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Democrats face bitter fight for attorney general nomination

Apart from school board seats and state Supreme Court judges, there are only four Michigan officeholders elected statewide: governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and attorney general. We choose major party candidates for governor in the August 7 primary.

That is, if we bother to vote, which most of us don’t. Whoever wins the gubernatorial nomination gets to choose a lieutenant governor, so we have no say there.

That leaves secretary of state and attorney general. When you think of it, for most of us, the secretary of state may be the most important position. 

You can live a long and happy life without meeting a governor or being sued by the state.

But we all have to visit a secretary of state’s office from time to time if we drive a car. Yet we don’t choose the candidates for those jobs. The political parties formally pick the nominees at statewide conventions around Labor Day.

Democrats, however, have decided to jump-start the process with what they call an “endorsement convention” at Cobo Hall this Sunday. They should be hungry to get this right. Democrats once had an iron grip on both the secretary of state and attorney general’s office, but haven’t held either this century. There’s no drama over their candidate for secretary of state: former Wayne State University law school dean Jocelyn Benson.

But there’s a bitter fight over the nomination for attorney general. There are three candidates, but Detroit attorney Bill Noakes is not seen as a major factor. Patrick Miles, the former U.S. District Attorney for western Michigan, was the early front-runner, but then stumbled badly. He is a poor speaker, and seemed to have positions on issues like same-sex marriage and medical marijuana more in line with Republicans. His major opponent, Dana Nessel, is a witty and irreverent former prosecuting attorney best known for challenging the state’s law forbidding same-sex adoptions in federal court.

Nessel not only won, but the case was also broadened to include same-sex marriage. She herself is gay, and has a wife and twin teenage sons. She delighted some and scandalized others with a video in which she said that if you wanted to elect someone least likely to “show you their penis in a professional setting,” you might want to pick the candidate who didn’t have one.

Two weeks ago, she appeared to have the race won after Miles, already under attack for flip-flopping on the issues, clumsily changed his position on whether accused criminals should forfeit their civil assets during an interview with Michigan Radio’s Lester Graham.

But then Miles won the endorsement of both the UAW and the AFL-CIO, even though he is of counsel to a firm that brags it helps employers avoid unions. Nessel, however, has the main teachers’ union, the MEA.

Who wins may depend on who gets the most supporters to Cobo Hall. My own feeling is that Nessel may be more likely to win in November, but that may be neutralized by the UAW’s outsized power at these conventions.

Democrats also have an unwritten rule that one of their statewide nominees has to be black, and Miles would fill that need, even though few Detroiters I know are aware that he is.

I just hope Cobo janitors are skilled at cleaning political blood off the floor.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.

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