Attorney General Dana Nessel tells the Michigan Advance that she is backing Lavora Barnes for Michigan Democratic Party chair.
“I honestly feel as though I would not be sitting here giving you this interview from the office of Michigan attorney general had I not had the good fortune of working with Lavora,” Nessel said in an exclusive interview with the Advance on Thursday.
Current Chair Brandon Dillon, a former state representative, announced in December he will not seek a third term. He is also supporting Barnes.
Other candidates who have said they are running are Oakland County Commissioner Nancy Quarles, Northville Democratic Club President Lisa DiRado and longtime activist Greg Bowens.
The vote will be at the MDP convention slated for Feb. 2 at Cobo Hall in Detroit.
Nessel’s endorsement is likely to carry weight with the MDP Progressive Caucus, which endorsed her for the AG nomination over former U.S. Attorney Pat Miles. That was an intense fight, which she won at the party’s nominating convention in April 2018. Nessel went on to narrowly defeat now-former state House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) on Nov. 6.
Nessel is the state’s first openly gay top statewide official who was best known before the ‘18 campaign as the attorney challenging Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban. She told the Advance that Barnes has “shown a commitment to work with progressives in the party.
“I think that this labor vs. progressive narrative that I saw — I really think it’s a fallacy. People in the labor movement that I know, they are progressive. And the progressives that I know, they’re very supportive of labor,” Nessel said.
The new attorney general also detailed how Dems pulled together during last year’s campaign. She heaped praise on the UAW and a host of leaders, including now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who Nessel’s son christened “Michigan’s Grandma.”
“I think [Whitmer] ended up talking more about other candidates than she did herself,” Nessel said. “She just seemed so committed to … pulling as many other Democrats across the finish line with her as possible. And I’m so grateful for her coattails, which turned out to be, I think, very long.”
Nessel was joined in the interview by her communications director, Kelly Rossman-McKinney, who founded the Lansing-based public relations firm Truscott-Rossman and lost her state Senate race last year.
The Michigan Advance will have more from the interview this week, including the transition with former Attorney General Bill Schuette, the bill former Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed that would have stripped some of Nessel’s power, and new priorities for the AG’s office.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Michigan Advance: Who are you supporting for Michigan Democratic Party chair?
Nessel: I am supporting Lavora [Barnes]. I will say that I worked closely with her — my campaign worked closely with her during the general election. I just felt she was incredibly effective and responsive and very smart and savvy. I honestly feel as though I would not be sitting here giving you this interview from the office of Michigan attorney general had I not had the good fortune of working with Lavora.
Michigan Advance: When you ran for the Democratic Attorney General nomination, you were considered an outsider and you had significant support from new progressive activists. What do you think Lavora will bring to the table to bring more new members into the party and support a progressive agenda?
Nessel: I personally … feel with my candidacy the MDP, perhaps, learned some mistakes that were made in the past. … What I think was learned is that we really shouldn’t be nominating our candidates based on any backroom deals.
The best candidate is the candidate that the members decide and that everybody should be left to make that determination for themselves and to vote their conscience as to the candidate that inspires them the most. And that will be the candidate, the most inspiring candidate, is the candidate that is likely to do best in the general election.
And I think that Lavora certainly understands that and she has shown a commitment to work with the progressives in the party. And as I said during the course of my campaign, I think that this labor vs. progressive narrative that I saw — I really think it’s a fallacy. People in the labor movement that I know, they are progressive. And the progressives that I know, they’re very supportive of labor.
What I saw was the opportunity for labor and the new progressives in the party to really work together. And when they do work together, the result is a winning candidacy in the general [election]. And I think I’m proof of that.
Michigan Advance: Do you expect that you might get any pushback from some of your supporters from the Progressive Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party or from the Southpaw Michigan organization that Abdul El-Sayed founded?
Nessel: I hope not. And I hope they’ll understand and appreciate how important it is to have somebody like Lavora who’s willing to work with whoever our candidates are to ensure their success. And, again, any of the mistakes that may have been made in the past, I think the party has learned from. And I think those are mistakes that will not be repeated in the future.
Again, the lesson is the party should not be engaged in the process of picking winners and losers in the primaries or pre-convention. They should be supportive of all candidates. And I think Lavora will be supportive of all candidates. I think she is going to support any, and all, candidates who are serious candidates who get into the race, and who are committed to democratic principles.
Then, whoever either the party members select at the convention or whoever the primary voters select at the polls, to do everything and anything they possibly can to support that candidate. That was my experience. I will say this, once I … was the endorsed candidate on April 15, 2018, I got as much support from the party as anybody else would have gotten or anybody else did get.
And right away, and I give great credit, by the way, not just to Lavora, but of course also to [Michigan Democratic Party Chair] Brandon Dillon, who was magnificent to work with. I gave him incredibly high marks for his work. He’ll be missed as party chair, even though I think Lavora will be a great replacement for him.
They got on board immediately and they started working their tails off to support me and did everything they could on my behalf. Whoever supported me or didn’t support me prior to April 15th, you bet once I was the endorsed candidate we all worked as a team.
… I just wanted to say this. What I feel so great about in terms of the election and in terms of the process is that … I just really felt as though the Michigan Democratic Party and all the Democrats running for office, it was one big family to me. We really operated as a team. I am so grateful to so many incumbents and to so many other candidates.
[Now-Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer — it could not have been more of a delight to run on the same ticket with her. She was so helpful, and by the end of the race —and I think especially as she started to pull ahead in [polls] and saw that I was the candidate that had the most challenges, probably because I’ve never run for statewide office before.
The Republicans at a certain juncture seemed to really put all of their money, it seemed to me, behind [GOP AG nominee] Tom Leonard. They called him their firewall. I was the most vulnerable. … I think [Whitmer] ended up talking more about other candidates than she did herself. She just seemed so committed to … pulling as many other Democrats across the finish line with her as possible. And I’m so grateful for her coattails, which turned out to be, I think, very long.
Rossman-McKinney: Not long enough for me.
Nessel: Oh, I know. I’m sorry. No, Kelly was great. It was such a difficult district. …
Rossman-McKinney: [laughs] Sorry, that was an editorial comment.
Nessel: But you know, she [Whitmer] just worked so hard to get everybody else selected. And in terms of the team efforts — [U.S. Sen.] Debbie Stabenow, I called her at a certain juncture. I was being outspent about 5-1 on the air and Debbie stepped away from her own race, which was getting closer and closer; it certainly didn’t turn out to be the blowout people expected.
She stepped away from her own race to get on the phone with her donors to try to raise money for my campaign. I think that’s an incredible thing to do. And she just was such a delight. So sweet.
I don’t know if she was offended or not, but my son called her, ‘Michigan’s Grandma. Debbie Stabenow’s Michigan’s Grandma.’ And I was like, ‘That’s great, right? Because everyone loves their grandma. My kids love their grandma.’ And she was like, ‘What about Michigan’s still attractive, slightly older aunt?’
… She called me right after the convention and got together with me, I think, two days later and sat down and said, ‘Anything I can possibly do to help you, I will.’ And she absolutely fulfilled her commitment. And [U.S. Sen.] Gary Peters took me out to meet UAW members and to talk to people on my behalf. He was fantastic.
All of the congressional representatives: Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), Dan Kildee (D-Flint), Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield). They all went out and did as much as they possibly could for me. They came to all my events. As soon as [now-U.S. Reps.] Andy Levin and Rashida [Tlaib] (D-Detroit) won their primaries, they did the same thing. I think they were in obviously safe districts, and so they worked really hard on my behalf.
And then I had all of these great state reps. and state senators in safe districts that went out and they went to all of my events. They set up events for me; they pounded earth for me.
So in Detroit, [now-state Rep.] Isaac Robinson. My God, he must have had 10 events for me. [Now-Sen.] Jeremy Moss in Southfield, [Rep.] Sheldon Neeley in Flint, [Rep.] John Hoadley in Kalamazoo … And in Ann Arbor, [now-Sen.] Jeff Irwin [former Rep.] Adam Zenke and [Rep.] Yousef Rabhi.
They all worked so hard for me and I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t call any of these people. They all contacted me and said, ‘What can I do to help you?’ And I needed their help. It was just such a delight and I just feel so grateful to them.
And the other thing I wanted to mention, because obviously there was a lot of talk about dissension following the convention. But I gotta tell you, once the UAW got on board — I might not have been their candidate initially — but once I became the endorsed candidate of the party, and once they got on board, boy, did they get on board.
They worked so so hard for me and they had so many events for me. They knocked so many doors, made so many phone calls. Once I really got to know the leaders and membership of the UAW, they could not have been better to me.
And I’ll say the same thing, by the way, about the Black Caucus, because obviously, again, they did not support me at the convention. But afterwards, they did everything they possibly could for me. And Keith Williams, who is their chair, was wonderful to me. And got me out to as many of their members as possible and I couldn’t have done it without this joint effort by all of these different groups working together in concert — and with the unions, especially, I will say.
… I think in 2016, there was a lot of talk about a lot of union members sort of abdicating from the Democratic Party. But I’ll tell you, by 2018, I think we saw that wasn’t the case and people truly came to understand that there is only one party in this state — and one party in this country —which really cares about working men and women. And that’s the Democratic Party. All these unions got on board and worked so hard on my behalf and were so dedicated to my candidacy. I’m just so grateful to them all. …
Michigan Advance: What was your relationship like being on the ticket with [now-Secretary of State] Jocelyn Benson?
Nessel: We all worked great together, you know? We all were at events together and … It’s funny, I feel like I saw a lot of these candidates, including, by the way, Megan [Cavanaugh] and Sam [Bagenstos] for the [Michigan] Supreme Court and also including, frankly, the school board candidates and U of M and MSU and Wayne State [boards] candidates. I probably saw more of them than I saw my family for a long time, although my family did come with me to a lot of events.
And we just all worked really well together and it was fun. It was exciting and the crowds were always great at these events. My God, the turnout. … These were very traditionally red, very Republican areas and they had excited and committed Democrats. And a lot of new Democrats — people who never were active with the party, or just had never considered themselves to be Democrats. But they sure were in 2018 and really came to see how important it is to become part of the political process.
And as my field director Rick Michaels always used to say, ‘If you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re on the menu.’ That was his favorite line and he repeated it, all day everyday.
But it’s true. And so having your voice be part of this, having your voice be heard and be part of the process really mattered. And I think that’s how we got almost 7,000 people and the worst ice and snow storm of the season to show up to Cobo Hall [at the convention] on April 15th of last year. Because these were people that wanted to have their voice heard, and they did. And that was the process working, in my opinion.