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Democrats struggle with gender and race in its top races

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

As it stands now, the likely nominee for United States Senate is three-time Senator Debbie Stabenow. Gretchen Whitmer is getting endorsements from leading Democrats in her pursuit of the nomination for governor. Jocelyn Benson is running unopposed for her party’s nomination for secretary of state. There’s also a woman running for attorney general, as well as two African-American men.

Dana Nessel is a former prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney. She’s probably most famous for her efforts to get gay marriage legalized in the U.S.

She’s also the first openly gay candidate running for statewide office in Michigan. She expected some pushback because of that. But, she says she’s getting more pushback because her nomination likely would mean a Democratic slate of all white women.

“What stunned me was the fact that people found much more problematic the fact that I was a woman. And frankly, I’d been so obsessed with homophobia for many years, I completely forgot to worry about sexism," she said.

Nessel says this concern about an all-woman slate of Democrats bothers her a lot. She notes when she attended the state Democratic convention in 2014 and all the nominations were men no one seemed to have an issue with it. All of those men lost in the general election.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Candidate William Noakes says gender and race don't matter. The real issue is whether the candidate can win.

William Noakes is another candidate for Attorney General. He’s an attorney, a professor, and a minister. He’s worked as a lawyer in the private sector and the public sector. He is an African American and… a man. He says he believes he’s the best qualified, that he can win. He hopes his fellow-Democrats agree. But whether the nominee is a woman is not an important issue to him.

“What means a lot to me is: how good are you and are you capable of winning in November? And that’s going to be the real issue,” Noakes said.

He says the party should be more concerned about the quality of the candidate rather than race or gender.

“I don’t think much of that issue at all. If it turns out that it’s all white women, hey, you know, can you win? If it turns out that it’s not, can you win? That’s what it comes down to,” Noakes stressed.

A third candidate running for the Democratic party’s nomination for attorney general is Pat Miles, former U.S. Attorney in Michigan’s western district. Also male. Also African American. When asked about the pushback within the party about an all female slate and the desire to have at least one person of color on the stateside Democratic ticket, Miles was diplomatic.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Candidate Pat Miles says the Democratic slate should reflect the diversity of the state.

“The Democratic party is a party of diversity and inclusion and always has tried to make sure that the ticket represents the state as a whole and I think that’s an appropriate thing to do, to make sure that the ticket represents the entire state,” he said.

When asked if he would support a slate of all white women, Miles responded, “I will always support the Democratic ticket. No doubt about that.”

Dana Nessel made one other point about her candidacy for attorney general.

“I’m certainly not suggesting people should vote for me only because I’m a woman. They should look at my policies. They should look at my experience. They should look at my grit and my determination to do what’s right in this office. But if all those things are in place, I certainly shouldn’t be discounted or disregarded only because I’m a woman,” Nessel said.

Things could change. There’s an upcoming endorsement convention, a filing deadline and the state Democratic party nominating convention. And through all of it, Democrats will wrestle with the question of whether women candidates will face bias… or whether they’ll do better than men in the era of #MeToo.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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