Election 2020

Michigan Democratic Attorney General Candidates Locked in Nasty Fight for Progressive Label

Pat Miles, former U.S. attorney in western Michigan, announces his candidacy for Michigan Attorney General at Ottawa Hills High School in Grand Rapids on Sept. 28, 2017. (Cory Morse /The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

Pat Miles, a former Harvard classmate of Barack Obama, and Dana Nessel, a former prosecutor who released a campaign video asking voters, “Who can you trust to not show you their penis in a professional setting? Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis?” are the leading contenders for the Michigan Democratic Party’s attorney general nomination.

Nessel, if she is nominated and wins in November, would be Michigan’s first gay statewide office holder.

“I think it’s about time that this (gay) community, a community that has been so deeply persecuted by the attorney general (Republican Bill Schuette), at long last has somebody who will protect them and defend them,” said Nessel.

Miles, Nessel, and the third candidate, Bill Noakes, only have a few days left to convince their political brethren they should be nominated for state attorney general.

Noakes, another attorney, who acknowledged he is trailing the other two candidates, said his campaign should not be discounted, just because he didn’t have a “catchy slogan about not having a penis.”

“You don’t earn converts to your cause by such efforts,” Noakes said as he criticized Nessel’s video.

Hard as it is to believe an intra-party election could get nastier than that, this one has done it.

But then again, pollster and strategist Ed Sarpolus said it’s a clash between establishment liberal Democrats and progressives who want the party to turn hard left.

Such a struggle is nothing new, Sarpolus told the Detroit News. But he said it is unusual for something like this to take place in public.

“Typically, this has been done behind the scenes,” Sarpolus said.

Nessel told the Detroit News that the days are over when candidates were chosen in the back rooms of conventions that were “sleepy little affairs.”

“I think we’re going to see massive participation by either long-term Democrats who were never actively engaged with the party, or people who never even considered themselves to be Democrats but they do now, and they want to be heard,” Nessel said.

The choice for the party’s attorney general candidate is expected to made by Democrats in Detroit on Sunday. Whoever is chosen would likely receive the Michigan Democrats’ official nomination during the party’s full convention in August.

Thousands of Michigan Democrats are expected to be at the April 15 convention including 3,300 party activists who, the Detroit Free Press reported, signed up for the party in just the past four months.

“We anticipate a heavy turnout primarily because of that (AG) race,” Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon told the Free Press.

Miles, Nessel and Noakes have all had disparaging things to say about Schuette, who is term-limited and, as a result, is running for the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination.

Miles has the backing of such Democratic Party stalwarts as the United Auto Workers Union and the AFL-CIO.

“Michigan’s working families need to elect an attorney general this year who will have our backs,” said Ron Bieber, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO. “As U.S. Attorney, Pat took on powerful interests and won for Michigan families, and as our next Attorney General, Pat will always stand up for working people.”

Nessel, 48, worked for 11 years as a prosecutor. But after that, she went into the private sector, working with clients who were often lower-income, working-class, or victims of discrimination and hate crimes.

Nessel maintained that she, and not Miles, was the candidate to protect “the people who need protection the most.”

She has also attacked Miles, accusing him of coming from “corporate America” and spending his career “hob-knobbing with CEOS and working at silk-stocking firms.”

Nessel told the Free Press Miles couldn’t “really see the ground-eye view to know the people out there who are really suffering and who need protection from the AG the most.”

She also criticized Miles for becoming more liberal on the issues of marijuana legalization and gay marriage.

“I have been progressive for my entire life. I was progressive when we used to call it being a liberal,” Nessel said. “I haven’t changed. I haven’t had to change who I am in order to suit the Democratic constituency.”

Miles disputed the allegation that he had flip-flopped, even though he never before had publicly stated a position on those issues.

“I am a progressive Democrat. I have always been a progressive Democrat,” said Miles, who tried, and failed, to unseat Rep. Justin Amash (R) in 2010.

Miles turned the dial up on the nastiness factor of the race for the party’s AG nomination when he filed a complaint with the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office on April 3 accusing Nessel of violating the Michigan Campaign Finance Act.

The 68-page complaint accused the Nessel campaign of not reporting several fundraising events that were advertised on the campaign’s website. In addition, Miles accused Nessel’s people of failing to report some campaign contributions. And, he said that Nessel took money out of her campaign’s bank account without explaining the payment.

“Michigan has some of the weakest campaign finance laws in the first place. And if you can’t even follow that law, then what kind of attorney general would you be?” Miles said.

Nessel campaign spokesperson Angela Wittrock said the complaint, filed by Miles himself, showed “just how craven this stunt is, and that he doesn’t have any supporters to advocate for him — just himself and his paid staff.”

“Not only are these attacks pathetic and ridiculous, they are fundamentally undemocratic,” Wittrock added. “What kind of Democrat files a complaint against a fellow Democrat for working to make certain that every person who wants to participate in the endorsement convention has the opportunity to cast a vote?”

Rather than being a political stunt, as alleged by Wittrock, Miles said the complaint asked a basic question.

“When you’re running for attorney general, you need to take the law seriously,” Miles said. “And if you can’t follow the law as a candidate, how are you going to follow it as attorney general?”