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Dana Nessel: Court wins, self-inflicted wounds mark term as attorney general

Dana Nessel on stage
Nessel has had some hits and misses in court since she was elected to office and charted a new course from her Republican predecessor. (Bridge file photo)
  • Nessel has scored several key courtroom victories, less successful on Line 5, COVID-19 rules, Flint
  • She’s in a close race with GOP challenger Matthew DePerno
  • Nessel’s own comments have provided fodder for critics

Attorney General Dana Nessel is no stranger to tough fights. She was the underdog for the Democratic nomination in 2018, and only narrowly defeated Republican Tom Leonard in a wave year for Democrats. Before that, she worked on a landmark case that eventually helped lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage around the country.

As she faces a tough challenge from Republican Matthew DePerno, best known for his work fighting unsuccessful legal battles against 2020 election results, Nessel said she would prefer the focus remain on her policy stances and record in office.

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But since taking office four years ago, Nessel said one of her biggest challenges yet has been dealing with violent threats against herself and her staff, many of which have targeted aspects of her identity. She refers to herself as the “triple threat” for the attacks: A Jewish woman who is Michigan’s first openly gay statewide officeholder.

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“It's always interesting to me, the rhetoric and the threats. Are they more anti-Semitic, are they more homophobic, or are they more misogynistic or sexist in nature?” Nessel said. “I try to keep a running total of which one is winning, in terms of the most targeted references to whatever specific group I happen to belong to.”

“It's been a lot, there's no question about it,” she continued. “It's been much more than I imagined it would be.”

Up for re-election on Nov. 8, the Plymouth Democrat has had her share of hits and misses on major cases as attorney general, and her words and deeds outside the courtroom have given her political opponents ample ammunition.

Of the three statewide Democratic incumbents, Nessel appears to be the most vulnerable: recent polls suggest the race is in a statistical tie, despite Nessel outraising DePerno by wide margins

DePerno, a Portage attorney, has argued Nessel is corrupt and ineffective, hammering her on rising crime, her office’s losses in Flint water prosecutions and an ongoing investigation into his conduct following the 2020 election, which has been referred to a special prosecutor.

“Dana Nessel has prioritized criminals instead of victims, she's prioritized politicians instead of every one of you,” he said during a recent rally with former President Donald Trump. “As your next attorney general, I will fight to clean up this state. I will enforce the laws. I will protect the Constitution. I will protect every one of you.”

Amidst that criticism, he’s peppered in nicknames for his opponent like “Drunk Dana,” referring to an incident where Nessel drank to the point of needing to be helped out of Spartan Stadium last year, and “Groomer General” in reference to an off-the-cuff remark in which Nessel called for “a drag queen for every school.” 

Nessel stands by her record in office and believes she accomplished most of her 2018 campaign promises, adding, “I can bring cases and I can make the very best legal arguments possible, but I can't control what the courts do.” 

The attorney general’s office oversees a $108 million budget and more than 500 lawyers, investigators, and other staff in an office tasked with ensuring consumer protection, public safety, civil suits, victims rights, addressing illegal business practices and more.

Nessel also promised to take threats against public officials and members of minority groups seriously and prosecuting them when necessary, arguing her opponent uses rhetoric that could inspire more violence.

“We don't want people to think that this is just part of our society,” she said. “It really hasn't been — not in my lifetime, until recently — and it shouldn't be.”

How Nessel performed in court

As a candidate in 2018, Nessel vowed to sue the Trump administration “all day, every day.” 

She didn’t spend every waking moment challenging Trump, but she did so quite a bit — and her handling of the office was in many ways an abrupt about-face from her predecessor, Republican Bill Schuette. 

Early in her tenure, Nessel reversed the state’s position on several federal efforts, joining a lawsuit aimed at protecting the Affordable Care Act and pulling Michigan out of cases related to abortion, LGBTQ rights and the separation of church and state. 

While in office, she joined lawsuits over the Trump administration’s handling of international students’ residency, energy efficiency standards, religious exemptions and more. 

Nessel said she’s proud of her work personally arguing a case that ultimately found the state’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 protects LGBTQ residents from discrimination because it prohibits sex-based bias.

Nessel pursued a widespread investigation into sexual abuse by clergy that has resulted in seven convictions so far. Last week, her office released a report detailing allegations against 44 priests in the Marquette diocese dating back to 1950, the first of several expected to be released. 

But her office has also had a string of losses, including: 

  • Efforts to shut down the Line 5 energy pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac, a key campaign promise. In August, a judge opted to keep Nessel’s lawsuit under federal jurisdiction, a blow for state attorneys hoping to battle the case in state court. 
  • The Flint water crisis case. Nessel had inherited the case from Schuette, but her investigators dropped ongoing charges, then used a one-person grand jury to bring new ones. Charges were dismissed after the Supreme Court ruled that one-person grand juries can’t bring indictments.
  • COVID orders. The state’s high court also ruled that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who was defended by Nessel’s office, overstepped her bounds when issuing emergency executive orders without legislative approval.

Nessel had more success defending the results of the state’s election in 2020, which were upheld amid a battery of challenges from Trump supporters claiming fraud.

“We're going to be prepared to do this in 2022 and again, if I’m in office, in 2024,” Nessel said. “I don’t get to decide winners and losers…my job is just to make sure that the legal processes are followed, and that the vote of the people is defended and protected.”

Nessel said her position puts her in stark contrast to DePerno, who rose to prominence among Republicans attempting to overturn the 2020 election results in Trump’s favor. 

“This is a person who was intent on suppressing the vote, subverting the vote, undermining the vote and I'm a person who believes in democracy,” Nessel said, referring to DePerno.

DePerno is under investigation by a special prosecutor, who is probing whether he participated in a vote tabulator tampering scheme. DePerno denied the charges and has claimed he’s a victim of political persecution from Nessel, whose has recused herself from the investigation and has declined to comment directly on the case. 

Nessel cited the charges in declining to debate with DePerno, saying she wouldn’t be able to comment on the ongoing voting machine investigation and was “reluctant to provide him a forum to disseminate (hateful) ideas.”

In response, DePerno turned up outside an event Nessel attended in Saginaw, calling her a coward who is “hiding from her record” as the “most corrupt attorney general in the country.”

A divisive approach

From her first viral campaign ad asking voters, “Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?” to Halloween-themed videos urging residents voting isn’t scary, Nessel has never shied away from injecting her personality into politics,

While her style won her progressive fans, DePerno and others don’t find her amusing, frequently citing Nessel’s comments and actions outside official duties as reasons she’s unfit for the job.

The “drag queen for every school” comment, made during a Department of Civil Rights conference, has taken on a life of its own, fueling attack ads and stump speeches from conservatives up and down the statewide ticket. 

Nessel has claimed the remark was a joke.

DePerno has said that’s why he refers to his opponent as “Groomer General,” telling the political newsletter Gongwer that Nessel has called him an insurrectionist, a criminal and bigot and adding, “The reality is she is a groomer. Why should we hide from that?”

During a Sunday rally in Dearborn, DePerno claimed Nessel would support drag queens in schools as a matter of policy, urging attendees to say “hell no.”

Nessel has had frequent critics in the Legislature throughout her tenure. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, at one point floated the possibility of impeaching Nessel if she refused to enforce existing Michigan laws she opposes. Nessel has said she will not enforce a 1931 abortion ban that is currently blocked by an injunction.

But she’s been especially frustrated by DePerno, who she said has resorted to using rhetoric that is “pure homophobia” and can lead to additional acts of violence against LGBTQ people. 

“He is a person who should be running for office to prevent crimes, and yet his language is actually causing them,” said Nessel, who during her time in office created a hate crimes unit in an effort to better track crimes against minority groups. 

“I've been doing this way too long to not recognize that that's the case. And I think he recognizes it — I just think he doesn't care.”

Looking ahead

Nessel views what she did behind the scenes — shaping the department, settling major civil cases, challenging utility rate hikes and working with the Legislature on criminal justice reform — as some of her most significant work in office.

During her tenure, she’s created units investigating hate crimes, payroll fraud, auto insurance fraud and elder abuse, as well as a domestic terrorism unit she says she believes “saved an untold number of lives.”

Nessel was also a key player in several bipartisan criminal justice reform initiatives that were signed into law, most notably the “Clean Slate” package that made expunging low-level crimes more accessible and expanded expungement to crimes like DUIs and marijuana charges. 

If re-elected, Nessel hopes to continue working on distributing the more than $800 million her office secured in an opioid abuse settlement to municipalities across Michigan, diving deeper into consumer protection issues, increasing cybersecurity and expanding on more recent issues the department’s begun exploring, including efforts to combat organized retail crimes and a pilot job court diverting low-level offenders away from the criminal justice system into job training initiatives. 

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Nessel said she will continue arguing for the necessity of revamping gun laws, noting that Republicans concerned about high violent crime rates could consider looking at ways to have fewer guns on the streets.

Nessel also said she wants to maintain bipartisan relationships, both within her department and with the Legislature. She said she values the Republican attorneys who work in her office and fears DePerno wouldn’t foster nonpartisan camaraderie. 

“Increasingly, one of my concerns is that if my opponent wins, it's not about me personally, it's about what will happen to that department,” she said. “There's so many good people there…they're just not interested in politics very much at all, but they are very interested in representing the people of our state. And that's what I’m committed to.”

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