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Truth Squad: Counting the flips by Michigan AG candidate Pat Miles

In an increasingly caustic race for Michigan attorney general, former U.S. attorney Pat Miles has come under concerted attack ‒ not only from his Democratic primary opponent, but in a series of articles in the Michigan Progressive, a progressive media site.

Miles, who has tilted centrist in the past, is opposed by Dana Nessel, a progressive and the lead attorney in the federal court case that ended up overturning Michigan’s ban on gay marriage. (Nessel famously unleashed a campaign ad last year touting herself in this #MeToo era as “the candidate who doesn’t have a penis.”)

The drumbeat of Michigan Progressive attacks on Miles carries a common theme: that the Harvard Law-educated attorney has cynically discarded his moderate past to better compete with Nessel on the party’s left flank.  

Michigan Progressive contends Miles is setting “a record for flip-flopping” on issues from gay marriage to civil forfeiture, and lists a series of position changes by Miles.

We find the Michigan Progressive attacks mostly accurate, even though the publication overreaches a bit.   

The claims

Among the position changes cited:  

Medical marijuana: “Miles refused to say how he voted on the Medical Marijuana Act, which Michigan voters approved in 2008…Now he claims to have voted for medical marijuana in 2008.”  

Marijuana legalization: “Miles had stated for months that he would not take a position on legalization, but follow ‘the will of the voters’ at the ballot box. Two days after a poll was released showing legalization at 61 percent support, Miles reversed his position to be in support of legalization.”

LGBTQ rights: “When Miles ran for Congress against (Republican) Justin Amash in 2010, he opposed same sex-marriage. He also denied a speaking opportunity to an LGBTQ activist as Chairman of the Aquinas College Board, and has troubling anti-LGBTQ ties. Now, he calls himself an ‘ally’ of the LGBTQ community.”

Capital punishment: “Miles said he supported the death penalty in his 2010 congressional run. Now he says he is opposed to it.”

Civil asset forfeiture: “Flip-flopped during the Michigan Radio interview! That's got to be a record.”

The facts

In a September interview on “Off the Record,” a Lansing political talk show, host Tim Skubick asks Miles more than once if he voted for the state ballot measure passed in 2008 to legalize medical marijuana, including this exchange:

Skubick: “Did you vote yes on it?”

Miles: “I’m not going to talk about my personal vote on that issue.”

Then earlier this month, on March 7, in a Facebook post, Miles said he “voted for the medical marijuana ballot initiative in 2008.”

In that same interview last September, Miles is asked if he backs a 2018 ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana. Miles said then: “It’s up to the voters to decide…I will never use my personal beliefs to undercut what the people decide.”

On March 5, Lansing polling firm EPIC-MRA released a poll that found 61 percent of Michigan voters would vote yes on the ballot proposal. Two days later, again on Facebook, Miles wrote, “I've reviewed the language of the ballot initiative to regulate marijuana like alcohol, and find it to be very thoughtful and well-written, and I support it.”

On gay marriage, Miles was against it before he was for it. In a 2010 candidate survey in his run for Congress, Miles agreed that marriage should “only be between one man and one woman.”

Before that, in 2008, Miles had backed the decision by Aquinas College to cancel a talk by John Corvino, a gay-rights Wayne State University philosophy professor who intended to deliver a lecture entitled "What's Morally Wrong With Homosexuality?"

Miles, the college’s board chairman at the time, said then: “The president is authorized to make those types of decisions regarding on-campus programming and speakers, and his decision was consistent with college and board policy.”

Fast forward to this January, when Miles told Pride Source, a gay rights publication, that his views on gay marriage “evolved” to “where I believe in full equality under the law for everyone and that includes the right of same-sex couples to get married.”

Michigan Progressive also suggested Miles belongs to a church that espouses anti-gay views. The publication shared a 2014 message from Rick Lippert, one-time pastor at Grand Rapids Christian Church, that reads in part: “I do not support homosexuality or ‘homosexual marriage.’”

But according to Lippert’s LinkedIn account, he had left the church a year earlier, in 2013. Jen Eyer, Miles’s campaign spokesperson, said “anti-LGBT rhetoric has never been and is not currently preached at Grand Rapids Christian Church.”

On the death penalty, Miles said during his 2010 congressional race that he supported capital punishment for “certain crimes.”

That sounds similar to his stand in the “Off the Record” interview: “I do believe the death penalty can be appropriate in two very limited circumstances, for mass murders or serial murders where the evidence is absolutely clear that they (crimes) were committed.”

But at a January 13 meeting with 6th Congressional District voters, Miles apparently again evolved, saying: “I am personally opposed to the death penalty. I am very proud that Michigan was one of the first democracies, Western democracies, to outlaw the death penalty in the world.”

Finally, on civil forfeiture, Miles seemed to reverse his position at a March 16 appearance with Nessel on Michigan Radio. The practice, in which law enforcement agencies seize assets of individuals before they are convicted of a crime, has had its critics on the left and the right. A state House bill introduced last year would require a conviction before law enforcement could seize assets under $50,000.

In the Michigan Radio appearance, Miles first states: "There are instances where asset forfeiture is very appropriate,” he said, including forfeiture “before conviction.”

Later in the interview, Miles says to interviewer Lester Graham: “Well, we can go back to the asset forfeiture question if you want. I might have a better sound-bite for you.”

He then adds: “Well, I would say that on asset forfeiture, that we should make sure that there’s due process before people’s assets are taken and that in all cases that law enforcement is not allowed to unilaterally seize assets rather than freeze assets.”

Graham states: “That’s a little different from what you were saying before."

Miles agrees: “It is.”

The call: Mostly accurate.

By and large, Michigan Progressive’s assertion that Miles frequently changes his positions holds up.

Miles declined to say where he stood on legalizing medical marijuana and legalizing recreational marijuana use. Then he came out in support of both. If not a flip-flop, he took fuzzy stands on both before making it clear (in one case, on the heels of decisive polling) where he stood.

He opposed gay marriage. He later said he supported it.

He appears to have expressed different stands on the death penalty in this campaign after supporting it for some crimes in the past.

On civil forfeiture, Miles changed his stand in the course of a single interview.

The suggestion that Miles attended a church whose pastor espoused anti-gay views is not supported. And even if it was true, it’s a stretch to impart views from the pulpit to every congregant.

Hitting back, a Miles campaign spokesperson noted that Liano Sharon, a Michigan Progressive contributor, is Nessel’s cousin. Indeed, Sharon (who acknowledged they are related) shares Nessel’s campaign posts on his Facebook page.

Readers of Michigan Progressive can decide for themselves whether it matters that a key contributor to the publication is Nessel’s second cousin. (Sam Pernick, another Michigan Progressive, said he is the primary author of its articles on Miles.)

Truth Squad is less concerned about the publication’s editorial standards than whether the arrows it directed at Miles had merit. In most instances, they did.

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