Democratic Attorney General candidate Dana Nessel is running on a platform of environmental, consumer and civil rights protection.
Nessel is a former prosecutor at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office who later became known for her work on a landmark case that found Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional and eventually helped lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage around the country. She is the first openly gay person to run for statewide office in Michigan.
Who is Dana Nessel
Current job: President of non-profit Fair Michigan
Philosophy: “As Attorney General, I think the question that has to be asked is, ‘How can this office be used to best protect the public?’ Because that's really how I see this office. It's there to protect people who often don't have the means to protect themselves.”
Nessel spoke with Bridge Magazine about why voters should trust her leadership despite former staff calling her campaign “chaotic,” her view on suing the Trump administration and what her priorities would be as attorney general. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Bridge: What do you see as your top two or three priorities as Attorney General?
Nessel: (The Attorney General’s office is) there to protect people who often don't have the means to protect themselves. So I would say that, for me, my biggest priority right now involves ensuring that people in Michigan have clean and safe drinking water.
The first day in office, I want to make a concerted effort to shut down (Enbridge) Line 5. I believe that this has the possibility of ultimately being the biggest oil spill in American history. I also look at PFAS. I'm incredibly concerned about it. This is a situation which I think we've only hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of the depth of this issue, and the problem that it poses for millions of people in our state. And I look at the situation in Flint right now and issues of lead, and many other dangerous toxins that are in people's water all around state. It is an enormous concern.
The AG is uniquely situated to do something about all of these issues. I think that if we don't have clean and safe drinking water, then we really don't have anything.
Clean air issues are also important. We have a number of areas in the state of Michigan where we have astronomical rates of asthma and respiratory disease. And none of this has to be the case. We really need to have an AG that appreciates that part of the job is enforcing basic environmental laws.
In addition to that, I really want to restore the Consumer Protection Division of the office to its former greatness that Frank Kelley was able to achieve. There are so many things that the AG can do to protect consumers. Scams and cons, predatory lenders, seniors that are being exploited, and that includes products that are harming people as well. There's so much that (current Attorney General Bill Schuette) could be doing to better protect people. But that means, frankly, going after companies that exploit people.
Bridge: Attorney General Schuette devoted much his office's resources to contesting policies of the Obama administration. You have talked about aggressively doing the same against the Trump administration. What's your view on deciding when to sue, or join in a suit, against the federal government? What kind of process would you use to make those decisions?
Nessel: I think what's most important is to ask yourself the question: By filing this lawsuit, will this result in greater protection for Michigan residents if it's successful?
I truly believe that we have a federal government right now that isn't very concerned about protecting regular people, poor people, working class people in our state. If the only way to get the federal government to do its job and to protect people is to file lawsuits against them, it is a necessary tool in our arsenal of the AG to allow greater protection of our state residents.
I'll give you an example of a suit I would absolutely join. The Republican AGs, many of them are suing to attempt to dismantle the ACA (Affordable Care Act) and they have targeted the mandate that involves people with previous medical conditions. We have hundreds of thousands of people in the state that need those protections; they'll lose their health insurance without that mandate. And so the Democratic AGs, 17 of them, are fighting very forcefully to defend the ACA and that existing conditions mandate. I would absolutely join in that event to protect people in our state who need health insurance.
Bridge: What state Attorney General, here or elsewhere, do you most admire and why?
Nessel: There are so many of them that are doing great work. Josh Shapiro, the work that he's doing right now in Pennsylvania in holding the Archdiocese accountable for decades of child sexual abuse, I think that's incredibly important work.
Maura Healey, in Massachusetts, some of the work that she's doing right now to protect workers who have been misclassified. The state's not receiving taxes that the employer properly owes and the workers are not receiving retirement benefits or health care benefits that they are owed.
I look at Barbara Underwood in New York, and the work that she's doing to enforce things like Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act or ensure that superfund sites are being properly maintained or regulated.
Bridge: What would you say to Republican voters as to how you could also represent their interests in the Attorney General’s office?
Nessel: Most issues that I talked about wanting the AG to be the most active in are issues that affect everybody. Clean drinking water affects everyone in our state. It's not just the the kids that were drinking lead infused water in Flint, it's the kids who are in Kent county drinking PFAS and it’s people all around the state that have to be concerned and are suffering from fatal diseases as a result of the impurities in our water.
It doesn't matter what your income level is, and it doesn't matter what your race is and it certainly doesn't matter whether or not you vote red or blue. Those issues affect us all the same. I want to help everybody irrespective of what party they belong to, irrespective of whether or not they decide to vote for me on November 6. Everyone deserves those kind of protections.
Bridge: You’ve seen the MIRS reporting quoting former staffers as saying they worked in fear of having contact with you and that you created an environment that was abusive and chaotic as you cycled through campaign managers and spokespeople. Can you address these claims, explain what your leadership style is and, if even some of this is true, why voters should trust putting you in this critical state leadership position?
Nessel: The person that this was emanating from was the person who was on my staff for less than 48 hours....
People who know me will tell you that I'm somebody who does very extensive research on issues, that I'm careful to make certain that when it comes to legal issues I surround myself with people that I believe are true experts in their field and that I like to get a wide variety of opinions on different issues.
If you talk to people that I've worked with, they will tell you that I'm a person who is very thorough and that does intense investigation and research before I proceed on any issue and that is cautious when I need to be. But more than anything that every day decision that I make is done with the fact that I'm trying to protect my client and that I'm trying to protect the best interest of the community.
Bridge: To clarify, you are saying that these staffers’ complaints are not an accurate portrayal?
Nessel: I will say that a campaign, I think, is very different from running either a law office or the biggest law office in the state, the AG’s office. And obviously timelines and deadlines are still pressing in the AG’s office, but I think that there is generally speaking more time to vet people that you're working with and also to vet the cases and do a thorough analysis. That's how I intend to approach these cases.
Bridge: Truth Squad looked at the Michigan Republican Party’s ad tying you with Weinstein, Cosby and Nassar and found it foul. But it noted that your former firm did market itself to people accused of sex crimes using the example of cross-examining a 12-year-old. Even if it was your partner’s case, how do you square with voters your commitment to protecting abuse victims with your firm’s choice to do that?
Nessel: Not only was it not my case, not only did I not use that language, but we weren't working together anymore and I didn't have control over the website at that time. I had signed over the URL to him. Not only did I not know whatever cases he was working on, but I didn't know whatever he was posting on the website.
I was assured that he would be transferring it over to his PLLC, which was kept completely separate from mine. I don't condone the language that he used, and had we been working together, which we weren't, I would never have allowed that to be used in terms of any case. As much as I firmly believe that all people who are accused of crimes are entitled to a vigorous defense... I don't condone the language he used and it's hard for me to be held responsible for what somebody I used to work with did when I was not present and am no longer professionally affiliated with him. I think that is a standard that we wouldn't hold most people to.
Bridge: Your name was still on the firm. Was that just a formality? What were you doing at the time?
Nessel: I was campaigning. I was not working with him anymore and he got a separate PLLC, I went off on the campaign trail and he maintained the website with the understanding that he was going to be transferring them over to his PLLC and restructuring it and creating it so it (only said his name). In the meantime, he continued to post things on it and it still had my name on it. But I didn't control it, it wasn't my case, I didn't benefit financially from any of those cases during that time period and obviously I was incredibly unhappy when I learned of what was up there because I don't condone what he wrote. I was embarrassed and disturbed by it.
Bridge: Line 5 and the Flint water crisis are two issues that Attorney General Schuette has taken some criticism over and which would likely fall into the lap of the next attorney general as well. You said that those are big priorities for you. What are some practical steps you would or even could take as an AG on those issues?
Nessel: On Line 5 you could file suit in the court of claims to seek an injunction shutting it down. I don't want to say it's the easiest process in the world, but a lot of important lawsuits are not the easiest process in the world. I'm saying it can be done, it ought to be done, it needs to be done. And that is what I plan to do.
Ninety-five percent of everything that goes through that pipeline doesn't even serve Michigan residences, it doesn't even serve Americans. It's a Canadian pipeline for Canadians. And on Flint, I would be inheriting both the criminal and civil cases. In terms of the prosecution I would be able to reopen those investigations and be certain that everyone who is criminally responsible is properly charged. In the civil suits, I want to make sure that the civil suits are settled in a fair and equitable manner that protect people who were injured by the acts of the state.