Thousands of Michigan Democrats were gathering Sunday to decide a hotly contested contest for state attorney general, in a tilt that was reminiscent of the rift lingering from the 2016 presidential fight between the party's establishment and progressive wings.
Pat Miles, a former U.S. attorney for western Michigan until President Donald Trump took office, was facing Dana Nessel, an ex-Wayne County assistant prosecutor who helped challenge Michigan's gay marriage ban in court. The winner at the "endorsement" convention will be officially nominated at another convention in August — barring a surprise — and face a Republican nominee in the November general election.
GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette cannot run again due to term limits and is instead vying for governor.
"We need someone in this office that will truly be a champion of the people," Nessel told a fired-up crowd at a congressional district caucus hours before the convention was scheduled to begin. "I've spent my entire life, my entire career fighting for people who have needed it the most."
If elected attorney general, Nessel would be the first openly gay person to hold a statewide elective office. She has won backing from liberal groups and the Michigan Education Association, the state's biggest teachers union. She urged Democrats to "nominate the strongest and most energetic candidates that we possibly can."
Miles, who would be Michigan's first black attorney general, told the veterans caucus that he served in the Justice Department under President Barack Obama.
"He trusted me with that position. He trusted me to serve and to be a strong proponent of civil rights, a strong proponent of justice and strong proponent of equality under the law for everybody," he said.
The more low-key Miles, who is supported by influential labor organizations such as the United Auto Workers and the Michigan AFL-CIO, said he resigned at noon the day of Trump's inauguration. "I did not want to serve one minute ... because I knew that Mr. Trump was not going to follow the rule of law."
The endorsement convention is designed to give candidates time ahead of the formal nomination to do the leg work to win in November.
Democrats were expected to endorse Jocelyn Benson for secretary of state. She was the party's nominee in 2010 but lost to Republican Ruth Johnson, who cannot run for a third term in 2018.
The party's state Supreme Court picks will be Sam Bagenstos and Megan Cavanagh.
Bagnestos is a University of Michigan law professor who served as a civil rights attorney in the Obama administration and once clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Cavanagh, an appellate attorney at a Detroit firm, is the daughter of former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Cavanagh.
They are expected to face Justices Elizabeth Clement and Kurtis Wilder in November. Both were appointed to the high court by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to fill vacancies.