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Attorney general candidates launch dueling Michigan ad campaigns

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Michigan Attorney General candidates: Dana Nessel, (D), left, and Tom Leonard (R).

The Democratic and Republican candidates for attorney general released their first ads of the general election Wednesday, two days after the candidates traded jabs over a report of “chaos” within Democrat Dana Nessel’s campaign.

Nessel’s ad touts the Plymouth Township Democrat’s experience as an assistant prosecutor in Wayne County as well as her work in founding Fair Michigan Foundation, an anti-hate crime task force. The 30-second clip also slams GOP candidate Tom Leonard, claiming he sided with prescription drug companies and corporate polluters.

“I’m a prosecutor that won’t back down,” said Nessel, who is best known for her role in overturning the state’s gay marriage ban.

House Speaker Leonard’s two 30-second ads depict his work as a “tough as nails” Genesee County assistant prosecutor and include statements from law enforcement he worked with during that time.

“He’s no nonsense; he’s not going to play around as attorney general,” retired Flint Police Sgt. Lee Ann Gaspar said in the ad.

Leonard’s broadcast television ads began running statewide Wednesday and include buys in the Detroit and Grand Rapids markets, campaign spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said.  

Nessel’s six-figure ad campaign was launched Tuesday in Lansing, Detroit and Grand Rapid, according to her campaign, a day after Leonard held a press conference calling her “unfit” for the office because of problems in her campaign.

Former staffers within the campaign told Michigan Information & Research Service last week that Nessel’s campaign was “chaos” and one staffer's “nerves were fried” because of the environment. 

Nessel, who’s churned through four campaign managers and six spokespersons, did not directly address the allegations, except to issue a press release calling Leonard's statement a “ridiculous and desperate ploy” to distract attention from her lead in the polls.  

Her campaign manager Alexandra Borngesser said the attacks on Nessel's character were “outlandish.”

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.

Nessel’s ad appears to imply Leonard would do drug companies’ “dirty work” in the Legislature in exchange for "bankrolling" attack ads, and references media coverage of pork barrel spending in the 2019 state budget.

The Detroit News reported in June that the state’s budget included millions in targeted earmarks for pet projects requested by legislators, including specific transportation projects, improvements at Grand Haven State Park and grants for Detroit area museums.

Leonard told reporters at the time that he had not asked for any projects in his district.

On Tuesday, Leonard also offered to debate Nessel and independent candidate Christopher Graveline of Berkley in two separate debates, referring to both as his “two Democrat opponents.” Nessel hasn't responded.

A former federal prosecutor, Graveline secured his place on the ballot in early September and could take votes from either candidate. Some have speculated only Nessel stands to lose votes because former U.S. Attorney Barb McQuade, an Obama appointee, initially endorsed Graveline before shifting her support to Nessel.

Graveline “is clearly appealing to blue-collar Democrat voters” who take issue with Nessel’s behavior, D’Assandro said.  

Graveline said he’s open to participating in debates with his opponents but doesn’t believe he is likely to poach more from one party than another. He has said he entered as an independent based on the belief that the attorney general’s office should be nonpartisan.

“I think Mr. Leonard is trying to paint me as only having some appeal for Democratic voters,” Graveline said. “I think that’s just not accurate, and I’m here to prove I can win votes from both sides of the aisle.”

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