Where they stand: Michigan Attorney General candidates

The major party candidates remaining to become Michigan’s next attorney general will face some immediate decisions relating to the Flint water crisis and criminal justice reform if elected. (Left to right: Tom Leonard, Tonya Schuitmaker, Dana Nessel)

Oct. 31, 2018: Here’s who endorsed the 2018 Michigan Secretary of State candidates
Related: Three Michigan Attorney General candidates with wildly different visions
Related: Dana Nessel: To fight for environment, most vulnerable as Attorney General
Related: Tom Leonard: Vows to be ‘rule-of-law’ Michigan Attorney General
Related: Chris Graveline: Why Michigan needs an Independent Attorney General

Republicans and Democrats in Michigan will select their nominees to succeed Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette at state party conventions this weekend.

Bridge Magazine asked GOP hopefuls — Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, the current House speaker, and state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton — and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Plymouth attorney Dana Nessel, to detail their positions on two issues they will face if elected in November:

  • The ongoing prosecution of state and local officials related to the Flint water crisis, and
  • State criminal justice reform.

Schuitmaker was the only one of the three not to supply written answers to Bridge.

Related: Where they stand: Michigan Secretary of State candidates

Nessel was endorsed by state Democrats at a party convention in April, though she isn’t expected to officially be named the party’s nominee until this weekend.Candidates’ answers are below. Some answers have been edited for grammar and length.

QUESTION: You may inherit the Flint water criminal investigations regarding local and state officials. Do you agree with the decision to prosecute the current cases, and what would be your approach to prosecuting them?

Republicans

Tom Leonard: The Flint water crisis was the result of critical government failures and awful decision-making by people who were trusted with the responsibility of looking after this community. Every single Michigan resident, and especially those living in Flint, deserves to know exactly what those failures were, how they happened and who was responsible. Michigan’s next attorney general must make answering those questions and achieving justice for the people of Flint top priorities.

Regarding my approach to prosecuting the ongoing criminal case, I know from firsthand experience there are many complicated factors that go into a criminal prosecution. I learned early in my career as a Genesee County prosecutor not to take lightly the role I played in bringing criminal charges against real people. I saw every day how important it is to review all the information available before making or second-guessing such a serious and long-lasting decision.

These are obviously difficult and complicated cases and, until I know all the facts available to the attorney general and his prosecutors, I cannot say for sure which changes in direction may be needed. That may not be the most provocative answer, but it is honest and true to how any rule-of-law attorney general should operate. Anyone with prosecution experience should feel the same way. Once I am able to see all the evidence available to prosecutors upon taking office, I will act swiftly to ensure justice is served.

Tonya Schuitmaker: Schuitmaker’s campaign did not respond to email and phone messages seeking comment.

She told Bridge in an interview during the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference in the spring that the Flint crisis was “a failure of government on all levels.” But she declined to discuss how she would approach the ongoing prosecution of state and local officials.

“I think it would be improper for me to comment on an ongoing investigation,” Schuitmaker told Bridge at the time, adding that doing so would go against “the code of conduct of an attorney.”

Democrat

Dana Nessel: I have long been a critic of the way in which Bill Schuette has handled the Flint water crisis investigation and subsequent prosecutions. Schuette has never had any real interest in seeking justice for the residents of Flint. He is merely an opportunist who has used the crisis to further his political ambitions via a series of politically charged show trials.

Prosecutors should never be paid hourly, as this practice risks incentivizing the charging of unsustainable cases, filing frivolous motions and calling unnecessary witnesses to testify. Additionally, the appointed special prosecutor, Todd Flood, is a significant donor to both Schuette as well as to (Gov. Rick) Snyder, ostensibly one of the targets of the investigation. Schuette effectively recused the office of (attorney general) due to a “conflict of interest,” since the state of Michigan employs many of the defendants, then proceeded to appoint a special prosecutor with an even bigger conflict of interest. The state has now paid out (roughly) $25 million for attorneys’ fees in what can only be viewed as a mockery of the criminal justice system. The residents of Flint are no closer to obtaining justice, and the taxpayers of Michigan are considerably worse off.

As attorney general, I would create a firewall in the office to address any conflict of interest issues. I would hire assistant AGs who are true civil servants, experienced prosecutors or defense attorneys, with no financial self-interest in the charging or dismissal decision-making process. I would re-evaluate the investigation and any pending cases in their entirety, as the entire process has been highly suspect. If justice merits charging additional defendants, or dismissing pending cases, I would not hesitate to take such actions.

Question: Michigan spends roughly $2 billion per year on corrections. Do you believe Michigan’s criminal justice system needs to be reformed? If so, how should the system be changed to cut costs and decrease recidivism? If no, why not?

Republicans

Tom Leonard: I have spent my entire career working hard to make our criminal justice system safer and stronger for all Michigan residents. That includes serious reforms on both the front end, to keep people from committing crimes, and on the back end, to help get them out of the system and back to being a productive member of society.

From the very beginning of my campaign, I have said I will be an attorney general with both an open heart for those in need and a jail cell for those who want to harm Michigan families. That includes working with local prosecutors and judges to expand Michigan’s wildly successful diversionary courts. We have expanded access to veterans’ courts, drug courts and mental health courts in the Legislature, and I was a part of Michigan’s very first drug court when I was a prosecutor in Genesee County. I have seen firsthand the difference these programs can make in people’s lives and how successfully they can help people in need re-transition back into society more safely than ever.

I will do everything I can as the state’s next attorney general to support mental health diversionary programs statewide and to partner with local communities who want to pursue smart reforms to keep people from falling through the cracks in our current system.

There is a direct link between unemployment and recidivism, which is why I have focused on reforms which rehabilitate offenders and help them get back to being productive members of society. I support expanding the “swift and sure” probation program to help people who struggle with the probation system find a structure that keeps them on a stable path. I have also spent years working across the aisle on legislation to expunge old criminal records and give people who are making an honest effort a real shot at getting their lives back on track. In Michigan, the attorney general, the local prosecutor and the victims all work together on expungement requests, and that is a large responsibility for whoever next holds that office.

Tonya Schuitmaker: Schuitmaker did not respond to email and phone messages seeking comment.

Her campaign website does not address her positions on whether or how Michigan’s criminal justice system should be reformed.

Democrat

Dana Nessel: Republicans claim to be “tough on crime,” but they certainly have not been very smart on crime. Their policies are inhumane, costly and do nothing to enhance public safety.

A significant percentage of those who enter the criminal justice system are a product of the inability of Michigan residents to obtain proper treatment for various conditions. Many of these defendants suffer from mental illness, have addictions to drugs or alcohol or are veterans suffering from PTSD. As Michigan Attorney General, I would vigorously advocate for specialized mental health courts, sobriety courts, drug courts and veterans’ courts in every jurisdiction. These specialty diversion courts allow defendants to be diverted away from the criminal justice system and into treatment programs.

I would work with the Legislature and governor’s office to advocate for an amendment of the expungement laws. This would allow expungements of crimes under the Motor Vehicle Code and for those convicted of marijuana-related crimes following the passage of legalization for recreational marijuana via Proposal 1.

I would establish a Conviction Integrity Unit to work with local prosecutors and nonprofit organizations, such as the Michigan Innocence Clinic, to investigate cases of alleged wrongful conviction.

I will create a Police Conduct Review Team, which can work with local prosecutors to investigate and, if circumstances require it, take civil action or proceed on criminal prosecutions against members of law enforcement who infringe upon the rights of community members.

I will advocate for the funding of better job training and education programs within the (Michigan Department of Corrections) and for parolees once they exit prison. Bail bond reform efforts in Michigan are an essential overhaul to the criminal justice system which are desperately needed.

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Comments

Trifle
Fri, 08/24/2018 - 7:53am

Apparently, Ms. Schuitmaker doesn't believe she needs to take positions on AG-related issues - that people should vote for her just because she's an adorable blonde.

Matt
Fri, 08/24/2018 - 7:27pm

This type of sexism is appalling, one can only imagine the howling if it was directed toward a woman on the left!

Louise Weller
Fri, 08/24/2018 - 9:04am

I question the editorial choice made by Bridge when choosing the pictures at the top of this story. There are nice smiling head shots of the Republican candidates and a shot of Dana surrounded by mikes and looking stressed. What's up with that? What message is Bridge magazine sending?

Richard Grieves
Fri, 08/24/2018 - 10:04am

I agree; however, I believe that Dana's statements are far more responsible and realistic than those of the other candidates.

John Q. Public
Fri, 08/24/2018 - 8:10pm

The criticism should be leveled at the proper party. I imagine Bridge, like most print media outlets which don't employ photographers any more, depends on either file photos or ones provided by the subjects. I'm always suspicious of candidates who release old PR photos in a narcissistic attempt to appear younger and more fit than they actually are. I just use type names in Google and choose "Images" to see what they really look like now, and it's astounding (well, not really considering that in the profession they're in, career advancement is dependent on effective prevarication) how many do that. That one of Schuitmaker looks to be about ten years old. Leonard, probably five.

At least Nessel's not afraid of how who she really is will be perceived by the masses.

Matt
Mon, 08/27/2018 - 7:55am

Well maybe it's because our friends on the left spend their entire lives on various grievance campaigns so why would anyone expect them to be happy about anything?

PLombard
Sat, 08/25/2018 - 12:35pm

Mr. Leonard stated "I have spent my entire career working hard to make our criminal justice system safer and stronger..." A quick look at his state representative career (thusfar) reveals he has introduced 47 bills, eight of which impacted criminal justice (17%). Seven in his first term and one in his second.
Although Ms. Schuitmaker doesn't seem to want to respond, in the same time frame as when Mr. Leonard served, she introduced 198 bills, 21 of which were criminal justice (11%).
Ms. Nessel, a criminal defense attorney, doesn't have any legislative experience and she took down her law firm's website (you are now redirected to Chris Kessel's website.) A person might assume she didn't want people to know what approach she promoted to criminal law before she became the Democratic nominee.
I don't think we've got the best slate of candidates possible.
Legislative data from michiganvotes.org - thanks to them.
PS. Took me three tries at the Captcha thing.

Lorraine Graham
Mon, 08/27/2018 - 8:38am

You couldn't have asked for a better photo of Ms. Nessel? Ms. Schuitmaker who didn't provide any answers still gets top billing to Ms. Nessel. I somehow suspect bias on Ms. VanHulle's part.

Frogtog
Mon, 10/01/2018 - 4:15am

All I know is in my dealings with schuitmaker as her constituent I have never found her to be responsive. She always comes back with her own right wing agenda.

Jen
Sun, 10/07/2018 - 7:05pm

The Photo of Nessel Makes Bridge look biased and unprofessional. And, considering Nessel answered the query while Schuitmaker did not, Schuitmaker's and Nessel's photo placements should be switched. Due to this - especially the ridiculous photo of Nesser - I'm heading for a different source to get my information.

Mary J Wisneski
Tue, 10/23/2018 - 7:19pm

Why isn't Chris Graveline on the page for AG? He's a great Independent candidate and disappointing that you don't mention him.

Tony
Sat, 10/27/2018 - 1:39pm

No coverage for the independent? Chris Graveline was one of the Abu Gharaib prosecutors. Michigan needs his expertise and his non-partisan legal approach.