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Busse brings Helena attorney Raph Graybill on as running mate

by MARA SILVERS Montana Free Press
| February 20, 2024 8:35 AM

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Ryan Busse has tapped a constitutional attorney known for challenging Montana abortion restrictions and other Republican-backed laws to be his running mate against incumbent Republican Greg Gianforte this November.

Busse, a former firearms executive who lives in Kalispell, appeared with Raph Graybill in Pablo on Monday night, the first stop in a multi-town campaign tour. In an interview with Montana Free Press prior to the event, Busse described Graybill as a “frickin’ warrior” who would be more than a ceremonial ribbon cutter as lieutenant governor. 

“That ain’t gonna be him. I do envision him as a defender. An ardent, overt defender of our constitution, of our freedoms,” Busse said.

Graybill, who will turn 35 on Tuesday, originally hails from Great Falls but now lives in Helena. He graduated from Yale Law School in 2015 and served as Gov. Steve Bullock’s chief legal counsel during the final years Bullock was in office. Running as a Democrat, Graybill lost a bid for the attorney general seat in 2020 against the current Republican officeholder Austin Knudsen by a decisive 17-point margin.

In an interview, Graybill said he and Busse have crossed paths for years in the world of Montana Democratic politics. Graybill said he decided to reach out to Busse several months ago and ask to be considered as a potential running mate after attending an event in Helena, where he said he had been impressed by Busse’s energy and connection with progressive voters. 

He said he’s aligned with Busse’s desire to challenge the Gianforte administration’s track record. If elected, he said, he’d work to block the Legislature from passing laws similar to measures from recent years he considers part of an “all-out assault” on constitutional rights. 

“Our state is really in trouble right now,” Graybill said. “This is not a time to sit on the sidelines and do nothing, particularly for me. This is where I grew up. I love Montana to death. I came back here because I wanted to raise my kids here, and I see it changing in ways that are both preventable and really scary.”

Graybill specifically referenced his frustration with rising property taxes, the governor’s proposals to loosen vaccination requirements in child care settings, and restrictions on reproductive medical care and abortion. 

The attorney has spent much of the last three years representing Planned Parenthood of Montana in a suite of legal challenges over abortion and reproductive health care limitations signed by the Gianforte administration. Collectively, six of those laws have been blocked by courts since 2021, though the legal challenges are still working their way through the court system. 

In the last few months, Graybill has also been one of the architects of a constitutional ballot proposal to create an explicit right to abortion in Montana, an amendment vociferously opposed by Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen and other anti-abortion advocates. The Montana Supreme Court has not yet ruled on whether the proposal will be allowed on the 2024 ballot. 

Graybill also helped challenge other marquee Republican policies that came out of the last two legislative sessions: a bill to allow open or concealed carry of firearms on college campuses; a law that sought to prohibit employers from requiring vaccines for staff; multiple changes to voter regulations; and a ban on transgender student-athlete participation.

Those legal challenges have raised Graybill’s profile in the Democratic establishment and among groups that have opposed recent Republican policies: reproductive rights advocates, labor unions, supporters of voting access and public education representatives.

“Every kind of advocacy group that I can think of that’s really important, Raph has played a role in helping,” Busse said. “And he’s well respected with all those.”

Graybill’s courtroom record and association with Planned Parenthood has also occasionally made him a target for conservative attacks. But Busse said his campaign is not shying away from that part of Graybill’s background, instead framing his reproductive rights work as a clear bonus that will resonate with a broad coalition of voters who don’t support Gianforte’s anti-abortion stances.

“Not only do I not think that’s a liability. I think it’s a massive positive,” Busse said.

The same goes, Busse said, for Graybill’s role in shaping the pending abortion initiative. Despite the Montana Supreme Court’s decades-long stance that abortion is legal under the state constitution’s right to privacy, Busse cast the recent amendment as a necessary response to Republican anti-abortion policies.

“Raph is showing up at the fire with a bucket of water. And I’m glad. Because Gianforte and the Republicans have promised to light the Constitution on fire,” Busse said. “Somebody better bring the water.”

Busse said he hopes Graybill, who attended Great Falls public schools, will appeal to Montana families who want their children to seek higher education and launch successful careers before settling down in Montana as adults. Graybill and his wife, Marisa, a public school teacher, are raising three children younger than five in Helena. 

Graybill’s family also has deep roots in Montana, specifically the north-central part of the state. His grandfather, Leo Graybill, chaired the 1972 Constitutional Convention and his great-grandfather started the family law firm, where the younger Graybill now practices, in Belt over a hundred years ago.

Busse said his campaign considered other possible running mates — including several women and even some Republicans — but ultimately opted for Graybill, in part because of strong recommendations from many Democrats and progressive groups. 

Graybill’s personal network, including his East Coast ties and stint as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, may also prove to be a boon for Busse’s campaign fundraising. In the lead-up to the November 2020 election for attorney general, Graybill brought in more than $725,000 in direct contributions, about 64% of which came from Montana donors. Knudsen, by comparison, raised more than $415,000, with over 90% coming from Montanans.

Busse said any extra momentum in fundraising would help, given Gianforte’s ability to finance his own campaign. 

“I wish that fundraising and money doesn’t play the role that it does in politics, but it does,” he said. “We better all be good fundraisers.”

Mara Silvers is a reporter for the Montana Free Press, a Helena-based nonprofit newsroom, and can be reached at msilvers@montanafreepress.org.