Tim Leeds Havre Daily News email@example.com
Mike Wheat, Democratic candidate for state attorney general, stopped in Havre Wednesday during his campaign across the state. “It’s important, if you’re going to hold a state office, to go out and look people in the eye,” he said, "To see what they think are important issues and to let them know where the candidate stands." Former state senator and practicing attorney Wheat, 59, is one of three Democrats who have announced their candidacy for the attorney general position. Helena attorney Steve Bullock and Cascade County deputy attorney John Parker of Great Falls, a state representat ive, ar e also running for the o f f i c e . At t o r n e y G e n e r a l M i k e Mc G r a t h cannot run f o r t h e p o s i t i o n again due to term limits. The official filing period for candidates does not open until January. Wheat spent his youth in Superior, where his father worked in the logging industry. In the 1950s, his family moved to Henderson, Nev., now a suburb of Las Vegas, he said. He graduated high school there, Then worked in a chemical factory in the Henderson area. In 1968 he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, and served in Viet Nam in 1968 and 1969, and was awarded the Purple Heart. When he returned from Viet Nam and was honorably discharged from the service, Wheat said, he attended the University of Nevada-Las Vegas for a time, then helped his parents move back to their home state of Montana. “My dad was actually born in a homestead northeast of Ekalaka in a place called Mill Iron,” Wheat said. Wheat then started attending the University of Montana, where he met his wife, Debby. He and she both received their undergraduate and graduate degrees from UM, he said. Debby Wheat, who earned a Masters Degree in speech therapy, worked in the Montana Public Schools system, and Mike Wheat became a Butte- Silver Bow deputy county attorney after he received his law degree in 1978. Wheat added that he has connections to the Havre law community as well: Mary VanBuskirk, Keith Maristuen, Brian Lilletvedt and Chris Young were in his graduating class at the UM Law School. In 1 9 81 , he moved t o Bozeman to join a firm with another classmate of his, Michael Cok, then after about six months he and Cok left to form their own firm, which still practices in Bozeman. In 2002, Wheat ran against an incumbent state senator “and I was lucky enough to win,” he said. He served in the 2003 and 2005 sessions, including serving as the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005. Wheat said he decided not to run for re-election because he was evaluating what he wanted to do at that time. He was considering reducing his private practice or possibly getting out of the practice entirely, when many of his friends asked him if he would consider running for attorney general. After discussing the idea with his wife, Wheat said, they agreed he should enter the race. “I thought, this would work really well,” he said. “I could do legal work and public service at the same time.” Wheat said his experience as a prosecutor, private attorney and as a legislator would help him if he is elected. His work as a prosecuting deputy county attorney gave him extensive experience in criminal cases, Wheat said. “I prosecuted everything from DUIs to homicides,” he said. His private practice has been mostly on the civil side. Wheat said the firm started as a general practice, but has evolved into specializing in accident injury cases. “I have tried a lot of cases and I think that is important,” Wheat said. Learning how to evaluate a case, whether civil or criminal, and get it ready for trial helps build skills essential for an attorney general, he said. He worked closely with the state Attorney General’s Office while chair of the Judiciary Committee, helping the office prepare its legislative package it submitted to the Legislature, he said, which will also be helpful. He said he has no major changes he wants to make in the attorney general’s office if he is elected, although there are some areas he would like to strengthen. “I’m not on a crusade, I don’t have an agenda,” Wheat said. He said he believes one of the most important jobs of the attorney general is to work as a consensus builder, helping people through the office’s position as the chief law enforcement officer and chief lawyer in the state government. Part of that would be helping county attorneys and local law enforcement, through advice and assistance, he said. Part of his goal in traveling around the state in his campaign is to talk to county attorneys and other attorneys and law enforcement officers to see what their concerns are, Wheat said. He said he thinks the attorney general also could help strengthen some branches of the state Justice Department, which administers operations including the state Highway Pa t r o l , t h e s t a t e La w Enforcement Academy and the state crime lab. He said, for example, the state crime lab is a “pretty amazing facility,” but he would like to strengthen its funding so it can better staff the lab, hopefully reducing any delays that might exist. He said much the same for the law enforcement academy. The academy is doing a good job, Wheat said, but “that’s one of those areas where you can always do a little more.” Wheat said an interesting thing about the attorney general position is that it really crosses political boundaries. Enforcing and interpreting the law is not something that can be defined as Republican or Democrat, he said, but is simply an opportunity to help the people in the state through enforcing the laws. “The more I’ve gotten into it the more I really thought it would be a good fit for me,” Wheat said.