They may disagree on abortion, but this political odd couple agrees on preserving democracy

click to enlarge Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel and Jeff Timmer. - STATE OF MICHIGAN, TWO RIVERS PUBLIC AFFAIRS
State of Michigan, Two Rivers Public Affairs
Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel and Jeff Timmer.

On Dec. 22, an email went out from Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel’s campaign that surprised at least some Michigan politicos.

The fundraising pitch for the state’s most powerful progressive official was from former Michigan Republican Party Executive Director Jeff Timmer, who told supporters, “We could quibble and quarrel about policy differences between candidates in quaint days of yore,” but argued that the fight for 2022 is over democracy and that’s why he backs Nessel.

Timmer, nationally known as a Never Trumper who has left the GOP, told the Michigan Advance in a phone interview last week that he’s been a senior adviser on Nessel’s campaign since October. 

He noted Nessel has a “very experienced team … that’s been with her through her last campaign,” adding she’s again tapped Rick Michaels as her campaign manager. Timmer said he will be working on other campaigns this cycle, but declined to elaborate. 

Nessel, who shocked many in Lansing last year by hiring Amber McCann, a former deputy chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) who had worked in GOP politics since the early 2000s, told that Advance that “while Jeff and I disagree on a myriad of topics, we both recognize that democracy is on the ballot in 2022 and is the most important issue in this race.”

“Between the legislation they’ve introduced and the election officials they have replaced at the county level, it’s clear that the Michigan Republican Party is doing everything in its power to usurp future elections if the results don’t go their way.  The office of Attorney General is the frontline of defense in ensuring that doesn’t happen, and can’t be entrusted to any of my GOP opponents,” she continued. “Securing our democracy is not a partisan issue, and I’m happy to have support from people all over the political spectrum who share my goal of preserving our elections.”

Republicans quickly pounced over Timmer’s role as senior adviser to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, which has had scandals over how much money raised has gone to group leaders and sexual harassment allegations against co-founder John Weaver, who once advised GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder, and was denounced by the group as “a predator, a liar and an abuser” after media reports emerged.

“Some of the criticism of the organization, some of the fire was brought in by a couple of the personalities. One in particular, John Weaver, news came out about him at the beginning of last year. He’s no longer with the organization, and really wasn’t from the summer of 2020 on,” Timmer told the Advance. “I guess I welcome any attacks from the Republicans. I’d love for Republicans to spend as much of their time fighting, and engaging with the Lincoln Project rather than voters and the Democrats. So they can’t help themselves from engaging with us.”

In addition to discussing Nessel’s 2022 reelection campaign, the Advance also asked Timmer who was the first Democrat he’s voted for, if he still considers himself a conservative, his podcast with former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer and more.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: Anybody who’s followed your career knows that obviously you’ve been an anti-Trumper and supported Democrats in the ’20 cycle, but do you still consider yourself to be conservative?

Timmer: Well, under, I guess, the traditional definition, yes. You know, a Reagan-Bush conservative, but the term has been so bastardized, that what it means since the tea party [during the Obama era] and Trump, no. So I don’t think my political ideology has changed much. It’s just that the Republicans have none left. 

And so my opposition doesn’t have anything really to do with ideology or policy. It has everything to do with democracy. And one party is completely, from head to toe, anti-democracy, and that’s the Republicans. And so it’s not just an anti-Trump, it’s an anti-Republicans have to lose, or America will lose. Democracy as we know it will cease to exist. And Dana Nessel is somebody who is pro-democracy. … If we ever talked about policy issues, I’m sure we’d find we disagree on a whole lot of things, but we agree on the one big threat facing the country.

Michigan Advance: You mentioned that you had issues with what conservatism had become under Trump, but also the tea party. So we’re talking about the first term of [President] Barack Obama. But you were involved with Republicans in drawing the Republican gerrymandered maps at that time [2011], right?

Timmer: Yeah, it wasn’t that I overnight switched party allegiance, or left the Republican Party. It was a process. And when I look back I can see the path of divergence started somewhere around 2010, when the Republicans stopped being for things and just started being against things. Not only that, but as time went on, it became clear that they weren’t just against things. The things that they claim they stood for, they didn’t really. It was all just lip service and talking points to get attention and to get votes. But they never really meant it. 

Like fiscal conservatism, less taxes, less spending — they say it; they didn’t mean it. That’s very evident with their actions. Now, they’re saying it again, you get complete, utter chickenshit hypocrites, like [U.S. Reps.] John Moolenaar (R-Midland) or Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) talking about reining in spending, when they spent like frat boys at a whore house during Trump’s term.

Michigan Advance: Who was the first Democrat that you voted for?

Timmer: Well, I guess in 2018, I voted for [Gov. Gretchen] Whitmer and Nessel and [Secretary of State Jocelyn] Benson. I didn’t vote for Hillary [Clinton] in 2016. I didn’t vote for Trump. I was still naive, I guess, foolish enough at the time to think, ‘Well, Hillary’s going to win anyway. She’s going to win Michigan, and my vote doesn’t matter. So I can leave that spot blank and vote the rest of the ballot, and somehow have a clear conscience.’ … I don’t know if it was 50,000 or 60,000 or 70,000 people who voted but left the presidential spot blank, that would’ve clearly made a difference in less than 11,000-vote difference in the race that year.

Michigan Advance: Do you still have a relationship with former Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis or any of the people that you were really tight with in the party?

Timmer: No. … For most people, it’s been easier just to not talk, than to eventually get to the big divergence of I think they’re completely wrong in their view, not just their politics, but on what they are willing to accept is right versus wrong. And the number of people — and I’m not naming anybody in particular, because I don’t want to pick individual fights right now — but the number of people that have chosen to go along to get along, doing things that they know are wrong for the sake of power or money. There’s a name for people like that, and it’s not a good one.

Michigan Advance: Of your former Republican friends, what would you say the split is of people who have become true Trump believers, and people who have decided, ‘This is the way I can earn a living. I’m willing to make these sacrifices. This is the only way that we can win and have power?’

Timmer: Yeah, I think there are people who have completely bought into the Trump delusional view of the world, the complete utter lunacy. There’s a good number of people that have done that. There’s a good number of people who are childishly naive, who think that there’s somehow a way to differentiate their form of Republicanism, or what they’ve stood for, or stand for, from the Trump version. There’s still people that think that. And I mean, it’s childishly naive and it’s dangerous. 

The others are the cynical operatives, or electeds that have looked at this, and figured they’re going to jump out along with the parade. Like I mentioned, Bill Huizenga and John Moolenaar are great examples. They know everything that they say and do over the last few years are wrong and lies, but they do it, because Bill was looking at the possibility of a race against [U.S. Rep.] Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), which he now has. And he’s cynically positioned himself as the Trump candidate, even though he knows it’s all bullshit.

One party is completely, from head to toe, anti-democracy, and that's the Republicans. And so it's not just an anti-Trump, it's an anti-Republicans have to lose, or America will lose. Democracy as we know it will cease to exist. And Dana Nessel is somebody who is pro-democracy.

– Jeff Timmer

Michigan Advance: How much has the Republican Party openly embracing racist policy and rhetoric about immigration and Black Lives Matter been a factor for you? You’ve written about your views on the issues, you’ve written about your family for us, and how does this factor in with your personal life, too?

Timmer: The party is overtly racist. There was always an element of racism in the party. We don’t like to talk about it. Many of us didn’t think about it, pretended it didn’t exist. But looking back, there was always that element lurking out there, that the Republican Party was the home for white supremacists, white nationalism, anti-immigrant [activists]. It was tolerated, it wasn’t acknowledged, it wasn’t embraced, but it was tolerated. Which, I guess, means that Republicans were, even people who didn’t maliciously engage in racism, did so complicitly.

The difference, I guess, if you call it, is that now it’s embraced. Those people are given megaphones and microphones at Republican events. They’re mainstream. They’re in elected office, and they run serious positions of political power in the party. … It’s given rise for the cockroaches to crawl out from under the rocks and darkest places. Instead of scurrying for the light, they’re now comfortable standing in the light. We see things like [the 2017 Unite the Right rally in] Charlottesville, Va., and we see things like … the neo-Nazis involved in the kidnapping plot against Whitmer. They know they have support from a lot of people in the Republican Party.

Michigan Advance: Have you had personal attacks on your family that have been racist?

Timmer: No … I’ve had a lot of personal attacks and threats, and threats of violence, and whatnot. And so in that sense, yes, I mean people have threatened to come to my home. And so my family is indirectly threatened when people make those kinds of threats against me. But I haven’t had anything related directly to my family or the makeup of my family.

Michigan Advance: I think a lot of Republicans were pretty comfortable with Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee in ’20, because he’d been around a lot. He had a lot of relationships with Republicans. He was of the old guard of the Senate, and proudly said, ‘I’m not a socialist; I beat the socialists.’ And so he seemed like a fairly safe option if you were a pro-democracy, or Republican, or ex-Republican. Dana Nessel is proudly progressive. She is of the left; she’s to the left of the governor. So was that a factor at all in your decision to work for her? Did you ever think, ‘Hey, we probably don’t agree on abortion?’

Timmer: Yeah, it’s funny, she’s tweeted about me and that in the past. She tweeted that we probably don’t agree on much, but we agree on the big issues. On abortion, I’ve been, over the years, involved in pro-life, Right to Life issues in Michigan, but she and I agree on that it would be wrong to criminalize women and doctors involved in the decision of abortion. And to revert back to the felony law that Michigan has on its books, is the wrong policy choice for Michigan, as well. So that’s something that we agree on, that the criminality is wrong. We could have a whole lot of arguments on the nuances of abortion politics, and disagreements, but on the big issue of criminality, we agree.

Michigan Advance: What would you say are the key differences between Dana Nessel and the Republicans running for AG? What are the things that you would see the biggest change in the office if Republicans would win and be inaugurated in ’23?

Timmer: Well, who I consider the leading candidate, Matt DePerno, is full-throated Big Lie-disciple. I mean, he’s one of the cheerleaders for the Big Lie, the [My Pillow CEO] Mike Lindell, [former Trump lawyer] Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani conspiracy to overturn the election. And he’s an active participant in the conspiracies, he was, and remains. The other, Tom Leonard, is, I’ve written about, I think he’s too weak to stand up. He’s craven; he’ll do what it takes to get the nomination, and getting the nomination at a Republican convention means embracing the DePerno position.

No one will win the nomination without first signing a blood oath that the election was stolen from Trump, that Donald Trump won Michigan, that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. So that’s how I look at the leading contenders. They’re anti-democracy or too weak to stand up and protect democracy. 

From a practical standpoint, Dana Nessel is an experienced criminal prosecutor, and I have as much criminal prosecution experience as the other two, and I’m not a lawyer. So she’s, when it comes to the qualifications for the job, she is exponentially more qualified than anybody else in the race. So, and she’s shown that she has the capabilities to do the job. She has the background to do the job, and she has the integrity to stand up to the big issues. And that’s democracy, she’ll protect Michiganders’ right to vote.

Michigan Advance: Dana [Nessel] has a reputation for speaking her mind and not focus-grouping things. And even if you don’t agree with her, you don’t really doubt where she’s coming from. Do you think that those are going to be big assets in the 2022 election? Because you have a lot of people who are very [outspoken] on the other side.

Timmer: One thing, I think Dana Nessel is a unique candidate, in the sense that she has a sense of humor and a personality that most candidates don’t. The Republicans are effectively cardboard cutouts of what Republican candidates should be in this day and age. They’re either, they look like college Republicans putting on suits, like Tom [Leonard] or carnival barkers like Matt DePerno. They’re bland. Republican, most candidates generally, wear beige and stand next to the wall, and you can’t tell the two apart. 

Dana has a genuine uniqueness to her, a humanness.  … I think voters, if there is a policy difference between a voter and Dana, they can appreciate her as a person. They know where she stands. And I think nothing exemplifies that more than what she dubbed Tailgate-gate, the Michigan-Michigan State game this year. And the fact that the Republicans just can’t help themselves with the soapbox sanctimony, and somehow think that’s somehow some real, legitimate defining campaign issue. They won’t be able to help themselves from running a campaign, or including that in their campaign. And I say, bring it.

Michigan Advance: To be honest, when you took a look at her candidacy back in 2018, did you think she was too far left to win?

Timmer: No, because … in a normal election year, perhaps at the time, I would’ve thought that. … But given the way 2018 was going, the way the winds were blowing that year, it was pretty clear by the time she had won the [Democratic] endorsement convention in the spring. … And she became the likely nominee, the winds were so strongly in favor of the Democrats at that point, it was likely that their top of the ticket, their statewide candidates were looking at a sweep. I saw that then. 

I was from early spring, saying 2018 is going to be just a bloodbath for the Republicans. There were a whole lot of Republicans that hadn’t realized that yet. And they didn’t right up until October, before they started battening down the hatches, and even then some were in denial. But it was real obvious that it was the kind of year where your policy positions, your ideology were secondary to the fact that a wave was happening.

Michigan Advance: There was plenty of homophobia in the Democratic convention fight in 2018. Do you think Nessel’s sexual identity is going to be a factor in this election?

Timmer: The way I’d answer that, is to say that I think ultimately, no. … I think that there’s been such a seismic shift in public perception and attitudes on issues related to LGBTQ politics and same-sex marriage. … We live in a completely upside-down world from where we were 10, 15 years ago. And so I think as far as voters are concerned, it’s a complete non-issue. 

I think as far as the Republicans are concerned, they can’t help themselves from thinking it’s an issue. They are completely out of step with even a majority of their own voters on this issue. I mentioned soapbox sanctimony, they’re going to have it there, as well. And it won’t be overt, but it will be the quiet part of their campaign, like racism.

On abortion, I've been, over the years, involved in pro-life, Right to Life issues in Michigan, but (Nessel) and I agree on that it would be wrong to criminalize women and doctors involved in the decision of abortion.

– Jeff Timmer

Michigan Advance: How’s the podcast going with [former Michigan Democratic Party Chair] Mark Brewer? In your wildest dreams, did you ever imagine you’d be doing that?

Timmer: Well, the podcast is fun, and working with Mark has been fun. We’ve become allies and friends, after being foes for a number of years. We’re on the side of democracy and agree on much more than we disagree on these days. And the podcast is a genuinely fun exercise and the guests and the topics that we’ve talked about has been remarkable. And it’s cathartic. People say that it’s educational, and they like it, and it’s entertaining. So it’s a great outlet for me.

Michigan Advance: Has he ever shared anything he said before you got together about you? Because Mark’s not one to hold back on people.

Timmer: No, we always had a respectful relationship. We’ve known each other, boy, going back to 1991, ’92, and had a lot of grappling back and forth during the time I was at the Michigan Republican party [and] he was the Democratic chair at the time. We found ourselves in different settings … where we’d do the Mutt and Jeff-type show, no pun intended on that one.

But he’s an incredibly connected, smart practitioner of politics. So I have a lot of respect, and my respect has only grown as I’ve been working more closely with him over the last year. I see what a skilled operator he is, not just as an attorney, but as a political operative. So I think that from that position, we have a lot of shared respect for each other, because we’ve both fought in the same arena, just for different sides.

Disclosure: Timmer has been a periodic contributor to the Advance’s opinion page and was not paid.

Originally published January 11, 2022 on Michigan Advance. It is shared here with permission.

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