'U' lecturer Richard Bernstein enters race for Michigan attorney general

BY BETHANY BIRON
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 25, 2010

Richard Bernstein, a political science lecturer at the University, announced Monday that he will be seeking the Democratic nomination in the race for attorney general of Michigan.

Bernstein — a trial attorney with The Sam Bernstein Law Firm based in Farmington Hills — said he formally launched his campaign in Lansing Monday morning.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily Monday after the announcement, Bernstein said he was inspired to run for attorney general because it would give him the opportunity to make lasting changes for Michigan residents.

“What inspired me to do it is the fact that this is a position where you can make a tremendous difference to so many different people,” Bernstein said. “That this is a position where ultimately you can make life better for so many people in so many different ways.”

Bernstein’s law career has focused mostly on social justice law. As the head of the firm’s public service division, Bernstein has tried many cases related to the issues that minorities and underrepresented citizens face. The class he teaches at the University — Law and Social Change — focuses on these issues as well.

Bernstein said that after making a career out of fighting for the rights of everyday Michiganders he wants to help even more people by becoming a public official.

“I think that if we had a strong, viable attorney general’s office, then this is the kind of role that government should be playing, it’s helping people make a difference in their lives,” he said.

Bernstein added that his past work on challenging social justice cases highlights his ability to stand up and defend those who’ve been underrepresented by the state.

“When you look at the work that I’ve done, basically I take on the cases that most lawyers won’t touch or won’t take,” Bernstein said. “And I take on pretty much the most difficult cases that ultimately, in many situations, most attorneys aren’t going to touch because they are very expensive, they’re very intense and they can be overwhelming.”

In a recent campaign letter to Michigan voters, Bernstein wrote that he would like to become attorney general so that he can continue his work serving underrepresented Michigan residents. He added that he feels a special connection to those who have faced challenges throughout the state because he has been blind since birth.

“Times are tough,” Bernstein wrote. “And like so many people in this state, I know what it’s like to be counted out. That’s why I want to harness the power of the Attorney General’s office to stand up for people who need a voice — working families, seniors, children, veterans, students and those who would otherwise have no representation.”

Bernstein said that throughout his career he has specialized in providing access for all to public transportation, aviation, education, technology and other “basic things that we all take for granted.”

“When you’re looking at the kind of cases that I’ve handled, these are cases that have had a tremendous impact on the lives of people and ultimately these are cases where the stakes are incredibly high, and I had to really fight hard,” Bernstein said. “But the most important thing is that these were the kind of cases that I think really have helped a lot of people…it’s all about making sure that folks have access and can live a decent quality of life.”

If elected, Bernstein said some of the major issues he will focus on include fighting child internet pornography, child predators on the internet and identification theft. He added that he also plans to address corporate malfeasance, the policies of many health insurance companies, corporate dumping and pollution and other issues.

“I think the essence of what we’re really going to be focused on is that, as attorney general, is that I’m going to be taking on the real battles, not just the cosmetic ones,” Bernstein said. “The real battles that can have the biggest impact on the most number of people.”

Bernstein made his formal campaign announcement today at two different events in Lansing and West Bloomfield on Monday. At the West Bloomfield event he was endorsed by Congressman Gary Peters (D–Mich.) and at the Lansing event he was endorsed by Congressmen Mark Schauer (D–Mich.).

In an interview Monday, Schauer said Michigan needs someone like Bernstein, who is focused on representing the people, as attorney general.

“We need an attorney general who’s fighting for working families and against the powerful and special interest companies, the Wall Street banks that have been ruining Michigan’s economy,” Schauer said. “He has a proven record for fighting for everyday people. Not only fighting, but winning. He’s someone who I can trust as a public defender in Michigan.”

Schauer added that he thinks Bernstein will continue to defend people who are often unfairly targeted and taken advantaged of.

“I think what we need is an attorney general tough on crime and that understands that there are many crimes committed through scams and rips-offs,” Schauer said. “Richard understands this, and he will go after all of those crimes committed against working people, seniors and the specially challenged.”

Charles Shipan, chair of the University’s department of political science, said Bernstein has shown vast experience in the area of social change law and that his course is widely popular among students.

“He’s very experienced in this area and very passionate about it, and I think his students recognize these things,” Shipan said. “I do know that his courses do draw a lot of students, and you know that word of mouth goes around if students like a class that other students know about that.”

Shipan said Bernstein’s experience as an attorney and a lecturer of social justice issues could potentially help him lead a successful campaign.

“My view is that he’s been spending most of his life talking about these sorts of issues,” Shipman said. “You know, these sorts of social change issues that he’s most interested in, and so he brings experience about those things to the classroom, and he would bring a similar experience to running for and possibly serving as attorney general.”

Shipan said that though Bernstein has extensive experience as a trial lawyer and a teacher, he could face challenges appealing to Michigan voters, as he has never held public office.

“It’s up to the voters, and he would have to make the case for (being attorney general),” Shipan said. “The things that you do for a class, and this would be true for anybody who teaches at a university, are not necessarily the same things that you would do in running a campaign or in serving in office.”

He continued: “It’s not always clear how capabilities in one area translate into capabilities in another.”

John Prescott, campaign spokesman for State Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R–Rochester), who is also running for attorney general, said since Bernstein doesn’t have a record as a public official, it is difficult to gauge how he will do in the race.

“He doesn’t have a record, so we don’t know what he’s running on, so we just don’t know at this point,” Prescott said. “We’ll see what happens. We don’t know what kind of candidate he is.”

Prescott also said that compared to his competitors, Bernstein has the least amount of experience, which he said might prove to be an obstacle.

“I mean you look at both republicans who have years of service and practicing law and things like that, and the democrats have years and different levels of service as well,” said Prescott. “I think he’ll be the most inexperienced candidate in the race. We’re all just kind of waiting to see what he does.”

According to The Associated Press, other candidates for attorney general include Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton (D) and former U.S. Rep. and Michigan appellate judge Bill Schuette (R). As of Dec. 31, 2009, Bernstein had raised $5,474 for his campaign, trailing Bishop with $75,320 and Schuette with $217,128, the Detroit Free Press reported on Feb. 2, 2010.