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Lansing — Republican attorney general candidate Tom Leonard has called his Democratic opponent Dana Nessel unfit to lead after a report revealed a high turnover rate and an “abusive” environment within the campaign.

Leonard, a DeWitt Republican and current House speaker, held a Monday press conference to denounce the “divisiveness and absolute dysfunction” of Nessel’s campaign.

Nessel’s campaign called Leonard’s press conference a “ridiculous and desperate ploy to distract media and voters because from the fact that Dana Nessel is up by double digits in the polls.” A poll commissioned by The Detroit News and WDIV-TV in early September had Nessel ahead of Leonard 42 percent to 29 percent with a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

A Plymouth Township attorney best known for helping to topple the state’s gay marriage ban, Nessel has churned through four campaign managers and six spokespersons throughout her campaign, according to the Michigan Information & Research Service. The Detroit News confirmed the number of Nessel staffers through campaign finance reports, though the employees' exact campaign roles were not all specifically listed.

One of her most recent hires for spokesman, Brian Stone, was let go after 48 hours on the job. Stone told MIRS he had a “rude awakening” when he began working for Nessel, whose campaign he described as “chaos,” “abusive” and a “horrible situation.”

“Everyone was working in fear of contact with the candidate,” he told MIRS.

“People had developed strategies for interactions with her,” Stone told the AP, adding that when he joined he was quickly warned about a “toxic environment.”

Nessel’s former senior adviser Abby Dart told the news service that she’d “never seen anything like it before.” A longtime Democratic political consultant, Dart said her “nerves were fried" after her August 2017 to June 2018 stint with the campaign and said there were instances where she felt she wasn’t treated with respect.

“Obviously candidates, particularly first-time candidates, are under a lot of stress,” she told the Associated Press. “But that doesn’t give them the authority to have the behavior that’s just really out of line, really out of line.”

But she said she still supports Nessel's policy positions. 

Dart and Stone told The News on Monday that they stood by their comments to MIRS but didn't want to elaborate about Nessel.

The comments from Stone and Dart are "outlandish," said campaign manager Alexandra Borngesser, who has been with the Nessel campaign since June.

"I have spent my entire career working in the legal field and Dana Nessel is one of the most capable attorneys I have ever worked with,” Borngesser said. “Any attacks against her character are outlandish and run counter to the experience I have had on this campaign."

The news is not entirely a surprise to some Democratic insiders, who have heard whispers of a tough transition from Nessel's fight for the Democratic Party endorsement to the general election campaign, said Adrian Hemond, chief executive at Grassroots Midwest, a Lansing firm specializing in political  and ballot measure field operations. 

Turnover doesn't necessarily indicate problems, he said, but coupled with publicized complaints from former staffers the change in campaign leadership could spell trouble.

While polling remains in Nessel's favor, "you don't want to give your opponent a chance to get up off the mat," said Hemond, a former Democratic legislative staffer.

Nessel could benefit from an increased focus on trying to appeal to voters and fundraising, he said.

"The candidate wants to be involved in every aspect of her campaign and that’s not ideal for this period in a statewide campaign," Hemond said. 

Nessel’s reported treatment of staff and a video in November in which she said voters could trust her to fight sexual harassment because she didn’t have a penis are examples of her polarizing politics, Leonard said.

As attorney general, Nessel would manage a more than $100 million budget and a department of more than 500 employees, Leonard said.

“When you look at Dana Nessel and the campaign that she has put together over the past several months and the rhetoric coming from her, I believe she is absolutely unfit to hold the position of attorney general for the state of Michigan,” Leonard said Monday.

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon said Leonard’s press conference amounted to mudslinging by a “desperate and flailing candidate.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3662

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