Attorney General Nessel won't debate DePerno, argues he's 'not a serious candidate'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel says she will not debate her Republican opponent, Matt DePerno, because of pending allegations against him and because, she argues, he is "not a serious candidate."

Nessel, a Democrat, made the declaration Wednesday, 69 days before the Nov. 8 election, as it remains unclear whether there will be debates in the races for any of Michigan's top three state offices.

"Mr. DePerno’s inability to distinguish fact from fiction and his persistent use of disparaging, dangerous tropes are beneath the dignity of the office he seeks to hold," Nessel said. "I will not be a party to creating a forum which will further allow Mr. DePerno to disseminate such hateful and dangerous rhetoric."

Michigan attorney general candidates: Republican challenger Matt DePerno vs. incumbent Democrat Dana Nessel

DePerno, a Kalamazoo lawyer who gained the spotlight by making unproven claims of fraud in the 2020 election, responded to Nessel's statement, saying she "can't defend her lackluster record of rising crime and demanding for a drag queen in every school."

"Michigan suffers from highest crime rate in decades, #10 is sex trafficking, fentanyl killing children," DePerno tweeted Thursday. "Nessel does nothing. Instead she has more police under investigation than anytime in Michigan history. Dana doesn’t want to defend her failing record."

His responses referenced a joke Nessel made at an event in June, when she spoke out against what she described as "fake issues" that are dividing people and said "drag queens are fun" and "make everything better."

Nessel, a lawyer from Plymouth, won her first term by less than 3 percentage points over Republican Tom Leonard in 2018. There was no debate between Nessel and Leonard ahead of that election either.

On Aug. 5, Nessel's office sought the appointment of a special prosecutor to consider an array of potential criminal charges against nine individuals, including DePerno, who allegedly engaged in a "conspiracy" to gain improper access to voting machines.

Nessel's office said DePerno was one of the prime instigators of the conspiracy, which unfolded as he and others advanced false claims that widespread fraud cost former President Donald Trump the 2020 presidential election in Michigan.

DePerno has denied wrongdoing and accused Nessel of using her office to try to create a story to hurt political opponents.

In an interview with The Detroit News on Monday, DePerno wouldn't say whether he funded efforts to gain access to voting machines in Michigan.

In her statement Wednesday, Nessel said under American Bar Association rules and responsibilities for prosecutors, she is obligated to "refrain from making extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused."

"I have every reason to believe Mr. DePerno will interject on this subject, whether asked about it or not," Nessel said. "And in abiding by my oath of office, I will — for all intents and purposes — be drawn into a boxing match with one hand tied behind my back, unable to speak about the matter and unable to repudiate any untruthful or misleading statements Mr. DePerno may assert."

As it stands, Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Michigan's top elections official, and her Republican opponent Kristina Karamo, an Oak Park educator endorsed by Trump, have also not agreed to terms for a debate yet.

Liz Boyd, Benson's campaign spokeswoman, has said Benson is prepared to do a joint appearance with Karamo on WKAR-TV's "Off The Record" public affairs show.

But in a statement Wednesday, Karamo claimed PBS, on which "Off The Record" airs, favors Democrats. Karamo said she wanted a co-moderator "leaning towards Republicans."

But she didn't specify who that person was.

"To make the debate happen, I will need to pick one of the moderators, and Jocelyn Benson may select the other," Karamo wrote.

Michigan Secretary of State candidates: incumbent Jocelyn Benson, left, and Republican challenger Kristina Karamo

In the governor's race, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has accepted invitations for two debates in October that would be televised statewide. But Republican challenger Tudor Dixon, a Norton Shores commentator and businesswoman, has argued the dates were too late because absentee ballots become available in late September.

John Sellek, founder of the Michigan consulting firm Harbor Strategic Public Affairs, said no candidate with a lead in the polls and fundraising, as Democrats have had in Michigan, is interested in giving their opponent a platform to beat them over the head with. Sellek said he's not convinced that Whitmer will ultimately debate Dixon.

As for Nessel and DePerno, Sellek, who previously worked with Republicans, said there is precedent for refusing to debate someone who leads with personal attacks.

"In 1998, (Republican Gov.) John Engler refused to debate (Democrat) Geoffrey Fieger after Fieger hurled a large number of insults toward Engler and his children," Sellek said. "Yes, politics is a rough and tumble industry but even today, there is a resistance to negativity in the middle that may decide this election."

Voters won't care if there are no debates, Sellek said.

cmauger@detroitnews.com