DETROIT — The LGBTQ caucus room inside Detroit’s Cobo Center was uncomfortably warm and packed Sunday, but that’s not why Dana Nessel was sweating.
After seven months of non-stop campaigning, traveling to 69 counties and trading barbs with Democratic rival Patrick Miles, Nessel was nearing the end of the road. The race for the Michigan Democratic Party’s endorsement was tight. But in this room, she was among friends.
“Guess who is going to be filing suit against the Trump administration on behalf of the state of Michigan?” Nessel told the crowd. “This lesbian right here.”
Photo slideshow: A dogfight at the Michigan Democratic Party convention
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The room erupted in cheers. Her wife, Alanna Maguire, and twin sons stood to her left, beaming. More than 10 hours later, Nessel, the first openly gay person to run for statewide office in Michigan, could claim victory.
On her path Sunday to locking down her party’s endorsement, Nessel had weathered a tepid reception in the labor caucus, a standing ovation from progressives and pointed questions from audience members in the party’s Black and Disability caucuses. She’d squeezed through stuffy rooms packed shoulder-to-shoulder, navigated rearranged speaking schedules and been physically pulled in and out of meetings.
Miles, her defeated opponent, had hoped to make his own history Sunday. A former U.S. attorney with a buttoned-down campaign style, he was bidding to become the state’s first African American Attorney General. Instead, he would end the most important day of his political life hearing cheers for Nessel, his endorsement by two major unions falling short in a city synonymous with labor muscle.
It was a day for the party’s ascendent progressive wing in what may be a year for progressive candidates. Miles had the establishment, but it was Nessel supporters whose voices thundered across the convention hall on Sunday. She enjoyed the backing of LGBTQ activists and cannabis proponents ‒ interest groups that were hardly considered part of any blueprint for party victory even a dozen years ago.
Roughly 6,700 registered Democrats turned out Sunday at Cobo Center to endorse candidates for Michigan Attorney General, Secretary of State and Supreme Court, according to the count of party chairman Brandon Dillon. But only one race was contested: for Attorney General. Over an exhausting day of meetings, speeches and ballots, with ice storms raging outside, there were 30-plus caucus groups and congressional districts for the AG candidates to woo.
In fact, Nessel had begun the night before. She urged her supporters Saturday to safely make it to Detroit amid the spring storm, even offering to find them overnight lodging. She wrote on Twitter that her campaign’s internal polling showed her leading, “but due to the weather affecting large portions of the state, our numbers are thinning. YOUR VOTE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER.”
The winning candidate in Michigan’s Democratic Party is the one who buses, begs and cajoles the most supporters to the endorsement convention. Anyone joining the state party by March 16 was eligible to vote Sunday — provided they showed up at Cobo Center.
A divisive campaign
Those that arrived Sunday bore witness to the endgame of an increasingly tense primary race.
On one side was Miles, 50, a Harvard Law School classmate of former President Barack Obama, who would later nominate Miles to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan. Miles had won a slew of establishment support, most notably from the United Auto Workers and AFL-CIO.
In the other convention corner was Nessel, 48, best known as the attorney who won the landmark case, DeBoer v. Snyder, which ultimately would overturn Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage. (A third candidate, Bill Noakes, was told by the party that he did not submit enough signatures to qualify for Sunday’s endorsement voting.)
Both candidates had been battered by criticism in recent weeks. A progressive organization supportive of Nessel labeled Miles a flip-flopper for moving to the left from his previous stances on the death penalty, same-sex marriage and civil forfeiture.
Miles’s campaign hit back in recent days about Nessel’s comments regarding her firm’s defense of accused sexual offenders, and pointed to statements on the firm’s website detailing how the firm won cases by effectively cross-examining children. (Nessel’s law partner, Chris Kessel, issued a statement saying he alone wrote the statements in question, and the two attorneys have legally separate business entities that do business as Nessel and Kessel Law.)
On Thursday, two victims of disgraced Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar criticized Nessel’s hesitation to embrace pending bills that would make it easier to prosecute those accused of sexual assault. The press conference was organized by the Miles campaign. (Nessel countered that she supports legislation that both protects sexual assault victims and the rights of accused offenders.)
But those expecting a rhetorical cage match Sunday didn’t get one.
Instead, both candidates were all positive. Neither Miles nor Nessel mentioned the other as they made their final campaign pitches in meetings before African Americans, unions, progressive activists, environmental advocates, women and other interest groups. And they did not appear to cross paths before the vote, at least not publicly.
Making their case
Miles looked out at the audience of labor union members inside the Cobo Center’s ballroom.
“Who’s ready for an Attorney General who will stand with labor?” he asked.
“Yeah!” the crowd cheered.
Miles’ father, a United Auto Workers member, stood beaming by his son’s side. The candidate’s mother was a teacher in Grand Rapids’ public schools for 30 years, and a member of the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
Miles had the union endorsements, but what he needed Sunday were the votes of the rank and file if he wanted to outpace the progressive support that had swung to Nessel.
“Are you ready to replace Bill Schuette?” he asked, citing the Republican occupant of the Attorney General’s office, who is now running for governor.
Ben Burton, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union from St. Clair Shores, stopped Miles after he spoke to the Democrats’ rural voters to shake his hand.
“You have my support,” Burton told him.
Miles adjusted his pitch as he moved to address other Democratic interest groups.
In caucus meetings representing racial and ethnic groups, Miles said he would be an advocate for civil rights and equality, and cited his role as a joint leader of a statewide alliance against hate crimes. Before the Michigan Education Association, he stood next to his mother, Shirley Miles, the teacher. To environmentalists, he said he would be the Attorney General who will shut down Enbridge’s controversial Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac, which has elicited concerns about its age and condition.
Miles was trailed all day by volunteers who carried signs and shouted, “Are you ready for a victory?” and “Pat Miles for AG!” His father, Pat Miles Sr., walked alongside him from room to room. The day, he said, was “kind of surreal for me.”
A firebrand rises
A thin hallway leading from registration to Cobo’s cavernous ballroom was packed with tables representing candidates and organizing groups. At the Dana Nessel outpost, Stephanie Augustyniak handed out stickers and signs to passerby.
“She speaks for me,” Augustyniak said of Nessel, who she admires for her record fighting for same-sex marriage in Michigan. “It’s important to me that she stood up before it was popular.”
Though she’d followed Nessel’s career, Augustyniak said she wasn’t a sure-fire supporter until the middle of last week, when the Miles campaign organized the press conference featuring the criticism of two Nassar survivors. That firmly planted her in Nessel’s corner.
“I was just really dismayed that he would be divisive,” she said. “We’re all Democrats.”
Another supporter, Lizziy Flynn of Plymouth, hailed Nessel’s progressive credentials and support for environmental justice and LGBTQ rights.
“To be honest, I haven’t been this inspired by a candidate since Bernie Sanders,” Flynn said. “It’s not just an inspiring message, it’s an inspiring person.”
To spread that message, Nessel hit 34 caucus groups and congressional districts scattered throughout Cobo Center in the five hours leading up to the endorsement vote.
Trailed by her family, staff and entourage of supporters, she was tense as she walked from session to session. But when she took each podium, she lit up.
“I’ve heard some people say we can’t have too many women on the ticket,” she told the party’s Women’s Caucus, a reference to the possibility that the party’s Secretary of State and governor nominees would also be women.
“You know what I say to that?” Nessel asked. “Screw that noise.”
Her stump speech, too, was fitted to each audience: In the Black Caucus, she touted her record of protecting minority communities and pledged to fight wrongful convictions and arrests. In the Disability Caucus meeting, she promised there would be an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator in the Attorney General’s office. In the Environmental Caucus, she said she’d take on Nestlé, shut down Line 5 and stand up to President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Scott Pruitt.
“I’ll be suing you all day, every day,” Nessel said.
After the caucus meetings, she hit all 14 state congressional districts. Supporters’ energy was rising and eventually spilled into the ballroom, where the main event would take place.
Clad in a bright blue blazer, Nessel bobbed through the sea of delegates as they filed in for the endorsement convention. Chants of “Dana! Dana!” rose in waves as she passed by, shaking hands.
“I’m so tired,” Nessel confided just before the endorsement portion of the convention began. “This is a crazy day. The craziest day in the history of all my days.”
But like another progressive provocateur, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Nessel noted one thing that had resonated with Sunday’s audiences: “The shouting,” she joked.
In the early evening, after more than an hour of voting and tabulating, Miles came to the stage and offered his concession speech.
“We just wished each other good luck,” Nessel told reporters of her conversation with Miles before the results. “We fought a hard and good race, and hopefully the party will come together at this point and support all of our nominees.”
It was around 7 p.m. when Nessel took the stage after the vote.
“Are you supposed to cry during this?” she asked the crowd. “Because I feel a little bit like crying right now.”
She knocked the miserable weather, thanked her supporters and pledged to work tirelessly to turn Michigan blue.
“Now, let’s go home and go to sleep,” she said, “because, oh my God, this is the longest day ever.”