Q&A with Mich. Democratic Attorney General Candidate Dana Nessel

Dana Nessel

See the BTL introduction to this candidate's interview

You're not the only LGBTQ candidate running for a statewide office, but you are the most visible. Yet people are far more concerned with you being a woman than being a lesbian. Thoughts?
I was very taken aback by that, and all I can think about is one giant step forward for the gays and one backwards for women. Of course that's very concerning and upsetting to me, but I honestly believe that if the most qualified and the most progressive and the most exciting ticket that the Democrats could come up with is an all-female ticket then I think that that is going to be a winner in the November elections because I think people are tired of seeing women so vastly underrepresented in office. In the state of Michigan only 20 percent of the legislature is represented by women so we have an enormous amount of underrepresentation and we know that when we have underrepresentation of women in office it's not just bad for women, it's bad for families … The fact of the matter is I think I'm the best candidate to this office and I think that I'm the most exciting candidate to this office and I'm going to be the most aggressive in terms of protecting the rights of all minorities including the LGBTQ community.

Why should the LGBTQ community vote for you?
As an openly gay person, I represent over half a million Michiganders. I think that number is higher, but we know it's at least half a million people who have never had that representation at the statewide level before. I'm bringing diversity to the ticket in a way that has never existed before … I think some people are excited about that. Some people aren't. What bothers me is that for people who don't support my candidacy, they consider me a one-trick pony as though I have no ideas about anything else, as though I've never practiced in any other field. I have more experience in practicing criminal law both as a prosecutor and a defense attorney than anyone who's ever held the office of attorney general. I'm the only person who has this amount of experience not just as a prosecutor, but also representing indigent people who were too poor to ever afford an attorney. I've represented people who were addicted to crack and opioids and alcohol. I've represented veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder. In terms of criminal reforms or alternative programs I know more about this than just about anybody who has been in this position because I've practiced on both sides so I know the flaws in the system that exist on both sides in both people in the court room. So, for people to say, oh, she's just an LGBTQ rights advocate, that's all she is, not only is it unfair but it's untrue and I have far more experience than my democratic opponent who's never tried a criminal case in his career. So, to say all I know is about LGBTQ rights despite the fact that I've tried dozens and dozens of first-degree murder cases both as a prosecutor and a defense attorney, I think it diminishes me as a candidate.

What would you say to LGBTQ people who you haven't always seen eye-to-eye with you on how to best pursue equal rights for the community?
I guess the statement that I want to make to everyone in the community is that I understand there are people in the LGBTQ community here in Michigan that have not always appreciated my methodology when it came to achieving LGBTQ rights. And people who are allies, people who are in the community – like any community of people, like any group of activists – we have our differences of opinion of how best to support the community and how to best achieve rights that don't exist.
So people have questioned my process of doing that. But no one can question my commitment to helping the community in any way I possibly can. Just know this – I am going to do everything I possibly can to be supportive of the LGBTQ community and to ensure that voices are heard.
At a time where the community is under assault, if the worst thing you can say about me is that I'm too aggressive in my efforts to support the LGBTQ community, same-sex couples, their families, etc., then maybe that's what we need right now … There's about a hundred other issues that I think are incredibly important, but if people see me as being incredibly eager and interested and anxious to assist the community in terms of protecting the community then so be it. That is who I'm gonna be and I'm not gonna shy away from it. No matter who you are in the community, even if you're a person who has not seen eye-to-eye with me on how to best proceed in terms of gaining protection, I will always do everything I can to protect the lives of LGBTQ residents in this state.

What have you learned while prosecuting people for hate crimes against the LGBTQ community and representing LGBTQ people who have been discriminated against that will help you in your role as AG? Is there something about the way in which our system currently works that you would like to change?
How many hours do you have? There are so many things that I think the AG needs to take an active role in. I certainly think that the way we treat people who are addicts and the way we treat people who have mental health issues – putting people in jail or prison – is not a viable solution to many issues which plague the criminal justice system and it's not cost-effective either. There's a human cost and then there's a financial cost and we're not being smart about it in either accord.
So, I would like to advocate as much as possible the expansion of sobriety courts, drug courts, mental health courts, veterans courts … There are a lot of people that are not inherently bad people, but they're people who have some sort of, again, a mental illness or an addiction and we can treat those things. That's something that's very important to me – programs for individuals once they've served their time, once they've been paroled from a prison sentence and we're going to do everything that we possibly can to support and expand those programs. We know that for a lot of convicted felons it's very hard for them to find gainful employment and that leads to recidivism. We need to have as many programs as possible that permit people, once they've served their time to become part of our communities again.
And I know you've heard me talk about this before, but I really want to do a full-on attack on hate groups and against hate crimes. Not just for the LGBTQ community. Of course, for them as well, but I mean African Americans, Muslims, ethnic minorities and people of different national origins. People are under attack in this state and across the country. I know that the office of the attorney general can be utilized as a tremendous force, an arsenal, to combat the rise in hate crimes that we're seeing.

What can an attorney general do to help with the amendment of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act?
Take the current challenge by the ACLU in regards to challenging the adoption bills of 2015 – as attorney general, I take an oath to uphold the Michigan Constitution, but also to uphold the United States Constitution. My job is to protect the residents of the state of Michigan. Not to persecute them, but to protect them. This is a perfect example of a case where there is no doubt in my mind that this cluster of laws that allows state-funded adoption agencies to discriminate, not just against same-sex couples, but you can also discriminate against people of different faiths – even a Christian agency who discriminates against somebody who is Christian that just practices Christianity differently. Well, I absolutely agree with the ACLU's contention that this practice violates the establishment on equal protection clause in the Constitution. As such, if I was the AG, I would concede their argument. I would concede that these laws are unconstitutional, and I would not defend them because I think it's my obligation as the attorney general to defend the United States Constitution, and not to arbitrarily defend any law that state legislature passes and the governor signs irrespective of its unconstitutional nature.
So, if the governor, or if the House or the Senate, if they wanted to, themselves, hire and pay for an attorney in order to defend this law, they are still welcome to do so, but I would not defend it on behalf of the people of the state of Michigan. I absolutely would not. So, there's an example right there of something that the AG can do.

Will you support legislation to repeal and replace Michigan's HIV-specific felony law?
I support repealing and replacing it. I support [State Rep.] John Hoadley's [D-Kalamazoo] legislation.

Michigan was named the state with the biggest bullying problem in the nation in September 2016. What can you do as AG to address GLSEN's findings, which show that many LGBTQ students are still reporting discriminatory policies and practices in their schools?
The AG's office can always be used as a bully pulpit in order to educate on these issues. There's no question about that. In the same way that you have the AG's office work on education in human trafficking issues or opioid issues I think they have to do the same thing on issues of bullying.
Bullying in schools, obviously it's an incredibly important area, but I happen to know that when you look at a lot of the kids in the LGBTQ community that end up being homeless, sometimes all of that starts from being bullied – or kids who have drug or alcohol problems, and so forth – it starts at the school, often times. At home, too – I mean, I'm not diminishing the importance of having a safe home, but it's hard. I think, nowadays even when you're at home you can't get away from school bullying because of the internet, because of Facebook and Instagram, text messaging and all the rest of it.
We need to make sure that anti-bullying laws are being enforced. There's a lot of laws that are stalking-related laws, for instance, or harassment over use of telecommunication devices, that can be prosecuted and are not being prosecuted right now. I think we need to use every tool we have in our tool belt to aggressively ensure protection of students who are being bullied. No students are bullied worse, frankly, than LGBTQ kids. We know that.

With the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in mind, do you think it's possible to close the chasm between the LGBTQ community and some religious communities?
Boy, that's a tough one. We just added to the board of Fair Michigan a woman by the name of Kelle Shepherd and she is also a pastor. I know something that we're seeking to do is to educate religious communities as much as possible on the importance of accepting LGBTQ people and there are a lot of religious organizations that have changed their views on this over the course of time, right? More times than not, they've changed their policies and I think there is room for growth … I've seen it, and I've seen it happen pretty rapidly.
I do think that we need to continue to work on education as it pertains to religious organizations and religious people of various religious faiths. One of the things that I saw publicly about Patrick Miles was as the chairman of the board for Aquinas College, I know there was that issue where they refused to allow a speaker [Dr. John Corvino] in who wanted to basically say that the belief that homosexuality or being LGBTQ is not inconsistent with Christian faith. They refused to allow him to come in to speak and Patrick Miles supported that decision and to me, that is not furthering the education process. You ought to be able to have a debate and be able to have both sides present on that issue and I think when you stymie education on LGBTQ issues you're doing a disservice to everyone in the community – whether you're LGBTQ or an ally, or you're not – to at least be educated on the issues. In terms of this position, anyone can say I support the LGBTQ community … But the question is what have you ever done to support the community? If the answer is nothing, especially if you have a history of taking stances that are harmful to the community, that is worrisome and troubling to me.

While there are some benefits to endorsements, it's up for debate whether or not they help gain votes. Are you at all concerned about being winnowed out of the race because of your opponents big endorsements?
It depends. Endorsements can be important, however the way those endorsements were secured is also important. I think it's more important that we listen to the candidates and see what their points are more importantly then to see who specifically has endorsed them. You never know what political favors people are paying off behind the scenes and that's a lot of times what happens with these political endorsements by the way.
But the fact of the matter is, what utility does an endorsement from someone have if you don't even know what the positions are of the candidate who's being endorsed? And I think that's the most important thing. What I've tried to do with my candidacy is I've tried to be as transparent as possible. A lot of that stems from the fact that I'm not a politician. I don't know that the office of the attorney general really should be a political one anyway because you're there to enforce the law and I don't know that that should be a political position. I don't know if it should be a partisan position, which is what it's become unfortunately … If you look at many of my contributors, you see a lot of everyday, working-class folks who are supporting me or public defenders or assistant prosecutors that support my candidacy. Yeah, you don't see many CEOs or you don't see people at the silk-stocking law firm, that are the same law firms, by the way, that [Gov. Rick] Snyder and [Attorney General Bill] Schuette employ. Maybe that's important to take a look at. Who are those lawyers that are supporting other candidates?
So, do you want the candidate that's willing to work hardest to protect everyday working people in this state? I think that that should be of greater importance, and at the end of the day, the people of this state, the voters of this state, will have the biggest say who the next attorney general is, and I think they should want somebody that is devoted to working on behalf of everyday people, and not just who was able to raise the most corporate money.



See the BTL introduction to this candidate's interview

Dana Nessel

Name: Dana Nessel
Age: 48
Occupation: Managing partner of Nessel & Kessel Law in Detroit; president and co-founder of Fair Michigan
Education: Graduate of the University of Michigan and Wayne State University Law School
Experience: Nearly 25 years of legal experience covering a vast array of disciplines as both a defense and prosecuting attorney.
Personal note: Nessel lives in southeast Michigan with her wife, Alanna Maguire, their twin sons, Alex and Zach, along with various cats.
Noteworthy: In less than a year the Fair Michigan Justice Project has secured seven convictions for hate-based crimes against members of the LGBTQ community.
Priorities: To protect the environment, senior citizens and consumers while addressing marijuana laws and fighting for civil rights.
Some endorsements: LPAC; Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy; Ellis Stafford, retired Deputy Chief of the Michigan State Police and president of the Metro Detroit Chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Executives


Learn More About State Conventions
Inside the Michigan Democratic Party, state conventions are a yearly occurrence that offer members an opportunity to collectively make decisions on the future of the MDP. The nomination convention will take place Aug. 25-26 in Lansing. To allow candidates more time to campaign, the MDP has added an endorsement convention on April 15 at 9 a.m. at Cobo Center in Detroit. The nominee will be predetermined at this endorsement convention. While state conventions are open to all Democrats, only those who have been members for at least 30 days prior to the convention may vote or run for party office. Members of the community who wish to vote must fill out an MDP membership application via mail or online before March 15. Still have questions? Contact the MDP by phone at 517-371-5410 or by email at [email protected]. The state convention is explained online at

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