Former Michigan House speaker launching bid for attorney general

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — Former Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, a Republican who narrowly lost to Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel in 2018, will seek a rematch next fall.

Leonard of Dewitt is formally launching his campaign for the Republican attorney general nomination on Friday, the first day of the Michigan GOP's leadership conference on Mackinac Island.

The announcement sets up the potential for a competitive convention race between Leonard, a well-known and well-liked member of the party, and lawyer Matthew DePerno, who has gained a following in recent months by criticizing the 2020 election and already won the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. A third contender, state Rep. Ryan Berman of Commerce Township, is also running.

Former Speaker of the House, Tom Leonard, answers a question from a reporter about his candidacy for state attorney general in the next election on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021 after meeting with former Detroit police chief James Craig.

"My message is going to be squarely focused on Dana Nessel and making certain that we beat her in 2022," Leonard said in a Thursday interview. "And there is no doubt that I am the best person in the best position to beat her."

In 2018, he lost to Nessel by 3 percentage points but outperformed the other Republican candidates at the top of the ballot, including Bill Schuette who lost to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by 9 points.

Leonard was the speaker of the state House in 2017 and 2018 and served three terms in the chamber. He previously was an assistant state attorney general and an assistant prosecutor in Genesee County.

Trump nominated Leonard for U.S. attorney for the Western District two years ago. However, his nomination met resistance from Michigan's Democratic U.S. senators, and he was never confirmed.

Eventually, Leonard became a partner in Plunkett Cooney's Lansing office, serving as the firm’s government relations, public policy and regulatory practice group leader. He's also finance chairman for the Michigan Republican Party under Chairman Ron Weiser.

In a statement Friday morning, Nessel campaign spokeswoman Kimberly Bush,blasted Leonard.

"Since taking office, Attorney General Nessel has spent her first term prioritizing the people of Michigan and championing important initiatives," Bush said. "Leonard, meanwhile, has spent the last few years serving the interests of billionaires after losing the election."

But Leonard's history in the party and long-term connections are among the reasons many Republicans have viewed Leonard as a strong potential candidate for the party nomination for attorney general, which will be decided by delegates at a state convention in April.

Michigan's attorney general is the state's top lawyer and law enforcement official.

Leonard's campaign announcement featured endorsements from Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard and Tom McMillin, a conservative member of the State Board of Education.

"He has taken criminals off the street. He has comforted crime victims. He has supported Michigan’s men and women in uniform when they needed him most," Bouchard said of Leonard. "With all the challenges in law enforcement today, his focus on these issues makes him the right person for the job.”

Leonard's entry into the attorney general race could test the influence of Trump among party insiders. The former president endorsed DePerno of Kalamazoo on Sept. 16, calling him a "super lawyer."

DePerno has led legal efforts to question the results of the 2020 election in Michigan. Trump lost the state to Democrat Joe Biden by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points, a result that's been reinforced by dozens of audits, a series of court rulings and an investigation by the GOP-controlled state Senate.

Leonard avoided directly criticizing DePerno during an interview.

"I am going to stay focused on uniting this party and defeating Dana Nessel in 2022," Leonard said when asked about the last statewide election. "I have not seen evidence that would overturn the election results.  But what I do know is this: A court has ruled that Dana Nessel put her finger on the scale in 2020. She refused to defend our election laws. We will never know what impact that would have had on the 2020 election."

Leonard said he was referring to the handling of signature verification for absentee ballots. Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray ruled invalid Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's guidance issued to Michigan clerks in early October that instructed them to presume the accuracy of absentee ballot signatures.

Murray's ruling was based on Benson not going through the proper rule-making process when issuing the guidance.

Leonard said his campaign focuses will be standing with law enforcement, supporting victims of crime and fighting violent crime.

The Republican also criticized Nessel's push to shut down Enbridge's Line 5 oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac and her defense of Whitmer's unilateral COVID-19 executive orders.

"I can't imagine the number of businesses ... that may have been able to remain open, the kids that may have been able to go back to school if Dana Nessel had not played partisan politics and defended unconstitutional orders all the way to the Supreme Court," Leonard said.

Nessel has contended that Line 5 poses a threat to the environment and the governor's actions during the pandemic saved lives.

In October, the state's high court ruled 4-3 that a state law allowing the governor to declare emergencies and keep them in place without legislative input — the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act — was unconstitutional. 

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.