Dana Nessel Doesn’t Mess Around

Michigan’s history-making attorney general has something other liberal firebrands lack — real political power — and she’s not afraid to use it

First, President Trump attacked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as clueless in March following her public plea for federal help financing COVID-19 relief programs. She responded calmly by asking again “respectfully for help.” Two months later, he called out Jocelyn Benson as a “rogue secretary of state” because he claimed she’d sent mail-in ballots to all Michigan voters. Benson answered with a cheeky but nonconfrontational clarification that she had not done so. She had merely sent applications.

Michigan’s pugilistic attorney general, Dana Nessel, went another way, as she usually does. She drew first blood, calling Trump a “petulant child” who is no longer welcome in Michigan after he refused to wear a mask during part of his May 21 tour of a Ford plant in Ypsilanti as required under Whitmer’s emergency order. “He is a ridiculous person, and I am ashamed to have him be president,” she told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that evening from her Plymouth home, where she had been locked down since March to protect the health of her immunocompromised wife, Alanna Maguire, and their two teenage sons.

Trump, predictably, took that poorly. He took to Twitter near midnight to call Nessel a “Wacky Do Nothing Attorney General” who “should not be taking her anger and stupidity out on Ford,” because the company might leave the state. Minutes later, Nessel shot back, in part: “Seems like you have a problem with all 3 women who run MI as well as your ability to tell the truth.”

Nessel and Trump were bound to do battle eventually, but who expected her to shut him up in just one tweet? The president remained active into the 1 a.m. hour on May 22 bragging and complaining about polls, but he let Nessel’s zinger stand unrebutted. Weeks later, he still had never referenced her again.

Michigan’s attorney general had, as these social media things go, won. She had ignored the conventional wisdom that insulting Trump would diminish her and beckon a heap of punishing presidential retaliation. “I don’t regret having made the statements I made,” she tells me later. “He had disrespected our state, our residents, and our workers.”

Indeed, she had something to say, she said it, and the chips fell exactly where she put them. As they so often do.

Nessel wouldn’t be where she is — the first openly gay statewide elected official and arguably America’s most politically powerful lesbian — if she’d listened to conventional wisdom. That would have meant dropping the lawsuit of a Hazel Park couple that eventually became part of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal across America, because in 2012, the national LGBTQ movement didn’t see the Michigan case as fitting its legal strategy. She never would have launched her longshot 2018 campaign for the Democratic nomination for attorney general when the party establishment had already chosen a more moderate candidate. And she definitely would never have opened her campaign with an ad alluding to the sexual misconduct allegations against famous men then flooding the news — and then guaranteeing she’d never do anything inappropriate with her penis because, of course, she doesn’t have one.

“It’s not something I would’ve done, but she did it in her Dana style, and it was very effective — and it was true!” says Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, a longtime friend and ally, of the viral ad Nessel spent $200 cutting and which eventually was played to amuse viewers on talk shows like Late Night with Seth Meyers. “Some say she doesn’t consider the consequences of what she says, but she’s truthful to a fault. That can be a disadvantage in politics, but most people find her fairly refreshing.”

‘She’s not from the same mold’

Perhaps the strangest part of Trump’s attack was the sobriquet that Nessel is a “Do Nothing” attorney general. The president may have thought that was a clever play on her initials, but Michigan conservatives know all too well how untrue it is. In her first month in office, she ordered an exhaustive review of the more than 20 federal lawsuits her Republican predecessor, Bill Schuette, had joined on behalf of the state so she could either pull Michigan out of them or switch sides.

“Even though I paid very close attention to that office, I didn’t know about a lot of these cases,” she says. Schuette had signed on to “every case that involves the most far-reaching type of Second Amendment case — basically, guns anywhere, anytime, by anyone. He put us down for whatever was the most detrimental environmental thing you could do. There were cases all over the country where we supported far-reaching ways to curtail birth control, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights.”

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The north rejoices: In 2019, Nessel serves as grand marshal at LGBTQ Pride in Traverse City. // Photograph courtesy of  the campaign office of Dana Nessel

Her arrival in Lansing in January 2019, then, marked what was perhaps Michigan’s most dramatic policy whiplash. By dint of the immense authority the attorney general has to decide what gets prosecuted and investigated and what is considered legal, Nessel has something other liberal firebrands elected in 2018, like Rashida Tlaib or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, dream about: real and unilateral political power.

“That’s why I wanted to run for AG and not some other position,” she says. “I didn’t want to be just one of more than one hundred people in the state Legislature or Congress, where you could have a very loud voice, but if you’re in the minority, what difference does it make? I knew that I wasn’t going to need the same permission to mount major cases or investigations.”

She uses her power as often as possible, too. Nessel is aggressively pursuing a legal effort to shut down Line 5, the controversial 67-year-old oil pipelines running through the Straits of Mackinac that many fear could contaminate the Great Lakes. Her agents raided seven Catholic dioceses to collect some 5 million documents to prosecute clergy sexual abuse cases. She’s been relentless about price gouging amid the COVID-19 crisis — witness how she brought Menards to heel for spiking the price of masks and disinfectant as the pandemic took hold — and created units to prosecute attacks on minorities, scams against the elderly, and mistreatment of workers.

Her fearlessness was on full display in mid-May, as she joined forces with the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to seize the licenses of a 77-year-old Owosso barber who reopened despite Whitmer’s closure orders. She finds the conservative media’s celebration of him bewildering: “He’s being cast as some sort of hero or patriot, and I don’t see him that way at all. He’s aiding the spread of this dangerous and deadly virus.”

That flap, along with her May 11 opinion that the Michigan Capitol Commission can ban guns in the statehouse, drew outrage from the right. Furthermore, she’s now dogged by revelations that three weeks before the failure of a central Michigan dam led to a mass evacuation in May, her office sued the dam owners for lowering reservoir water levels out of concern for protecting the freshwater mussel population.

“She is an activist attorney general who cares less about the actual law than she does catering to a particularly narrow set of ideologies or particular far-left base in the Democrat Party,” grouses state Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain), a frequent Nessel critic whom she has blocked on Twitter.

Yet amid the partisan sniping, Nessel made a surprisingly good impression on House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering). After her election, Chatfield sought her out to find common ground and then invited her to join him a week into her term to announce a bill to limit the ability of government to seize and keep the property of drug suspects. They lunch monthly — or did pre-pandemic — and text often, they both say.

“She’s a straight shooter, and people appreciate that today in this political climate,” Chatfield says. “She’s always been forthcoming and honest with me despite our disagreements. I don’t believe I’m getting a political answer from the attorney general. I’m simply getting what she believes at her core, which I disagree with 90 percent of the time. We’ve made the most of that 10 percent we can agree on, and I’m very proud of that.”

To be sure, it’s hard to argue Nessel is guided by personal political calculation given the array of interests she’s willing to offend. Her Line 5 efforts are opposed by labor unions whose workers want the jobs created if the pipeline’s owner, Enbridge, can keep the pipes and build a tunnel to contain them. She outraged many in Flint, a Democratic stronghold, by dropping charges against eight officials accused of crimes related to the lead poisoning of the city’s water supply and then restarting the investigations because her team thought Schuette’s probes were improperly conducted. And she baffled supporters of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan by investigating whether he improperly assisted a charity with city resources. “I’m surprised that it’s even occurring,” says Mildred Gaddis, a prominent African American radio host in Detroit. “People tell me that Dana Nessel is the real deal when it comes to the law, so we’ll see what she finds.”

“You will never question where she’s coming from, because she’s not from the same mold that some folks are used to,” says State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield). “She’s unique.”

The fight for marriage equality

Nessel learned early to listen to her own instincts because of her rough road in coming out to her family. Nessel grew up in West Bloomfield in an affluent Jewish family of staunch Democrats, but at 51, she’s of an LGBTQ vintage where political leanings didn’t automatically reflect attitudes about sexual orientation. She went to the University of Michigan for undergrad, and then, having been inspired as a girl by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, she went to Wayne State University for law.

Yet even after she became a prosecutor and was living with a girlfriend, she still couldn’t tell her parents she was gay. Instead, her brother told their folks without her permission when she was 30 because he didn’t think they’d react poorly. “I was right and he was wrong,” she recalls tartly with a laugh. She says it took years for her parents to accept her, which they have. “It was just having a child that’s different and thinking that will cause embarrassment.”

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Fighting for $15: Nessel, then a candidate, marches in Detroit to support raising the minimum wage.// Photograph courtesy of  the campaign office of Dana Nessel

She came out at the Wayne County prosecutor’s office when it was run by Duggan by bringing her partner to work functions. But then Duggan resigned to head up Detroit Medical Center and Worthy replaced him, which made her nervous. “At that time, African Americans had a reputation of being more conservative on LGBT issues, so I was worried,” Nessel says.

Worthy, who is Black, allayed that concern quickly, though, by responding to a journalist’s question as to whether she would prosecute county clerks if they started issuing same-sex marriage licenses as was happening at the time in California. “With all the rapes, robberies, and murders in our county, you think I would spend even a nickel going after people whose only crime is that they love each other?” Worthy replied.

“After that, I was like, ‘I’ll be OK,’” Nessel says. “I also remember thinking, ‘Wow, you can be a public official and take a strong stand and it can impact the lives of many people.’ I never forgot that.”

Nessel left the office in 2005 to open a law practice because she was about to have twin boys and needed more income. Her pregnancy also cost her her relationship and introduced her to the inequities in Michigan’s family law; there was no way for two women to be legal parents to children.

“I assumed there was some paperwork you could draft or something, but there was absolutely nothing we could do,” she says. “My girlfriend said she was not going to feel comfortable raising children that would never legally be hers. I was bitter that Michigan had turned me into a single parent unnecessarily.”

Thus began her crusade to change that. In 2010, Nessel brought a lawsuit in state court on behalf of Renee Harmon, a lesbian who had been refused parental rights after the end of her 19-year relationship with the biological mother of their three children. Harmon lost; Michigan’s Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower-court rejection.

Then, in 2011, when April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse came to her, Nessel sensed they were the perfect couple to win the public’s and perhaps the federal judiciary’s sympathies. Both are nurses and wanted to adopt each other’s children — three at the time, including two with special needs. They filed suit in federal court in 2012 and drew Judge Bernard Friedman, a Republican appointee known for an unfavorable (for liberals) ruling in a prominent affirmative action case.

Unbeknownst to Nessel, Friedman had become close in the 1990s to Judith Levy, a law clerk who was a lesbian with a baby whom Friedman doted on. Nessel recalls: “We got a call very, very quickly from Judge Levy, who I didn’t know, and she just said, ‘How do you feel about your draw?’ and [co-counsel] Carol Stanyar and I said, ‘Well, not great,’ and she said, ‘You will.’”

The rest of the DeBoer case is, literally, history. Friedman saw the matter not as an adoption issue but as a marriage question and invited the couple to expand the case to challenge the state’s voter-approved constitutional ban on same-sex unions. He then struck down the ban in March 2014, opening a brief window for 323 couples to wed across the state before then-Attorney General Schuette appealed and was granted a stay of Friedman’s order. That spring, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Friedman’s ruling, and in early 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court took up DeBoer and cases from three other states emanating from the 6th Circuit.

Five years ago in June, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to strike down all same-sex marriage bans. Of the four cases, Nessel asserts, DeBoer was most significant, which is why it rankles her that the landmark is known as Obergefell v. Hodges because of a quirk in the order in which the appeals were filed.

“To my dying day, this will make me bitter,” she says. “We were the only case that was truly just about the right to marry your same-sex partner. We were the only ones who tried the case. We put in more in terms of blood, sweat, and tears than anybody else. April and Jayne should have been synonymous with that case. If you read the opinion, the justices mostly talk about April and Jayne’s case. Ultimately, from an historical perspective, honestly, April and Jayne got robbed.”

‘Dangerous Dana’

That’s not a thing Nessel is supposed to say. She’s supposed to just be happy the case made history and grateful to have done her part. But that’s not Nessel’s manner, and that has brought her both enormous rewards and plenty of hellfire.

The first time I interviewed her was in 2015 for a preview story for Bloomberg Politics about upcoming Supreme Court hearings, I expected Nessel to reiterate her case and express her optimism.

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17 going on 18: Nessel, flanked by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, cheers the October 2019 passage of a law raising the minimum age for prosecuting crimes as an adult. // Photograph courtesy of  the campaign office of Dana Nessel

Instead, unbidden, she angrily revealed that her legal team could barely afford hotel rooms in D.C. because neither the Michigan nor national LGBTQ groups were properly financing the case. National groups had tried to dissuade her from filing DeBoer back in 2011 for fear an adverse ruling at the 6th Circuit would derail a broader legal strategy. She did it anyway, and then her doubters wanted to bounce her team and grab the glory, she complained. “They all tried to stop us, and even now they’re not helping much,” she told me then. The ACLU and others, she said, didn’t “want someone else to achieve that victory without their name attached.”

It was Nessel’s first national splash, and the blowback terrified her so much she texted to blame me in brutal terms. But days later she realized what she’d done had worked; money arrived via deep-pocket donors, and national LGBTQ leaders sought to sate her by giving her team a bigger say in who would argue the cases in Washington.

From then on, it was impossible to stop Nessel from trying to do what she wanted. At the end of 2015, she and Worthy formed Fair Michigan, a committee aimed at putting a referendum on Michigan’s 2016 ballot to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. She was shot down, much to her dismay, by leaders from the LGBTQ rights group Equality Michigan and the ACLU who believed it would fail and unleash attacks on transgender people. Nessel and Worthy transitioned the petition committee into a nonprofit that provides the Wayne County prosecutor’s office with legal aid in prosecuting hate crimes.

In late 2016, after Trump won the presidential election, Nessel cast about for a progressive Democrat to run for attorney general. She begged Worthy, who refused, and the two of them tried to persuade Obama-appointed federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade, whom Trump was about to fire. McQuade, too, declined. So Nessel ran herself, much to the chagrin of the party establishment.

Nessel spent months leading up to the Democrats’ April 2018 state convention visiting Democratic clubs across the state and capitalizing on outrage over Trump and the #MeToo revelations. At the convention, where the party would choose its nominee, thousands of Nessel supporters wrested the nomination from Patrick Miles, a Black federal prosecutor from Grand Rapids whom the party wanted as a way to provide racial diversity to a ticket also topped by Whitmer and Benson. Even Equality Michigan Executive Director Steph White lined up against Nessel.

The general election campaign was bumpy, too. Whitmer and Benson won their races handily; Nessel beat House Speaker Tom Leonard by fewer than 3 percentage points. Reports bubbled out that she was a tyrannical, unappreciative boss who, former senior adviser Abby Dart says, screamed at staff and berated them in texts and emails. “She went through six campaign spokespersons and four campaign managers, so clearly a candidate has a big problem dealing with staff if they’re going through that many people,” Dart says.

Leonard used these reports to dub her “Dangerous Dana” and attempted to portray her as a nutjob. She brushed those claims off publicly as the sexist flailings of a failing candidate, but in private she panicked. Dart provided Hour Detroit with text messages she says Nessel sent after Dart, then a former aide, spoke to reporters about the campaign’s unrest. “This will help Leonard become AG,” Nessel wrote in October 2018. “I know you understand that. It just doesn’t seem to matter to you.”

After Nessel won, personal criticisms from the left fell silent. She is a historic figure, one whose moves in office are widely celebrated by liberals, and her immense power inspires fear in some quarters. “There is a certain obvious sense of justice in Dana Nessel being the person who followed Bill Schuette, the virulent homophobe that he was,” says Brian Stone, one of Nessel’s former campaign spokespeople, who was fired after only 48 hours on the job. “But with Dana it’s more complicated. She is right on the issues, so there’s nothing to hate in terms of her politics. But just about everybody’s been burned.”

Regardless of her pre-attorney general controversies, no similar rumors emanate out of Lansing about her. Even LaFave says she’s been “nothing but pleasant” in personal dealings. And Moss, the first out LGBTQ candidate elected to the Senate, says: “Her opponent painted her as ‘Dangerous Dana,’ but that hasn’t really borne fruit for how people interact with her. Her office is one of the more popular offices in Lansing. You can disagree with her politically, but people who know her like her.”

In fact, she now counts among her friends the lawyers Schuette pitted against her in the DeBoer case and who argued that same-sex couples made inferior parents unworthy of marriage protections. One of them, Michelle Brya, now her chief of licensing and regulation, even went with Nessel in 2019 to march in the Traverse City LGBTQ Pride festival.

“I didn’t force her to do that,” Nessel says. “It’s just that we became friends and she’s a nice person. During the transition, I said to those attorneys I faced, ‘As long as you do your job well, you have nothing to fear from me.’ And you know what? All of it has worked out great.”