Michigan A.G. Dana Nessel on the March
A conversation with Nessel, who is marshaling the 2019 Up North Pride parade
By Patrick Sullivan | June 15, 2019
Attorney General Dana Nessel, the first openly gay person to hold state office in Michigan, isn’t in the fight of her life. But she might be in the fight of our lives. She’s battling Enbridge to shut down Line 5. She’s taking on the rules, regulations, and court decisions that discriminate against the state’s LGBT community. She’s even trying to protect your grandparents. Northern Express sat down with Nessel before her turn as grand marshal of Traverse City’s Pride parade to talk justice, environment, and dignity — and why they should matter to all of us.
Jonny Cameron believed, like in much of the nation in recent years, LGBTQ rights were under increasing attack in Michigan, but said last year’s election of Dana Nessel to the post of Michigan Attorney General was a welcome relief.
Nessel had attended last year’s Pride Week in Traverse City, when she was a candidate. Now that Nessel is attorney general, Cameron said it made sense to invite her back to this year’s march as Grand Marshall.
“When Dana was elected, I thought, ‘OK, we can stay in Michigan. Some scary stuff was going on, but we have her at the helm,’” said Cameron, who identifies as “they/them.”
Indeed, Nessel has been busy since she became the first openly gay person to hold statewide elected office in Michigan, taking immediate steps to fight for both civil rights and environmental protections. Nevertheless, she made time to talk with Northern Express in advance of her arrival in Traverse City, where she’ll serve as Grand Marshal of the 2019 Up North Pride Visibility March on June 22.
Northern Express: Have you ever been the Grand Marshall of a parade before?
Dana Nessel: I have, actually. After our success on the DeBoer case [DeBoer v. Snyder, a 2012 lawsuit that helped establish the right to gay marriage], I got a lot of grand marshalling opportunities around the state, so that was fun.
Express: Tell me about the Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer case and how that inspired you to get into politics.
Nessel: It’s actually pretty simple. From beginning to end, it was about a three-year case, and I just saw all of the time and effort and energy and expense that the office of Michigan Attorney General was utilizing to discriminate against a pretty significant portion of Michigan residents, and I could not help but think how much better it would be if that office was utilized to help and to support Michigan residents, instead of engaging in discrimination against them. So, it was impactful, but to be honest, I never really thought of running for office until after the 2016 election.
Express: How concerned are you about the state of LGBTQ rights and tolerance today?
Nessel: I think if you look at it from a public opinion perspective, every year that goes by, there is more support, publicly, for LGBTQ rights, but unfortunately, that’s not the case with many of our elected leaders. As a Democrat, one of the things I will say about my party is LGBTQ rights has been a pivotal part of our platform, both as a state and nationally, for some time. As a Democrat, I’ve always felt accepted in my party. For many, many years I have.
Unfortunately, my party has not controlled the state until recently, and we don’t control the federal government, and that has resulted in an exhaustive number of laws and administrative rules and regulations, and also court decisions from Republican-appointed judges that have been horrifically discriminatory toward the LGBT community. Honestly, all of my worst fears about how this community would be treated under this [Trump] administration, have come to fruition — every single solitary one of them — and it gets worse and worse every day. I ran for office for a lot of different reasons, but one of those reasons was certainly to fight back on behalf of the LGBTQ community who had not had anyone ever fight for them from this office before. Democrats included.
Express: How does that look like, fighting for the LGBTQ community as attorney general?
Nessel: I think if you just look no further than the case that we filed in conjunction with many other states against the Department of Health and Human Services over a right to refuse healthcare based on religious beliefs. And to say that, literally, you could have every single gay, bisexual, transgender, gender-nonconforming individual be denied healthcare services for no other reason than who they are in a relationship with, or how they identify. It violates every tenant of the separation of church and state that I’ve ever been taught in any of my law school classes, and I find it appalling. And I guess I’m here to tell this community that you have somebody to fight for you, you have somebody who has your back, and who always will fight for you. I think it’s a message that this community needed to hear after so many years of this office being utilized to support discrimination.
Express: You’ve made a name for yourself as a fighter. Is that how you’ve always been, or was there a turning point in your life that made you more willing to take on challenges?
Nessell: You know, I just have always been of the belief, from a legal perspective, that you can never win a case that you don’t file, right? I think that I’ve even had issues within the community of wanting to be more proactive than other people. It’s just a basic belief that it’s never the wrong time to fight for justice, it’s never the wrong time to fight for what’s right, and that there are so many people out there clamoring for representation, clamoring to have their voices heard, clamoring for recognition of their rights and equal dignity, just as human beings. You know, what the hell did I go to law school for if it wasn’t for this?
Express: How did being gay/lesbian affect your running for office? Were there people who used your sexual orientation during the election process to attempt to discredit you? Did you face discrimination during the campaign?
Nessel: Yeah, I think I did. Obviously, it was not impactful enough. I mean, it speaks well of the state of Michigan that I won. Clearly whatever efforts were made to use my sexual orientation against me were not successful, but, yeah, certainly I saw that — both in the general election, as well as in my effort to secure the nomination from my own party.
Sometimes it’s more subtle – ‘Dana Nessel loves sex offenders’ or ‘Dana Nessel is not tough on sex offenders’ — those subtle sorts of ways that you compare things that are abhorrent like pedophilia to homosexuality. I saw that for sure. But obviously it was not impactful. On election night, I kissed my wife on stage, and there were so many people who said, ‘Before I saw that, I didn’t know that you were gay.’ I just went out on the campaign trail, and I talked about issues that affect everyone in this state, and I think that really resonated.
Express: Let’s change gears to another fight. Could you explain to me what your legal strategy is, currently, to address Line 5?
Nessel: No. We’ll have something that we will be moving forward on shortly, and as soon as we file anything, you’ll know about it.
One of the central promises of Nessel’s campaign was a vow to shut down Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac, a commitment Nessel said she maintains. In early June, when Northern Express interviewed Nessel, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Enbridge, the Canadian company that operates the Line 5 oil pipeline, were in negotiations over a plan to move the line into an underground tunnel. Since that time, those negotiations have broken down, and Enbridge has filed with the Michigan Court of Claims seeking to enforce an agreement made with Gov. Rick Snyder to construct a tunnel in five to 10 years. Nessel would not go into detail with Northern Expressabout her legal strategy to uphold her promise to shut down Line 5, but she has previously declared that agreement between Snyder and Enbridge is unconstitutional.
Express: You started out allied with Gov. Whitmer on Line 5. Recently, you and the governor seem to be taking different approaches. Is that a fair characterization? Can you explain what’s going on?
Nessel: All I can say is that negotiations are ongoing, and I suspect that you’ll see some movement in regard to Line 5 shortly. And that the governor and I continue to have ongoing conversations, and I would not characterize it as a disagreement. I think that’s an incorrect characterization. [Line 5] is a priority to me. I ran in very large part because of my concerns about Line 5, and I just want to assure folks that are living in areas that would be most impacted in the event of a rupture — I mean, we’d all be impacted, but nowhere moreso than Up North — I want to assure people that I plan to do absolutely everything in my power as Michigan Attorney General to make certain that we are protecting the Great Lakes, that we are protecting the natural resources, and that we are protecting jobs that are related to tourism and recreation, and we’re protecting our drinking water.
Express: When you come to Traverse City for Pride Week, you are also bringing the Elder Abuse Task Force for a stop on its listening tour. Tell me about what that is and why it’s important to you.
Nessel: For decades there have been these commissions put together that talk about recommendations to combat elder abuse, elder neglect, and economic exploitation of seniors not just in consumer protection, but also in the probate court and problems in the guardianship process. I mean, it is hugely impactful with our aging population in Michigan. We are working very industriously to correct many of the problems in the system. It’s going to be myself and Justice Meghan Cavanaugh, and we’re going to be covering as much of the state as possible. We want to hear concerns that seniors have, and we also want to talk about some of the proposed solutions that we have. We have — I think it’s nine particular areas that we are focusing on where we are trying our hardest to ensure better protection for seniors.
Express: What kind of problems are you already aware of?
Nessel: Firstly, abuses in the guardianship process. In my opinion, it’s far too easy to get full guardianship over another human being. What’s worse than having somebody take from you the ability to make any decisions at all about your healthcare or about your finances? We see seniors that have total strangers taking control of their lives, and they have no say in it. Often times they are not even brought into court when it happens. And their wishes are not followed by the probate courts a lot of times. We’re trying to address those issues. Before we make these changes, we want to get around the state and listen to everybody’s concerns.
Express: Jared Polis from Colorado is the first out, gay governor in the U.S. Do you believe that the U.S. could elect an out, gay person to be president? I am thinking at this moment of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, but of course, there might be others — if not in 2020 but perhaps in 2024.
Nessell: I do. I am hopeful that people — it’s not that they will see [a candidate who is openly gay] as a positive or a negative, just simply, it won’t matter. People will look at all the other attributes that a person has and the characteristics they want in a person elected to the highest office in the land. Who a candidate is married to should be completely irrelevant.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Be Heard on Elder Abuse
Nessel’s local stop for the elder abuse listening tour will take place from 10:30am until 12:30pm.
Friday, June 21, at the Traverse Area District Library.