In heated AG race, Leonard refuses debates, Nessel faces more staffer fallout

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Dana Nessel

Madison Heights — Republican attorney general candidate Tom Leonard has refused three debates with his opponent Dana Nessel, a development that deprives voters of the information they deserve to know about their candidates, Nessel said Wednesday.

“Tom Leonard has refused to debate me because he knows that he can’t defend his record” on issues such as health care, his legal experience and campaign donations, Nessel said.

Nessel’s challenge to Leonard is the latest in a heated race between the Plymouth Township attorney and the GOP House speaker that has included allegations of pay-to-play politics,  paltry legal experience and campaign staffing strife.

Leonard’s campaign confirmed he had turned down those debates but argued that Nessel had been the first to pull out from a separate Macomb County debate because independent candidate Chris Graveline was scheduled to participate. Leonard “moved on” after that cancellation and is focusing on meeting voters face to face, said Gideon D’Assandro, a Leonard spokesman.

 “Now, with just a handful of days to go and polls tightening she’s trying to play games,” D’Assandro said.

Nessel has said she would agree to a debate between the two viable candidates but said including a candidate like Graveline "takes time away from the candidates that are serious."

During a Wednesday press conference, Nessel read from a script as she answered questions from her campaign on different issues she supports such as clean water policy, increased civil rights protections, action against climate change and government transparency. Nessel emphasized her public presence at town halls and questioned Leonard’s transparency with voters.

“I have some incredibly deep concerns about how somebody like Tom Leonard will behave in the event that he actually becomes attorney general,” she said.

Nessel also addressed reports of turnover in her campaign, saying some employees were contracted for a short period of time. Michigan Information & Research Service reported in September that Nessel had gone through four campaign managers and six spokesperson on the campaign trail.

Former employee Brian Stone told the research service that the environment working for the campaign was “chaos” and a “horrible situation.” Longtime Democratic political consultant Abby Dart told the news service that she’d “never seen anything like it before” and that her “nerves were fried” after her August 2017 to June 2018 stint.

Nessel told The Detroit News continued media coverage of the issue amounted to “rumor mongering,” but on Wednesday said, as a first-time candidate, there has been a learning curve.

Shortly after Dart’s comments were published, Nessel texted Dart to ask her why she felt the need to “publicly vilify” Nessel and said Dart’s comments would help Leonard to become attorney general, according to text messages Dart released to The News.

In the text exchange, Nessel said she was saddened by Dart’s comments and that by potentially threatening Nessel’s chances Dart risked the continued operation of Enbridge’s Line 5, the persecution of minorities and deaths resulting from PFAS chemical contamination.

“I hope that trade off is one you feel good about,” Nessel wrote.

Dart replied that she hadn’t teamed up with Stone, but answered honestly when she was contacted by a reporter. She said she was not prepared to lie and said “the campaign was an unhealthy environment.”

“Dana I was asked about the environment of the campaign and we both know it was very bad and apparently didn’t get better,” Dart wrote.

“Why participate in it though?” Nessel asked.

Dart, who left the campaign of her own accord, said she struggled with whether to come forward because she supports Nessel’s policies. But she stood by her statements that the campaign environment was “toxic and unhealthy.”

“I realize now that leading at a high level means that the leader has to be able to treat staff with respect and keep staff on board and that is critical to having success with good policies,” Dart said Wednesday.

Dart said she felt a responsibility to speak out for other employees, including ones who she said had signed non-disclosure agreements.

“When is it OK to bring this up?”she said. “Our political campaigns, are they not your average work place? Are they immune from regular work place rules?”

Nessel released to The Detroit News separate texts from Dart shortly after she left the campaign to spend more time with her family. In the text messages, Dart said she missed the campaign and would "send every possible supporter your way."

"I know you will win and be the best AG ever," Dart wrote. 

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy voiced similar support for Nessel, who she said is "by far the most qualified candidate."

Worthy said she has known Nessel for about 25 years, working alongside her in the prosecutor's office and hearing her cases as a judge in Wayne County. Nessel was always professional, appropriate and "even lighthearted" at times, she said. 

"These are vicious attempts to try and discredit her and it has nothing to do with her qualifications,” Worthy said.

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