“Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?” asks Michigan Attorney General candidate Dana Nessel in a recent campaign video. “Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis? I’d say so.”
Her video—released just over a year after audio of our president describing how he sexually assaults women by “grab[ing] ’em by the pussy” was leaked—quickly went viral, garnering widespread attention from both sides. Some on the left pointed out that Nessel's bold rhetoric excludes trans people and simplifies sexual assault by assuming that women are never perpetrators. Others criticized her brazen language and reductive use of identity politics as a platform.
Nessel, however, stands her ground: “I'm a former sex crimes prosecutor, so a word that is basic anatomy is not as offensive to me as a word, for instance, that our president used the other day to describe immigration from various countries around the world,” she says, referring to Trump’s recently reported “shithole” comment. “To me, saying the word ‘penis’ is not different than saying ‘arm’ or ‘elbow’ or ‘foot.’”
In the campaign ad, which Nessel says was spurred by the unhinged sexism she’d been seeing in politics, she goes on to pledge that she won’t tolerate sexual harassment in her office nor in the workplaces of her future constituents. “I was waking up every single day and I would pick up my phone and peruse the media and see one or two or 12 examples of sexual harassment,” she says. “In the political stories especially, almost exclusively, perpetrators were men. It really built up this fervor in me. I wanted to scream from the rooftop: ‘Can’t you see that not having enough women in office has a direct impact on the amount of sexual harassment that we see in the workplace?’”
Prior to her campaign announcement, Nessel spent 25 years litigating a wide range of issues from child sexual abuse to fatal police shootings of civilians. In 2005, she formed her own law firm called Nessel & Kessel Law, and in 2016, she founded the Fair Michigan Foundation, a non-profit that provides legal protection to members of the LGBT community who’ve been targeted by hate crimes and/or discrimination.
Before deciding that she’d run for office, Nessel began to notice that she and her family weren’t spending their weekends at dinner with their neighbors anymore. “My wife and our two sons spent every weekend going to a protest,” she says. “It could be a protest on the deportation of people in our state, the march for science, marches to defend women's reproductive rights. I mean, I lost track.” After attending protest after protest, she eventually felt compelled to run. “I thought about what I could really do to effect change about the things that were so upsetting to me and it was running for office.”
The Michigan Democratic party is set to have an all-female ticket for statewide office in 2018. However, Nessel says that that fact isn’t sitting well with some Michigan voters. “It has been so troublesome to me because in 2014, for all of those positions, the Dems nominated all men,” she says. “I was at the convention and I didn't hear anybody complaining about it. So now here we are four years later and for me to hear this refrain over and over again—some people seemingly very uninterested in my policies, my proposals, or my experience, but mostly focused on my anatomy—really I found to be exasperating and enraging.”
"I wanted to scream from the rooftop: ‘Can’t you see that not having enough women in office has a direct impact on the amount of sexual harassment that we see in the workplace?’”
While Nessel will have her hands full combating sexism if she’s elected come November, she’s equally concerned and ready to tackle other issues that are affecting Michigan’s residents—namely addressing environmental issues. First on her environmental agenda is getting rid of Enbridge Line 5, an old oil pipeline that runs through the Great Lakes and could contaminate 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water if it were to leak, consequently tanking Michigan’s entire economy, and putting the state’s entire ecosystem and population at risk of irreparable harm.
Nessel is very adamant that addressing the environment is a matter of life and death. She brings up the water crisis in Flint as an example of where the rest of her home state is headed if leadership continues to allow corporations to make their own rules when it comes to emitting toxins—and she’s not shy to criticize current Michigan AG Bill Schuette for neglecting Flint and other environmental crises throughout the state.
“There was no reason for [Flint] to have happened,” she says. “The AG could've handled this in a much different way, which would've greatly helped the residents in the city of Flint who are still suffering horribly… But there are concerns like that all around the state. We have so many Flints that we're possibly moments away from.”
Also on Nessel’s agenda is enforcing civil rights, a leg of her platform that encompasses protecting and expanding women’s bodily autonomy, immigrant protections, addressing housing discrimination, and more. Additionally, she plans to protect Michiganders from corporations who target residents, safeguard senior citizens, prosecute violations of labor laws, and work towards legalizing marijuana.
In the 2016 Presidential Election, Michigan voted Republican for the first time in over two decades. But that doesn’t seem to worry Nessel as she looks forward to the 2018 elections. “I see what I would call the disaster of November 2016 as an opportunity here in Michigan to take back our state government,” she says. “It's up to candidates like myself to keep people energized and excited and to really send the message out for what we can turn this state into.”