Thousands of fired-up Michigan Democrats endorsed Dana Nessel on Sunday in a hotly contested race for state attorney general, backing the former prosecutor-turned-civil rights lawyer to wrest back control of an office the party last held 16 years ago.
If elected in November, Nessel — who helped mount a successful legal challenge to the state’s same-sex marriage ban — would be Michigan’s first openly gay statewide officeholder. She defeated Pat Miles, the former U.S. attorney for western Michigan in the Obama administration, in a fight that drew a record number of delegates to Detroit.
“I want to bring empathy back to the office of Michigan attorney general,” Nessel said after her victory inside a packed convention hall in the Cobo Center, where she became the rare candidate to win a convention fight despite not being supported by the influential United Auto Workers union and Michigan AFL-CIO, which had backed Miles. “With the help of not just Democrats in the state but independents and yes, even Republicans, I think we can do that and I look forward to being able to try.”
The 48-year-old Nessel, who was a Wayne County assistant prosecutor for 11 years, co-owns a small Detroit law firm that among other things focuses on criminal defense, family law and adoptions for same-sex couples. Barring a surprise, she will be officially nominated at Democrats’ next convention in August and face a Republican nominee — either state House Speaker Tom Leonard or state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker — in the November election. GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette cannot run again due to term limits and is instead vying for governor.
Nessel’s win sets the stage for a female-dominated Democratic statewide ticket if favorite Gretchen Whitmer wins the gubernatorial primary election in August. Democrats, who flooded the convention despite icy, rainy weather, also endorsed Jocelyn Benson for secretary of state in an uncontested race, and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow is running for re-election to a fourth term.
The Nessel-Miles tilt was reminiscent of the rift lingering from the 2016 presidential fight between the party’s establishment and progressive wings. She won backing from liberal groups and the Michigan Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers union, while he garnered support from major labor unions and African-American leaders.
“We need to unify as a party, and we will,” Miles told delegates while congratulating Nessel for her victory. After he announced Nessel’s win — specific voting results were not released by the party — delegates then cast a unanimous ballot for her on a voice vote.
The low-key Miles would have been Michigan’s first black attorney general if he had secured the endorsement and succeeded in the fall. He had touted his service in the Justice Department under President Barack Obama, a period in which Miles’ office brought child pornography charges against disgraced former sports doctor Larry Nassar.
The endorsement convention was designed to give candidates time ahead of the formal nomination to do the leg work to win in November. More than 6,700 credentialed delegates made the trip — way more than the 2,000-plus who attended the only other endorsement convention in 2010. Some 3,300 activists became first-time party members in the last four months and were eligible to attend. Nessel’s camp took credit for signing up 2,000 of them and said another 1,000 were enlisted by progressive allies.
“It just shows that there’s a real enthusiasm and activism, that people are chomping at the bit to get out and do something,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon. “We’ve seen this since Trump got elected. ... The challenge is to make sure that everybody’s energy is channeled into the right activities going into Election Day.”
The 6,704 delegates in attendance were the most since at least the 1970s, and Dillon said no one he has spoken to thinks there has ever been a bigger crowd at a state Democratic convention.
Benson was also the party’s secretary of state nominee in 2010 but lost in a big Republican year to Ruth Johnson, who cannot run for a third term in 2018. Benson, an election expert, led the Wayne State University Law School for nearly four years and is currently CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality.
“I am ready,” Benson told the crowd. “I will work tirelessly to be an advocate for you and for every single voter in this state.”
The party’s state Supreme Court candidates Sam Bagenstos and Megan Cavanagh were also endorsed Sunday.
Bagnestos is a University of Michigan law professor who served as a civil rights attorney in the Obama administration and once clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Cavanagh, an appellate attorney at a Detroit firm, is the daughter of former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Cavanagh.
They are expected to face Justices Elizabeth Clement and Kurtis Wilder in November. Clement and Wilder were appointed to the high court by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to fill vacancies.