With two questions and a single potent word, a first-time political candidate has distilled the sexual scandals of Roy Moore, Sen. Al Franken, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Rep. John Conyers Jr., Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., President George H.W. Bush, President Trump — and countless men before them and who knows how many more to come — into one woman's platform for 2018.
Dana Nessel sits in front of a fireplace in her YouTube ad for Michigan attorney general, posted this week. She runs through a few recent headlines about famous fallen men. An image of Trump kissing a beauty pageant winner floats above her head and she says:
“When you're choosing Michigan's next attorney general, ask yourself this: Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?
“Is it the candidate who doesn't have a penis?
“I'd say so.”
And that's more or less the ad.
Nessel also lays out a few campaign promises — “I won't walk around in a half-open bathrobe” — and makes the point that politics needs more women, and briefly mentions her background as a prosecutor.
But it's that opening question and the way she asked it that sent Monday's ad all over the country, after her announcement video three months prior garnered less than 300 views.
“This is THE single most astonishing political ad I have ever seen,” wrote political analyst Jeff Greenfield on Twitter, where the video spread virally. The AV Club called it “the most savage political ad of the year,” and the Daily Dot saw it as a demonstration of “how pathetically low the bar is for men in office.”
Come Thursday, Nessel was prepping for an MSNBC interview and fielding questions from fans who had previously not known she existed:
Answered Nessel: “Oh, this is real.”
Nessel came to fame in Michigan after leaving the prosecutor's office, working as a private lawyer for same-sex couples in a state that banned same-sex marriage at the time. In 2012, she represented two women who wanted to adopt children — a case that first toppled the state's ban and then became part of a U.S. Supreme Court fight that legalized same-sex marriage across the United States.
In August, she stood with her mother, father, wife and two sons at a lectern to announce her candidacy for attorney general, which will pit her against former U.S. attorney Pat Miles for the Democratic nomination.
Nessel's announcement came more than a month before a string of sexual assault accusations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein broke into the news, initiating a chain of disturbing revelations that have now spread from Hollywood into political circles, and cast new light on stories that were swept under the rug in decades past.
But for months, Nessel's fledgling campaign looked fairly conventional for a Democrat in her state — support marijuana legalization; protect civil rights and the environment. Her campaign home page still mentions nothing about the country's epidemic of sexual assault.
“Day after day after day of reading about and hearing about these sexual harassments and sexual assault claims” inspired Nessel to change that, she told The Washington Post.
Moreover, she said, political analysts kept warning her that if she won her party's nomination next year, Democrats might be stuck fielding women in all three races for governor, secretary of state and attorney general — posts now held by Republican men.
“Since the day I filed, all I've heard is that the Democrats can't have an all-female ticket,” she said.
She thought they could, and might be better for it. And she thought she'd figured out a way to finally get the message across.
Thus, the penis.
But the ad wasn't popular with everyone. One of the first outlets to report on it, a Fox News station in Detroit, called it “controversial,” and Nessel said she's had some blowback.
“Candidly, I'm troubled that the use of an anatomical word is offensive to some,” she said. “We wake up every day to explicit details of how men have harassed and intimidated women.
“And frankly, had I not used that word, would you be calling me right now?”