Nessel calls Schuette ‘very gracious’ in AG transition

By: - January 4, 2019 7:01 pm

Bill Schuette (left) and Dana Nessel (right)

Dana Nessel, Michigan’s first Democratic attorney general in 16 years, had kind words about her Republican predecessor.

Nessel told the Michigan Advance in an exclusive interview on Thursday that Bill Schuette was “very gracious” and left her a note — written with “exquisite penmanship” — in which he “offered to assist me in anything that I need and welcomed me to reach out to him at any time.”

The Democrat said she was not offended that Schuette, who lost his 2018 gubernatorial bid to now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, did not attend Tuesday’s inauguration. Nessel also said that she never requested a meeting with him during the transition.

“I don’t know that him and I sitting down together would have made any difference,” she said. “But what he did do is he made his staff 100 percent receptive to my requests. That meant when I asked for documents, they provided me with those documents. When I asked to meet with people, those people called me and we had those meetings. So … I met with every single solitary division of the office.”

Schuette and Nessel didn’t run against one another, as the latter was term-limited. They were on opposite sides of the same-sex marriage fight before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized unions in 2015. Nessel fought Michigan’s ban and Schuette was a staunch defender of the law.

Nessel did tell the Advance that she planned to run the AG office very differently from her GOP predecessor and she wants to eliminate some “political” positions. She also said her office will handle cases differently involving labor, the environment, consumer protection and civil rights.

“I guess I will care about all of those issues,” Nessel said with a laugh. “I mean, I think that’s the best way to put it.”

Gretchen Whitmer

The Advance previously ran a story from the interview in which Nessel endorsed Lavora Barnes, Michigan Democratic Party chief operating officer, to lead the organization. And the AG also discussed the 2018 campaign at length, including her relationship with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and others.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: How will your attorney general office differ from your predecessor, Bill Schuette, on issues like the environment, civil rights and labor?

Nessel: I guess I will care about all of those issues. [laughs] I mean, I think that’s the best way to put it. … I made it a point before I took office, before I got sworn in, I met with every single solitary person on staff. And, to be fair to Bill Schuette, who I think got some criticism, because we didn’t meet in person —

Michigan Advance: So you never did end up meeting in person?

Nessel: No, we didn’t meet in person, but to be fair to him, I didn’t request the meeting so he … certainly did not deny me that opportunity. I met with the staff members who were going to be most helpful. And he was very kind. I have no criticism of him in regard to the transition, very honestly.

I don’t know that him and I sitting down together would have made any difference. But what he did do is he made his staff 100 percent receptive to my requests. That meant when I asked for documents, they provided me with those documents. When I asked to meet with people, those people called me and we had those meetings. So … I met with every single solitary division of the office. And it wasn’t just that he didn’t interfere with that process. He allowed his staff to take time away from whatever else they would’ve normally been working on to assist me with that.

This didn’t happen overnight. It was days and days and days and days of meetings at the office in Lansing and satellite offices in East Lansing and the Detroit office, and they were very helpful. I know that’s a fun narrative because, obviously, I wasn’t a huge fan of Schuette’s work in office, but I have no criticisms of how he handled the transition at all. He was very magnanimous. He left me a very nice note when I got into the office that I opened up yesterday. I wish him well.

That being said, I plan to handle the office very, very differently than he did. Obviously, we have different perspectives on the office. I was pretty dismayed, to be honest with you, when I met with some of the divisions. I met with the Civil Rights Division and that was one person.

Michigan Advance: One person for the entire office?

Dana Nessel

Nessel: That’s right. There was one person in the Civil Rights Division. It’s clear to me that they haven’t done any environmental prosecutions at all, whatsoever. I think there’s obviously much more. And I’ve been critical of the Consumer Protection Unit for a long time. There’s a lot more they could be doing, that they [the staff] want to do.

… And I really want to use the office of the attorney general to protect workers in the state again. And I think they know that and it was one of my platform issues from the very beginning. And I’m committed to seeing that through. And I’m certain that this is an office that protects workers and their unions again.

… If I can say this, I’m so excited about the staff here. These are such dedicated civil servants. These are people that work for the state because they want to do good things for the residents who live here and I’m excited to work with them. I’m trying not to overwhelm the staff with all my ideas, things that I want to do right away. … There’s so much opportunity to help people and, yes, I want it all done yesterday.

But I’m telling you, everybody’s on board; everybody seems pretty excited. And these are just people that want to help the residents of our state and are excited about any new ways to do that and new opportunities to do that. And [there are] just some great lawyers, some great support staff, great investigators. Just very committed civil servants and it’s exciting to work with them.

Michigan Advance: Going back to Bill Schuette, people noticed that he wasn’t at the inauguration, so you didn’t take that as any sort of disrespect to you? Do you want to share anything from that letter or is that private?

Nessel: … First of all, let me say, and I will go on record … This man has exquisite penmanship. … I don’t know where he figured that out. I feel like I have to type everything if they’re used to seeing his handwriting because I can’t compete with it. It’s beautiful. He’s like a professional calligrapher is what I would say — not to be confused with Caligula — which is totally different.

Yeah, he congratulated me and talked about how dedicated all the staff is at the office and what a pleasure it’s been to work with them. And he offered to assist me in anything that I need and welcomed me to reach out to him at any time, and wished me success and was very gracious. And certainly, again, I’ve been very critical of him and I absolutely intend to operate the office with a much different philosophy as to how the office should be utilized, but I am grateful for his graciousness.

Michigan Advance: Have you decided on who you want to be your solicitor general yet?

Nessel: I have definitely have some candidates in the running and let me say this. This process is a little more difficult than I thought it would be in terms of the way that the state government works. And so there are processes that you need to go through in terms of civil service and posting positions and all kinds of different things that I think are important that I didn’t appreciate how long they would take, so that’s why it’s been a little longer for me to make any announcements. And I’m still conducting interviews so I haven’t made decisions on some really critical decisions, but also I’m reconfiguring the office a little bit.

I find the office as it is to be a little top heavy. … These constituency services positions — Schuette had a lot of them — and to be honest, I was pretty critical of positions that I thought were mostly political favors.

And so I’m going to be taking those funds and redirecting them, and I’m going to be utilizing them instead to open up some new units … that I’ve talked about extensively. I’ll be talking about those into the future. But just new units that I think are going to be helpful to people, but it’s going to involve more lawyers and investigators, as opposed to sort of political positions.

Michigan Advance: Have you had a chance to sit down with previous attorneys general — Frank Kelley, Jennifer Granholm, Mike Cox — and get their thoughts and how they may have run the office differently than your predecessor, Bill Schuette?

Nessel: Yeah, I sure have. I had a really nice conversation with [Democrat] Jennifer Granholm within days of my election. She was wonderful. We had a great talk. We were in such a different situation, because she had [Republican] John Engler, of course, as her governor, and they did not always see eye-to-eye on everything.

Mike Cox

Then, of course, with [Republican] Mike Cox, I spoke to him as well. And he had, of course, Jennifer Granholm as his governor. I have had very long conversations with [Democrat] Frank Kelley. In fact, he was at the office assisting me during the transition. …  [He served] 37-and-a-half years, so he had so many different experiences.

What’s really interesting to me are the vast number of people who work in this office that have been here through all of these administrations. They’ve been here since the time of Frank Kelley. Doesn’t that speak to, I think, the environment of this office? All the folks that have stayed all these many years, which was fascinating to me.

Bringing in [former Granholm legal counsel] Kelly Keenan as my deputy … He knows everybody. He left [the AG office] to go to the governor’s office with Jennifer Granholm, and he still knows so many people here because there are so many people that have remained on staff.

But I talked to all of them [past AGs]. I talked to Mike Cox, who by the way, I was very appreciative of the fact that he was supportive of Gov. [Rick] Snyder vetoing the Legislature’s effort at that intervention bill, which, I think, most people recognized would be really a terrible direction for state government to go in — and really an impediment of the work of the attorney general. I thought he was very gracious and supportive in writing that op-ed that went into the Detroit Free Press. And we talked about his work at the office.

… You know, it’s funny, in talking to all of them, especially in talking to Jennifer Granholm, she said that this was her favorite job, and she felt like she could help the most people in this office. And of everything she’s done in her career, [she said] that this may have been her favorite. It was interesting talking to her.

But the thing that is maybe so different from any one of those people that I just named is that … I will tell you, the staff is so grateful for this …  I’m going to working with a governor that I admire, that I respect, and that I consider to be a friend [Gretchen Whitmer]. We are so aligned philosophically. There are so many things that we want to do, both of us together. We’re absolutely on the same page when it comes to almost every issue that I can think of.

One of the problems, I think, that this office has had in the past is, it’s very difficult when you are representing the offices of the executive branch and you have a governor that you don’t have a very strong relationship with. Of course, it’s not just because you might have an AG and a governor of different parties, which can create some problems.

But even when you have, as we saw from the last attorney general [Schuette] and the last governor [Snyder], who I think had some relationship issues or some conflicts, that created problems, too. I think that the staff here is relieved that they have an attorney general and a governor that see eye-to-eye on so many things, because I think it’s going to make them more effective in their individual capacities as assistant AGs. And it’s going to make the whole state government operate more smoothly. And maybe we’ll be able to accomplish more, too.

Michigan Advance: Yesterday, Gov. Whitmer asked you to weigh in on the new legislation for Line 5. Do you expect that we’ll be seeing more of those actions and your two offices working together on issues, as opposed to what we’ve seen in the past?

Nessel: Oh, I definitely think so. There are certain issues … I don’t want to speak out of turn without having spoken to the governor personally. I just happen to know what her feeling is on certain issues. For instance, the governor and I both have very strong feelings about ensuring that people have protection when it comes to health care, right?

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaking at her inauguration at the Capitol, Jan. 1, 2019 | Nick Manes

… For instance, I’ve made it clear that I plan to join the other AGs that are defending the ACA [Affordable Care Act] and to protect people with pre-existing conditions, and I know that Gov. Whitmer supports that. I know she wants to make certain that as many people have health insurance protection as possible, and that she wants to do everything and anything in her power to protect people with pre-existing conditions. That is an example of something that I think we’ll be working together on.

When it comes to ensuring that people have clean and safe drinking water, there are so many actions that I think the AG’s office will be taking in concert with the governor and with the DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] to ensure that people are safe from PFAS, are safe from lead in their water. So there are a number of different actions that I expect in the future we’re going to be working on together, and it’s why I’m so grateful to have a governor who sees eye-to-eye with me on so many of these important issues.

I know when we would go out on the campaign trail together, we didn’t coordinate with each other. We didn’t sit down and say, ‘Hey, let’s only talk about these issues,’ or ‘Here’s our top issues.’ We didn’t do that. It’s just that her issues were my issues and my issues were her issues.

There are certain things that the AG is not as involved in. I don’t think that in terms of her commitment to fixing the roads, which I know she feels very strongly about … that will be more of an issue that she’s working with the Legislature on. But so many of the other issues that I know Gov. Whitmer is committed to, the AG plays an important role in that. That’s why I think for the public, for our state residents, it’s going to be very helpful, because these are issues that impact each and every resident in our state, and Gov. Whitmer cares about and I care deeply about.

I think some of the issues we’ve had in state government — where you have state actors, executive office holders, that are sort of working again each other — that never seems to work out very well for the residents of this state. Check me on this — if your research proves I’m wrong — but I think it’s been 28 years since we’ve had a Democratic governor working with a Democratic AG.

I think it’s going to be a good experience, not just for myself and for the governor, but for all the residents of our state, because we’re going to be able to make a lot of headway on some incredibly important issues.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.