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Lansing — State House Speaker Tom Leonard is officially running to be Michigan’s next attorney general.

The DeWitt Republican is set to enter the 2018 race for the GOP nomination to replace term-limited Attorney General Bill Schuette, he told The Detroit News in an exclusive interview ahead of his Thursday announcement.

“I absolutely love fighting for people,” Leonard said, pointing to his experience as an assistant prosecutor in Genesee County, an assistant attorney general for the state and his rise to the top position in the Michigan House.

“I want to continue that work as the state’s next attorney general. I believe we’ve got a lot more work to do to help the elderly, to help those that are suffering from mental illness and also those that are suffering from opioid addiction.”

Leonard’s candidacy sets up a potential convention showdown with state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, a Lawton Republican who is also running for attorney general. GOP delegates will select the party’s general election nominee next year.

Leonard, 36, said he is the second-youngest state House speaker in the country. His Republican peers elected him to the post in November, but he cannot seek re-election to the House because of Michigan’s strict term limits law.

As speaker, Leonard helped spearhead a GOP teacher pension reform law and is currently promoting a bipartisan auto insurance reform plan alongside Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. He pushed an income tax cut plan that fell three votes short in the state House in February amid budget concerns from Gov. Rick Snyder.

Leonard has also supported elder abuse prevention legislation in the House, created a task force to study the state’s mental health system and co-sponsored laws expanding access to mental health courts — efforts he said he would continue as attorney general.

Schuitmaker launched her campaign last month, calling herself a “law-and-order conservative who achieves results on life touching issues,” noting her legislation work to combat the opioid crisis and human trafficking, and her support for bills to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants.

Schuitmaker’s early launch allowed her to enter the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference as a declared candidate. Staff and volunteers promoted her attorney general campaign on the island with T-shirts, hand-outs and signs.

But Leonard topped Schuitmaker in an unofficial straw poll at the biennial confab of Republican activists and donors, an outcome he attributed to his history of working in “the grassroots” as a precinct delegate, on the state party committee and as Clinton County GOP chairman.

“I took that time on the island to not only reflect, but also speak to a lot of our grassroots,” Leonard said. “And there was no doubt after talking to hundreds of grassroots and seeing the straw poll come back after we left the island, that they are yearning for a strong conservative to get in the race and run for attorney general.”

Because the race will be decided by GOP convention delegates, “that definitely leaves room for surprises, and you really have to work the inside crowd,” said Susan Demas, owner and editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.

“But from what I can tell, Tom Leonard certainly seems to have the inside track.”

The battle for the Democratic nomination for attorney general also heated up last week with Pat Miles’ official campaign launch. The Grand Rapids resident served as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan under former President Barack Obama.

Dana Nessel of Plymouth, an attorney who represented a same-sex couple in a successful fight to overturn Michigan’s gay marriage ban, is also running for the Democratic nomination. State Sen. Steve Bieda of Warren and Tim Greimel of Auburn Hills have also floated potential runs.

Miles said his experience as a U.S. attorney, which included putting 31 members of the Holland Latin Kings gang behind bars, sets him apart from any declared or would-be challengers.

“What other candidates are going to talk about and promise that they’ll do, I have done. I have a record of accomplishment as U.S. attorney that people can judge.”

Democratic candidates have criticized Schuette on various fronts, but Leonard said he thinks the attorney general has done a good job overall.

But Leonard has new ideas of the office, including plans for an elder abuse task force to investigate and prosecute crimes against vulnerable seniors.

On Line 5, the controversial Enbridge oil and gas pipeline running beneath the Straits of Mackinac, Leonard said the state can’t “have a knee jerk reaction to shut it down now,” citing propane needs of Upper Peninsula residents, but should continue studying “the most responsible way to ultimately replace this line.”

Leonard said he personally opposes a potential ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana but as attorney general would “uphold” the law if approved by voters in 2018.

Miles is also taking a hands-off stance on potential pot legalization, declining to say whether he personally supports the policy but vowing to enforce the law if enacted.

“I don’t think that’s a mainstream Democratic position at this point in the year 2017,” Demas said.

Both Miles and Nessel could face “internal politics” in the Democratic Party, which could still open the door for other candidates, she said.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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