and we know the last thing we need in the state of Michigan is increased auto insurance rates here in our state.
On the Elliott Larsen Act
TRIBOU: The Elliott Larsen Act is the civil rights act thats passed in Michigan in the 1970s. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission announced it would begin treating LBGTQ people as a protected group under the act – following guidance from federal courts who have said that discrimination against that community would qualify as sex discrimination. After the Commission announced it plans, you were one of the people who asked current attorney general, Bill Schuette, to give an opinion. He opposed giving LGBTQ people protections. Why did you ask for that opinion and where do you stand on that issue?
LEONARD: Let me be clear, discrimination is wrong. Nobody should be denied housing, or anything else as a result of their orientation. However, when you look at what the Civil Rights Commission did, I believe that they overstepped their constitutional authority. If it’s going to be expanded, it ought to be the role of the legislature, not a commission of unelected bureaucrats.
TRIBOU: But you did not introduced legislation that would have offered those protections to that part of the Michigan community.
LEONARD: No, and I’ve been very clear again, discrimination is wrong under any circumstance. However, we also have religious rights and religious liberties here in the state of Michigan, and I’ve not seen anybody willing to come to the table to have a serious conversation about how to balance those two rights. And until we do, it would be very difficult for me to support it.
TRIBOU: Well I have to ask you to expand on that because I hear what you’re saying about religion and the LGBTQ, you’re sort of equating those, but how does the discrimination against LGBT person conflict with religion in terms of housing, employment, that sort of thing?
LEONARD: Look at the example that we always talk about in terms of the restaurant owner who also has a catering service. A restaurant owner should never be able to tell somebody that they can’t come into their restaurant because of their sexual orientation. However, if the person is asked to bake a cake, or perform something as a part of a religious ceremony that would contradict their sincerely held religious beliefs. Those sincerely held religious beliefs ought to be protected.
TRIBOU: Recently, the state Supreme Court heard arguments about the people who were wrongly accused of filing false unemployment claims. Now you have the state, which says it’s paid back the bulk of the money that was improperly garnished, pushing against a class action lawsuit on a technicality of when it was filed. And that’s what the arguments hinged on. How do you see that sort of thing where we know these people were wrongly accused, and then there’s this push back from the state?
LEONARD: There is no doubt that these people were wronged, and they ought to made whole. I’d have to look at the exact legal argument the attorney general has raised, but what I do know is the attorney general does have an obligation to represent the state of Michigan. So, you can’t fault represent the attorney general for representing the state. However, if the attorney general has a different opinion, or they want to take an opposite position on behalf of the people. Then what the proper measure would be, would be to assign an assistant to represent the state or the department, and then also assign a different assistant to represent the people. And what they would do is they would put a conflict wall up within the office so that those two assistants could not talk and essentially what would happen is the attorney general would make certain that each side was properly receiving representation.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Mr. Leonard is quoted as saying traffic fatalities increased 150% in Colorado after marijuana was legalized. That is incorrect.
From 2013-16, Colorado saw a 40% increase in fatal crashes, from 627 to 880. We believe what Leonard meant is that the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes who tested positive for marijuana use was up 145% from 47 in 2013 to 115 in 2016.