LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The race to be Michigan Democrats’ nominee for attorney general is a fight not only among a diverse field of candidates but also a reflection of pent-up tension within a party anxious to score victories amid Republican dominance at the ballot box.
Lawyers Pat Miles, Dana Nessel and Bill Noakes have two more weeks to make an impression before thousands of Democrats pick their favorite at an April 15 endorsement convention in Detroit. Barring a twist, the winner will be officially nominated at an August convention before facing a Republican in November’s general election.
The Democratic contest is shaping up as an increasingly pitched battle between Miles, a former U.S. attorney for western Michigan, and Nessel, a former assistant prosecutor in Wayne County. Both are now in private practice, with Miles focusing on corporate compliance and business work, and Nessel handling criminal defense, family law and LGBT rights cases.
Noakes — who could play a spoiler role but is not seen as a contender — has had a varied legal career, working for the Air Force, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and companies such as General Motors, Meijer and steelmaker Severstal.
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Electing any of the three would be a milestone. Miles or Noakes would be Michigan’s first black attorney general. Nessel would be the first lesbian to head the 500-employee department, which was last won by a Democrat — Jennifer Granholm — 20 years ago.
While unified in their criticism of term-limited Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette’s record, Nessel and Miles bring different career backgrounds and political styles to a convention fight that could test the extent to which organized labor — especially the leaders of the United Auto Workers union — can influence the outcome should they weigh in. Some 3,300 activists became first-time party members in the last four months and can vote in the attorney general matchup if they attend.
“We anticipate a heavy turnout primarily because of that race,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon.
Nessel, 48, highlights her 11 years as a prosecutor and her later work representing indigent defendants, working-class people, and victims of discrimination and hate crimes.
“I spent my career protecting the people who need protections the most,” she said.
Miles, she said, comes “from corporate America” and has spent much of his career “hob-knobbing with CEOs and working at silk-stocking firms. … You don’t really see the ground-eye view to know the people out there who are really suffering and who need protection from the AG the most.”
She added that that unlike Miles, she has not had to “evolve” on her support for gay marriage and marijuana legalization.
“I have been progressive for my entire life. I was progressive when we used to call it being a liberal,” Nessel said. “I haven’t changed. I haven’t had to change who I am in order to suit the Democratic constituency.”
Miles, 50, became the first African-American top federal prosecutor in Grand Rapids in 2012 after being nominated by President Barack Obama, a former classmate at Harvard Law School. The Western District covers 49 counties in the Lower and Upper peninsulas.
“I’ve got that leadership experience that both makes me a very formidable candidate in November and gives me the advantage (to) be ready from day one to be an effective attorney general,” he said. “We really need that experience now more than ever.”
Miles said his office put a pharmacy CEO behind bars for health care fraud and brought the charges that first led former sports doctor Larry Nassar to be detained indefinitely until he pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography and molesting girls. He said he is “proud” of his private-sector work representing small businesses owned by women and minorities and helping municipalities fight cable companies for better rates and customer service.
He denies that his recent pronouncement in support of a ballot drive to legalize marijuana for recreational use was a flip-flop. He had previously declined to state his position on the initiative, saying he would abide by the public’s will.
“I am a progressive Democrat. I have always been a progressive Democrat,” said Miles, who unsuccessfully ran for an open GOP-leaning congressional seat in 2010.
The Miles-Nessel tilt is reminiscent of the rift lingering from the 2016 presidential primary between the party’s Hillary Clinton establishment and Bernie Sanders progressive wings. She is generating excitement among grassroots activists and is counting on new party members to back her.
Looming large is the UAW, which historically has been able to use a large voting bloc to shape the ticket. It is uncertain if the union will give an endorsement, though, which Miles may need to secure to have any shot at winning.
His allies, meanwhile, note that male voters may not forget a provocative campaign video she launched last fall. To counter hand-wringing over having an all-female ticket for governor, secretary of state, attorney general and U.S. Senate, she pointed to sexual misconduct allegations against high-profile male political and media figures and told viewers that “we need more women in positions of power, not less. So when you’re choosing Michigan’s next attorney general, ask yourself this: Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting? Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis? I’d say so.”
Nessel, who has said she never intended to offend anyone, said her gender if anything is an asset and Democrats should put “the most exciting candidates on the ticket as possible because that’s what’s going to get people out to vote.” She also addressed some anxiety within the party that her criminal defense work could make her less electable in November, saying she has more prosecutorial experience than all the other candidates combined, including the Republicans — House Speaker Tom Leonard and state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, who will face off at a nominating convention in August.
“It’s time that we as Americans push back at the notion that there is anything wrong with being a criminal defense attorney,” Nessel said. “We need to have good advocates for the accused to make sure the system works properly.”
Noakes, 61, said his candidacy should not be discounted.
Nessel had a “catchy slogan about not having a penis,” he said, “but you don’t earn converts to your cause by such efforts.” He contended that he has more relevant courtroom experience than Miles and is better prepared than Nessel to lead a large office on the first day.
“I don’t play to lose. I play to win,” Noakes said.
Follow David Eggert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/David%20Eggert .