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Dana Nessel: What to know about Michigan Democratic attorney general

Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, was elected in 2018. (Bridge file photo)

Dana Nessel is a first-term Democrat who, as attorney general, has focused on progressive issues while investigating the Catholic Church for sexual abuse and pursing a mostly losing legal battle to close Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac.

Her office has advanced investigations into the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal at Michigan State University, started new investigative units and worked to expand criminal expungement.

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But she’s also had setbacks in attempting to prosecute the Flint water crisis, while her glib style has attracted detractors.

Nessel faces Republican challenger Matthew DePerno on Nov. 8. 

About

Nessel, 53, of Plymouth is a former assistant prosecutor in Wayne County and defense attorney. She is the first openly LGBT person to hold statewide office in Michigan. Nessel attended the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Wayne State University Law School. She has a wife and two children.

Background

Nessel became known for her work on a landmark case that found Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional. The case eventually helped lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage around the country.

During her tenure, she created a hate crimes unit, won key convictions in the Nassar sex abuse scandal and opened an investigation into a group which spread false information about the 2020 election. Her office recently sought a special prosecutor to investigate her opponent, DePerno, on claims he illegally breached voting equipment in his attempts to investigate voter fraud.

Nessel’s office dismissed pending criminal cases in the Flint water crisis in 2019, saying the investigation was botched under the watch of her Republican predecessor, Bill Schuette.

Her prosecutors issued new indictments, but were dealt a huge blow when the Michigan Supreme Court dismissed those charges because they came from a secret one-person grand jury.

Issues 

During the 2022 campaign, Nessel has frequently highlighted her stance on abortion, noting she would not prosecute the 1931 ban on the books in Michigan and supporting the ballot initiative that would enshrine abortion rights into the state Constitution. 

She has also pointed to her office’s work on consumer protection and protecting vulnerable citizens, including investigations of elder abuse, sexual assault cases, robocalls, payroll fraud, auto insurance fraud and COVID-19 related price gouging.

Nessel was vocal about reversing the state’s position on several federal efforts from Schuette, 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. 

As a candidate in 2018, Nessel said she would sue the Trump administration “all day, every day.” While in office, she joined lawsuits over the administration’s handling of international students’ residency, energy efficiency standards, religious exemptions and more. 

Controversies

Beyond the Flint water scandal, Nessel’s comments and behavior have provided fodder to her critics.

During a conference hosted by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, Nessel said she wanted a “drag queen for every school” during a speech that argued conservatives were raising “fake issues” about gender. Nessel said she was joking.

Last fall, Nessel acknowledged she drank to the point of needing to be helped out of Spartan Stadium during the Michigan State University-University of Michigan football game.

Some of her past work as a defense attorney also has come under scrutiny including her defense of a man accused of running over a kitten with his car and her former firm’s vigorous defense of people accused of sex crimes.

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