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The upset at the battle of Cobo Hall

Apr 16, 2018

In ancient times, say, four years ago, Patrick Miles would have had no trouble winning the Democratic Party nomination for attorney general.

After all, the former federal prosecutor had the endorsement of the UAW, and that’s all it used to take. “The UAW doesn’t lose,” longtime expert observer Bill Ballenger said.

Not until now, anyway. The party’s old bulls were behind Miles.

So was the much-admired Barb McQuade. Miles was endorsed by Flint Congressman Dan Kildee just before the party’s endorsement convention opened.

Miles had the needed pedigree. He’d gone to Harvard Law School, run for Congress, and been appointed a federal prosecutor by President Obama.

His opponent was a woman who had gone to Wayne State Law School, who hadn’t been involved in partisan politics before this year, and who is openly gay.

But yesterday, Dana Nessel beat the pants off Patrick Miles. Except for the Michigan Education Association, the main teachers’ union, she had nearly the entire establishment against her. They worked frantically against her, fighting dirty at the end.

Yet she won easily. There is both more and less in this than meets the eye. First of all, her victory doesn’t mean unions are completely dead. But this is a new era in which more and more union members speak for themselves. Nessel has always been pro-union, and was clearly supported by some rank and file members.

Miles is currently affiliated with a law firm that brags it helps employers avoid unions. There’s a little bit of the old cognitive dissonance there, you might say.

But the bottom line was this: Miles was a pretty dreadful candidate. He was a poor speaker and seemed to have confused or portable positions on issues like marijuana.

During an interview on Michigan Radio he appeared to change his position on civil asset forfeiture while discussing the subject.

He also seemed to bafflingly racialize the campaign. Democrats have historically felt obligated to include an African-American on their statewide ticket, and have sometimes nominated token candidates and given them little support.

When I mentioned months ago that he, unlike some other nominees, was fully qualified for the job he wanted, his campaign distorted my words and denounced me as a racist.

That was an odd strategy, I thought, and not a very smart one. If he chose to run only as the black candidate, he would be setting himself up to be the defeated candidate in November.

Nessel was energetic, cheerful and hard-working. She registered thousands of new Democrats, many who came long distances in hazardous weather to vote for her. She pledged to use the office to fight for the people, not as a springboard to run for governor, which is what every attorney general in the last twenty years has done. Democrats are, clearly, looking for someone to excite them, and there is a message and a moral in that both parties would do well to remember.

Last night, one horrified ancient warrior called me to say that if Gretchen Whitmer wins the nomination for governor, at least three of the Democrats’ four statewide candidates would be women. I told him millennials didn’t seem to notice, and that until the 1980s, Democrats always ran statewide tickets consisting of all men.

Somehow, I thought the party might survive.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.