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Lansing — Democrat Dana Nessel’s stated concerns over sexual assault penalty bills in the Michigan Legislature should “disqualify” her from serving as the state’s next attorney general, victims of former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar said Thursday.

Morgan McCaul and Jessica Smith criticized Nessel’s comments in a press conference organized by Pat Miles, a Democrat candidate for attorney general who is locked in an increasingly divisive battle with Nessel heading into Sunday’s state party endorsement election in Detroit.

In a podcast interview earlier this week, Nessel said she has not read Senate-approved bills supported by Nassar victims but has “concerns” about provisions that would extend the statute of limitations to sue or prosecute suspects in juvenile sexual assault cases.

The Plymouth Township attorney, best known for helping topple Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, said she is in favor of ensuring there is “adequate” time for a childhood victim to seek justice as an adult.

“But on the other hand, as somebody who has both prosecuted many, many of those cases, but also defended them, it’s hard to defend yourself when you are accused of something that happened decades ago and when somebody makes that allegation or accusation against you,” she said.

Nessel is not the first attorney to raise such issues — Douglas Laycock of the Virginia School of Law questioned has questioned whether an initial version of the legislation was unconstitutional — but her comments have sparked controversy in the contentious convention race.

McCaul, noting that Nessel previously worked as a defense attorney, said any challenges the bills would create for lawyers “pale in comparison to the challenges that survivors face” in the wake of childhood sexual assault.

“Someone who exposes their moral corruption in this way has no place in the office of Michigan attorney general,” McCaul said. “I’m disheartened and frankly disgusted by Dana’s comments. … To put it simply, these troubling comments are disqualifying.”

Miles said he would leave it to voters to make that determination, but the Grand Rapids resident and former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan made clear he supports the bipartisan Senate legislation, approved last month in a 28-7 vote.

The Nessel campaign quickly responded to what it called the “latest Pat Miles smear attempt” with supportive statements from Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Lora Weingarden and law partner Chris Kessel, who said he wrote website descriptions of the firm’s criminal defense work that critics have also seized on.

Nessel accused Miles of dragging the Democratic attorney general’s race “into the gutter.”

“In true Trumpian fashion, Miles is exploiting the victims of Larry Nassar to attack the person in this race who has prosecuted more criminal sexual conduct cases than all other candidates, from both parties, combined,” Nessel said in a statement.

“I know first-hand that sexual assault and harassment is an epidemic in this country. That’s why I have been such a vocal advocate in the #MeToo movement, and an advocate of the need to change our culture so victims feel empowered to come forward.”

Miles declined to discuss separate accusations that his campaign offered to share Republican opposition research against Nessel.

“This isn’t about politics today,” Miles said inside the office of the public relations firm that helps run his campaign. “This is about the survivors.”

The attorney generals race, which also features former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission attorney Bill Noakes, is expected to be the focus of the Michigan Democratic Party’s early endorsement election Sunday at Cobo Center in Detroit.

Thousands of party members will also officially endorse a candidate for secretary of state — likely 2010 nominee Jocelyn Benson, who is the only declared candidate — and two candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court, likely University of Michigan professor Samuel Bagenstos and appellate attorney Megan Cavanagh.

Other candidates could still qualify for the electronic convention ballot by collecting at least 463 member signatures. Democrats will convene Sunday morning at Cobo, with voting expected in the afternoon or evening.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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