Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel attend U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s event in Clawson, March 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth
It’s yet another week when women running for president are absent from the vaunted Sunday morning news shows.
If you’ve thought that male candidates are netting more TV and social media attention than female contenders, you’re not alone — Attorney General Dana Nessel does, too.
At a conference on Saturday in Okemos organized by Women Organize Michigan (WOM), Nessel talked about her struggles as a 2018 candidate dealing with Democrats scared of an all-female ticket. She ended her speech at the Underdogs Summit saying that women running for the highest office in the land aren’t getting enough coverage and deserve “to have their stories told.”
Nessel was the underdog in the 2018 contest for attorney general, starting with the Democratic nominating fight a year ago. The attorney best known for her successful challenge to Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban said that she hadn’t considered running for office before, but President Donald Trump’s election changed her calculus.
“Like I’m guessing many of you, right after the November election of 2016, I was in a little bit of a catatonic state, you might say,” she said. “And I was incredibly depressed and despondent and I think rolled up into an embryonic or fetal position for a good several days.”
Nessel said she pulled out of it when Julia Pulver told her she was planning to found WOM. Pulver would go on to run for the state Senate, but lost to now-state Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake).
As the founder of the LGBTQ rights group Fair Michigan, Nessel spoke at a WOM event in Royal Oak in 2016. She said was inspired to find a Democratic attorney general candidate who would stand up “for the rights of all people” in Michigan, as GOP then-Attorney General Bill Schuette was term-limited in 2018.
“I remember thinking, as someone who had spent so much time suing Bill Schuette,” she said, pausing as the audience laughed, “suing the office of Michigan attorney general, that we really needed to have somebody good in that position.”
After talking to several lawyers who weren’t interested, Nessel recalls that she thought, “What the heck?” — and decided to run herself. She faced Pat Miles, a former U.S. attorney who is African-American and had locked down establishment support from the UAW, Michigan AFL-CIO, former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and others.
Nessel had the backing of two growing Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) groups, the Cannabis Caucus and Progressive Caucus, as well as some establishment support, most notably from the Michigan Education Association.
At the MDP early nominating convention on April 15, 2018, Nessel won — and it wasn’t even close. She recalled at the WOM conference that there was a snow and ice storm, but attendance at the Cobo Center in Detroit a year ago was high.
“The fact that I’m standing here right now talking to you as an attorney general means that I won that day,” Nessel said with a laugh.
But Nessel said that she still faced unexpected obstacles.
“What I didn’t expect was the amount of pushback, quite honestly, that I had received in terms of my candidacy,” she said. “And [it’s] really, the pushback that I think a lot of women receive, especially running for statewide office. And especially people seemed particularly opposed to the idea that we might have, as Democrats, an all-female ticket.
“And I remember reading articles in the paper for weeks, actually for months, of a lot of people … with the Democratic Party that were really not thrilled with the prospect of potentially having another female governor — and the efforts that were made to find someone for the position who was a man. Even though, I think it was very hard to question credentials of Gretchen Whitmer who had announced her candidacy,” Nessel continued.
“That was something that I think a lot of women had faced, the struggle of wanting to run for office, but the pushback that you got because people didn’t want to see too many women running, at least as Democrats.”
Whitmer, a former state Senate minority leader who served more than 14 years in the Legislature, eventually won most major endorsements from public officials and unions. But some party leaders had tried to recruit white male candidates, including U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint).
In a three-way August 2018 primary with businessman Shri Thanedar and former Detroit Health Department head Abdul El-Sayed, Whitmer won by more than 20 points and took all 83 counties.
Democrats ended up nominating an almost all-female statewide ticket of Whitmer, Nessel, now-Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and now-Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, as well as U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing).
Democrats swept all the top races in November 2018, with Nessel narrowly defeating now-former state House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt).
On Saturday, Nessel said that she’s looking forward to Dems taking back the presidency in 2020, saying, “There are so many incredible people running, and out of those people, whoever becomes the nominee for our party I am going to work my tail off — all day, every day — to support that candidate.”
Last month, Nessel attended a Clawson event for U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), along with Whitmer. Five other women are running in a crowded field: U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), author Marianne Williamson and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).
Warren sent a brief video at the conference extolling women for organizing and winning in Michigan in 2018 and asking for their support in 2020.
Nessel criticized the attention that female hopefuls are getting vis-à-vis their male counterparts.
“I’m going to say this: I have been a little bit dismayed at the fact that all I seem to see … nationally, whether it is on my social media, Twitter or Facebook accounts or whether it is on MSNBC or CNN or other news programs, are the male white candidates,” she said. “And while I think they are excellent candidates, and again, would make incredible presidents in the event that they are nominated by our party and hopefully elected, I would really like to see the incredible women [running].”
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), have gotten significant coverage on cable news. Both also have visited Michigan in recent weeks. There’s also been plenty of buzz about South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn’t formally entered the race.
On the Sunday talk shows this week, lesser-known presidential candidates Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) appeared.
“We have amazing women running for president, and I want to make certain that we all do everything we can to make sure that their stories are told, as well, and their ideas and their thoughts about how to make this country truly great again and we act quickly they’re told that we are paying attention to them, as well,” Nessel said.
She ended her speech by saying, “We are going to make Michigan and the United States more respectful and more supportive of the idea of justice for everybody.”
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