Independent candidate, gay rights lawyer, House speaker run for Michigan attorney general

By Ed White
Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) - The three major candidates for Michigan attorney general have put criminals in prison during their law careers. But that's where the parallels end.

Dana Nessel, the Democratic nominee, is best known for successfully fighting to overturn Michigan's ban on gay marriage. Tom Leonard, the Republican contender, is a legislator occupying the most powerful post in the House. Chris Graveline is making history by getting on the statewide ballot as an independent with no party listed.

Their goal: Becoming Michigan's next chief law enforcer with a staff of 281 attorneys.

The attorney general's office serves as a public law firm, routinely representing state government agencies in all legal matters, large or small. But the boss, the elected attorney general, also has much freedom while serving a four-year term.

"Every attorney general has the ability to set two or three new priorities they can make their own," said Mike Cox, who had the job from 2003 to 2011 and sounded an alarm about Asian carp threatening the Great Lakes. "The attorney general has great discretion where they can take on issues that no one else has identified."

Here's a look at the candidates:

- Nessel, 49, of Plymouth.

She made a provocative entry into the race by declaring that it's better to trust a candidate without a penis in an era of sexual harassment.

Nessel has been a Detroit-area prosecutor and defense attorney but made headlines as co-counsel in the historic lawsuit that led to same-sex marriage in Michigan. She said the case influenced her to run for office. She said Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette "made a mockery of state government" by bringing social scientists to court to knock the parenting skills of same-sex couples.

"There are LGBTQ people clamoring for representation and tired of the office of attorney general using them as a punching bag," said Nessel, who is gay.

The attorney general's office is overseeing criminal cases related to the Flint water crisis. Nessel said she would dismiss special prosecutor Todd Flood and bring in a new team to evaluate the cases.

Nessel said she would try to shut down Line 5, the oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac. She said she would stop defending the state in certain lawsuits over the bungling of unemployment benefits, an issue now at the Michigan Supreme Court.

"The right thing to do is give people their money back. It's not to defend a state agency in any way you possibly can. ... The office could be taking a more proactive approach to protecting people, whether it's protecting people's health care or consumers or seniors or veterans," Nessel said.

She said she's willing to sue President Donald Trump's administration over federal policies.

- Leonard, 37, of DeWitt.

He is finishing his sixth year as a state lawmaker, including two years as speaker of the House, the leader of the chamber.

Leonard was an assistant prosecutor in Genesee County, handling cases as diverse as traffic tickets and Flint homicides. His "Law & Order"-style campaign ads show him stepping under police tape in video re-enactments.

"I was on the streets with officers until 3, 4, 5 o'clock in the morning," Leonard recalled. "If they were going to have my back in the courtroom, I was going to have their back as well on the street."

If elected, Leonard said he'll make mental health a priority. He wants to help county prosecutors and judges operate specialty courts for people whose poor mental health likely contributed to crimes.

Leonard said he also would put an emphasis on elder-abuse cases by assisting local authorities with complex investigations, especially fraud. A third initiative: A state integrity office to take complaints from people who believe they're being bullied by local or state officials.

"There are overzealous bureaucrats, from Treasury to the DEQ," Leonard said, referring to the Department of Environmental Quality.

He said it would be "reckless" to discuss how he'd handle Flint water criminal cases until he talked to Flood and looked at files. Unlike Nessel, Leonard said he opposes Proposal 1, the ballot question to legalize marijuana.

"I've seen the dangers that drugs cause in people's lives," he said.

- Graveline, 45, of Berkley.

He was a federal prosecutor for 11 years, much of that time in Detroit. In 2008, he was sent to Miami and successfully prosecuted Chuckie Taylor Jr., a U.S. citizen and son of a Liberian president, who was accused of torture in that country.

Graveline resigned to run for attorney general as an independent. He didn't collect enough signatures in time, but a judge put him on the ballot, saying the threshold was too high and violated his rights.

"The two parties have identified the attorney general's office in Michigan, and the United States, as a vehicle to advance their party's agendas," Graveline said, explaining his independent status. "Who's doing the actual work of the people? ... The energy in both parties right now is to go further left or further right. I am a political moderate."

Graveline's recent work as a prosecutor focused on violent crime in Detroit. He would like the attorney general's office to assist police and local prosecutors in high-crime urban areas.

He promised to "bring a fresh set of eyes" to the Flint water cases against state officials but, like Leonard, said he wouldn't judge Flood's work until he gets in office.

Graveline plans to vote no on the marijuana question. He pledged, however, to enforce it in an "even-handed way" if approved, adding: "It's not my job to try to thwart the will of the people."

He hopes to raise $100,000 to $200,000 to promote his campaign. Graveline said he has a chance to win because he believes the public isn't very familiar with any of the candidates.

Lisa Lane Gioia of the Libertarian Party and Gerald Van Sickle of the U.S. Taxpayers Party are also on the ballot.

Published: Tue, Oct 02, 2018