Volatile Michigan attorney general's race shows gulf between Leonard, Nessel

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

A stark divide defines the race between Michigan's two leading attorney general candidates, whether it's over the future of Enbridge's Line 5 or potential enforcement of state abortion laws.

Republican House Speaker Tom Leonard promises to be a “rule of law” attorney general who will tackle mental health issues, elder abuse and government transparency complaints, while Democratic Plymouth Township lawyer Dana Nessel pledges to address water contamination issues and protect affordable health care.

Nessel has alleged Leonard is a creature of special interests who will choose campaign donors over Michigan residents. Leonard has attacked Nessel for “dangerous” policies and a hostile work environment toward her campaign staff that make her unfit for office.

Add third-party candidates who are potential spoilers for either candidate, and Michigan’s attorney general race has become one of the most unpredictable statewide races. The winner succeeds Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is running for governor.

Republican and Democrat attorney general associations have been pouring ads into the state while the candidates themselves have broken fundraising records. Leonard had raised more than $1.4 million through mid-September and had more than $1 million on hand. Nessel had raised more than $1 million in that same time period and had more than a half million still on hand.

Nessel has union and environmentalist group backing as well as endorsements from the Michigan Association of Police Organizations and the Michigan Professional Firefighters Union. Leonard touts endorsements from the Police Officers Association of Michigan, the Michigan Fraternal Order of Police, and the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs.

Leonard had narrowed Nessel’s lead from 13 percentage points in early September to 7 percentage points in early October, according to polls commissioned by The Detroit News and WDIV.

The race between Leonard and Nessel appears to be the closest of the statewide races so factors like campaign staff kerfuffles and third-party candidates could “matter at the margins,” said Adrian Hemond of Grassroots Midwest, a bipartisan political consulting group in Lansing.

“I would say this is the Republicans' best shot on any of the major statewide races,” Hemond said.

Clash of priorities

A former Wayne County prosecutor and defense lawyer, Nessel is best known for her work to defend lesbian couple April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, whose case helped to topple the gay marriage ban in Michigan and other states.

Nessel spent 11 years in the Wayne County prosecutor’s office until she moved into private practice where she did some indigent defense, probate law and cases pertaining to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

She helped start the Fair Michigan Justice Project, a task force that specializes in and trains other prosecutors in addressing hate crimes against the community.

“There weren’t a whole lot of attorneys that were willing to take those types of cases,” Nessel said. “We didn’t have a lot of good precedent in those areas to assist LGBTQ people and their families and their children.”

As attorney general, Nessel said she would focus on consumer protections, including going after drug companies that inflate pharmaceutical prices and defense of the Affordable Care Act and the “mandate that health insurance companies must insure people with pre-existing conditions.”

Nessel also plans to ensure Michigan residents enjoy clean and safe drinking water throughout the state. That effort would include the aggressive suing of companies contributing to PFAS chemical contamination and a lawsuit to shut down Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac.

“I talked to a lot of experts in this area,” Nessel said about Line 5. “I feel confident that I could bring a case in the Court of Claims that involves the violation of the easement.”

Leonard called Nessel’s plans for Line 5 “unconscionable” because of the toll a shutdown could take on residents in the Upper Peninsula who rely on Enbridge fuel for heat. Instead, the state needs a real solution, which Leonard argued the state is reaching through its agreements with Enbridge on building a future tunnel under the lake bed for the pipelines. 

The former Genesee County assistant prosecutor and assistant attorney general has served in the state House since 2012 and has been speaker for about two years. Leonard served in the special crimes division while working in Genesee County and practiced civil defense for the Michigan Department of Corrections under former Attorney General Mike Cox.

Some of his proudest accomplishments in the state House were getting rid of driver responsibility fees for the state and voting in favor of the Detroit bankruptcy deal, he said.

Should he become attorney general, Leonard would focus on advocating for the mentally ill through treatment courts, create an elder abuse task force and expand the public integrity unit in the Attorney General's Office.

The expansion of the public integrity unit would include appointing a state integrity officer and the first two efforts could include extra resources from the state office for local treatment courts and elder abuse prosecutions.

“Many of these cases cost tens of thousands of dollars to prosecute and they simply don’t have the resources,” Leonard said.

Enforcing state laws

Should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade and Michigan’s laws on abortion take effect, the next attorney general would choose how to enforce them. 

Nessel has said she is adamantly pro-choice and would consider the enforcement of Michigan’s anti-abortion laws an “infringement of a fundamental right.” In an online video earlier this year, Nessel held a coat hanger in her hands while stating that enforcing the state's abortion laws would “drive women to back alleys again."

“I think I would be a pretty strong advocate in wanting to make certain that laws that endanger women are pulled off the books,” Nessel told The News. “I will not prosecute women who seek to terminate a pregnancy."

Leonard said he would enforce the state's laws but dismissed the notion that they apply to women instead of just to abortion providers.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “That law would not allow nor should it allow for the prosecution of any woman that is going to or does have an abortion."

Leonard said Nessel’s refusal to follow the laws of the state have set her up as an “emperor” rather than an attorney general.

“Under no circumstance should the attorney general say that they themselves unilaterally will determine which laws will and will not be enforced,” he said.

Whoever wins will inherit half-completed, high-profile cases including the prosecution of at least six Flint water defendants, an investigation into Michigan State University’s handling of serial molester Larry Nassar and an investigation into clergy sexual abuse in Michigan’s seven Catholic dioceses.

Both Leonard and Nessel have said they will proceed with those cases, but Nessel said she wouldn’t spend as much on an independent prosecutor.

Campaign trail trials

The campaign trail has been riddled with potholes for both candidates.

Nessel has taken heat for telling people in an ad that they could trust her because she didn’t have a penis, and has been criticized by former employees for creating a hostile work environment. She also has been targeted, somewhat misleadingly, by the Michigan Republican Party for her law partner’s defense of accused child molesters.

Nessel has gone through six campaign spokespersons and four managers in a little more than a year on the campaign trail.

Former campaign spokesman Brian Stone told Frank Beckmann's WJR radio show in early October that he had been fired 48 hours after being hired because of a video that related the story of his physical assault. Stone, who is gay, said he used the words of his attackers in the video and that led to his firing.

Nessel confirmed to The Detroit News that she didn’t feel the language Stone used in the video was appropriate and he was terminated for that reason. But she characterized other critiques of her campaign as “rumor mongering” that distracts from the real issues facing Michigan.

Nessel’s former senior adviser Abby Dart told a political news service that 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. But both Dart and Stone indicated they still supported Nessel's policies. 

Leonard and the Republican Attorneys General Association have capitalized on the reports from Nessel’s staff, dubbing her “dangerous Dana.” Campaign staff complaints suggest she would be a tempestuous leader for the 500 employees of the Attorney General’s Office if elected, he said.

“She has not even been able to put in place a functioning campaign,” Leonard said.

Nessel in turn has criticized Leonard for accepting donations from corporations, arguing he would be beholden to the company donors. Leonard also has taken heat for touting the support of controversial rocker Ted Nugent.

Nessel also targeted Leonard this week for filling out a questionnaire for Secure Michigan, an organization deemed an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Secure Michigan tags itself as the "Refugee Resettlement Monitor of Michigan" on its website. The group's Facebook page says its mission is to provide "news and information regarding the costs and security concerns of the Refugee Resettlement program and its negative impact on the people of Michigan."

Leonard did not know of the group's categorization by the Southern Poverty Law Center when he filled out the survey in January to show "his support for diversity and strong borders," Leonard's campaign spokesman Gideon D'Assandro said.

"He was asked about his positions and wanted to honestly share his opinions," D'Assandro said. 

Third-party factor

Third-party candidates are garnering more attention in the attorney general's race than in the past. Libertarian Lisa Lane Gioia, independent Chris Graveline and U.S. Taxpayer candidate Gerald T. VanSickle also will be on the Nov. 6 ballot.

A Sept. 30-Oct. 2 poll had the alternative candidates getting almost 6 percent support from likely Michigan voters, with Gioia getting the most backing at 4.2 percent. The poll had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

Graveline might take votes from Nessel, who refuses to include Graveline in debates because she doesn't consider Graveline a viable candidate.

“It really just takes time away from the candidates that are serious,” Nessel said.

Libertarian Gioia may be a bigger factor than Graveline, said Bill Ballenger, a former GOP lawmaker and author of The Ballenger Report, and “all things being equal, Libertarians usually hurt Republicans.”.

“These third-party candidates who have any kind of base of support, if it’s a close race, they can decide who gets elected,” he said.


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