INTERVIEW: Mark Brewer – A legacy of fiscal responsibility and party-building at the Michigan Democratic Party

18 years of leadership of one of the most active state parties in the country

NOTE: My interview with Mark Brewer’s opponent in this race, Lon Johnson, can be found HERE.


MDP Chair Mark Brewer addresses the audience at last weekend’s Ann Arbor Dems meeting

For the past 18 years, except for a brief period when Jennifer Granholm installed Butch Hollowell at the helm, Mark Brewer has led the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) as its Chair. During Hollowell’s tenure, Brewer was given the newly created position of Executive Director and, since Hollowell’s departure a year and half later to work on the Kerry campaign, Brewer has held both positions.

During that time, Chair Brewer has expanded the party and worked to bring it into the Internet Age. In a letter announcing his candidacy (pdf), he touts the MDP’s expansion of its reach via the web and social media:

Growing our social media presence has been another focus. In 2012, MDP’s Facebook page added more “likes” than any other Democratic State Party. Our Twitter following increased by 70% last year and now has the 8th largest following of all Democratic State Party organizations. And on YouTube, the MDP received the 2nd most views of any State Party in 2012 for our Supreme Court video, “Can’t Run.”

Our Email and web presence has been significant in recent years. In 2012, MichiganDems.com received 333,866 page visits. We also developed several micro-websites that take on GOP candidates including: TheRealBruceRendon.com; BolgerGate.com; and JudgeColleenOBrien.net.

The MDP has been a leader in email communication, too. We have gathered the largest Email list of any Democratic organization in Michigan – and in 2012 alone we sent out 67 statewide Email blasts.

Although Mark Brewer has been challenged in the past for his position as Chair, the most recently in 2011, the challenge he faces this year seems more robust than previous attempts. Brewer is supported by the Michigan Education Association, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters, and the Greater Lansing Labor Council among other organizations along with at least 60 local party leaders across the state. On the other hand, both Senators Stabenow and Levin along with the entire Democratic Congressional delegation, the UAW, and the Teamsters have shifted their support to Brewer’s opponent, former candidate for state House, Lon Johnson.

I spoke to Chair Brewer about this race, his accomplishments as MDP Chair and his vision for the future of the MDP.

You actually hold two positions in the Michigan Democratic Party, is that right?
Yes, I serve as both Chair and Executive Director, that’s the situation in a number of state parties.

How did it come to be that you hold both positions?
When I came here, and since that time, I felt we could save a tremendous amount of money by doing that. I make $70,000 a year, which is a lot less than most chairs and it saves by not having a separate Executive Director. What I’ve done with that money is use it to hire other staff who can do other things. I don’t think that you need, for a small staff like this, a lot of layers of bureaucracy. So, I do the work of at least two people so that we have the money to spend on other staff.

Why does the Executive Director position even exist, then?
That’s a good question. In the state parties where you have a full-time Chair, I don’t know why you would need an Executive Director beyond that because I think it just adds another layer of management and so forth. Most state parties, in fact, have part-time chairs in which case the Executive Director makes sense since you do need someone in charge full-time to take care of things.

How many people work for the MDP?
Our staff between elections is ten full-time folks plus volunteers and interns. We have pretty programs for both. When I got here, there was a lot of work being done by staff that could be done by interns and volunteers — we do an enormous amount of mail, for example, and a number of other tasks — so we have built up, over time, a very strong intern program. Several people on my staff currently started here as interns. I’m very proud of that. We also have a corps of very dedicated volunteers that come into the building on a regular basis to help us with mail and so forth. But the basic staff between elections is ten. That number obviously grows tremendously as we get into the election cycle.

How long is the Chair’s term?
These are two-year terms, elected biannually at our winter convention in odd-numbered years. It makes sense to do it after elections. In some other states, they hold their Chair elections in August of the election year and other really odd times. We do it immediately after the election so that person has the two years in the cycle to prepare for the next elections.

So they would actually change leadership right before an election? That seems kind of weird.
That is done in some states and it never made any sense to me. They’ve got it in their tradition and it’s in their rules but I think our tradition and our rules here make a lot of sense in terms of the election cycle.

So, this year you’re being challenged. I’m somewhat new to the Party compared with some but, in my experience, this seems like a more tenacious challenge this year than I have ever seen. Why do you think the UAW and the Teamsters and these other Democrats at the federal level are looking to replace you? What’s your take on that?
Well, I’m not going to speculate on their motivation and their interests. You’ll have to talk to them. I’m focused on running a positive campaign based on what I have done, what we’ve built here together in the state of Michigan with the Michigan Democratic Party and my plan for the next two, four years and what needs to be done, what we need to do as a party in order to take the next step.

You heard me talk a little bit about that at the Washtenaw Dems meeting recently. I think our top priority has got to be redistricting reform. That is the reason we are not getting our fair share of Congressional seats or legislative seats and even, in some cases, like in Oakland County. You may remember the gerrymandering rule that was passed specifically for Oakland County last year [that allowed Republicans to take over their County Commission.] Those are the reasons why we’re not performing and why the number of seats is not where it should be.

We have good candidates, we’re right on the issues, we’re adequately resourced (though we could always use more money,) but last year, had the districts not been gerrymandered, we would now be in control of the state House and we would have picked up more Congressional seats.

Does it concern you that there’s a split between supporting you and Lon separately? Does that seem like something that is going to fracture the party?
No, because what unites us is that, after this over, we will focus on what we’re focused on right now. You’ve probably seen the stuff we’ve done about Snyder over the past couple of days. Tomorrow we’re going to attack him on this transvaginal ultrasound legislation. But what unites us as Democrats continues to unite us, which is taking out Snyder and beating the legislative Republicans and any other Republicans on the ballot in 2014. So, that unites us and I’m not concerned about these momentary, short-term debates and divisions in the party. We’ll rally around winning elections in 2014.

So you think we’ll come though this in one piece?
Yes. I believe we can.

Since union jobs are only about a fifth of the jobs in this state, a lot of people, including Democrats, are not union members. I hear from my readers and others that I talk to that the unions really run the Michigan Democratic Party, especially the UAW, and people who aren’t members of a union really struggle to have a voice. You can’t get elected as a national convention delegate, for instance, if you’re not on the labor slate. Do you see this as a problem and, if so, what do you think we can do about it?
The labor movement is an important part of the party, they believe what we believe. It’s not just worker rights, which are important, but also civil rights and social justice. That’s long been part of their efforts not only in Michigan but nationally. So our views are very, very close and in tandem on those kinds of things.

That being said, we’re a much broader party than just the labor movement. As I pointed out in my email [to announce my candidacy] (pdf), we have the largest group of constituency caucuses in the entire country. Many ethnic groups are represented, not just through those caucuses, but in other ways, as well. If you look at our Executive Committee, which is truly an Executive Committee that makes decisions between State Central meetings, it’s very diverse and representative. If you look at our national convention delegation which you were a part of last summer, we had a record number of Hispanic, LGBT, young people, African Americans — an incredibly diverse delegation. So, again, while labor is a very important part of the party, we are much more than the labor movement.

One of the things that you talked about when you came to our Washtenaw County Democratic Party meeting a couple of weekends ago was how the OFA database is going to go with the Obama campaign and they’re basically turning it into a nonprofit. That means that, although we still have access to the Voter Action Network (VAN) database, we will not have access to the full-fledged database that the Obama campaign had. One of the things I was encouraged to hear you say is that you have a goal to rebuild that, to the extent that you can. Do you have thoughts on how you can do that, how you will make that happen and how long it will take?
Yes, in terms of the data, just to be clear, we are going to have, as part of the VAN, the Obama IDs. [Note: these are tags in the VAN database that help to identify the level of involvement in the campaign of the individuals in the database.] But, everything else, all the other names and addresses, the lists, and so forth are going with the new incarnation of OFA. So, what I’m in the process of doing is talking to the leadership that led OFA in the state the past couple of years to try to figure out the best way to attempt to recreate that structure ourselves.

Obviously those volunteers are still here. Several of them came up to me after the Washtenaw County meeting and said, “Mark, we’re eager to work with the Michigan Democratic Party.” But, again, because we don’t have the lists, we don’t know where those people are. So, that is what we’re going to do. We’re going to talk to the leadership that’s been here — Garrett Arwa and others — and do our best to recreate that on an ongoing basis here in Michigan. That may mean we have to hire some more staff. I may need a statewide director for that project, for example, but we will find a way to raise the money to do that.

That seems like a really ripe pool of people and I think that’s one of the questions that people have. There’s this pool of trained people out there. OFA came through in 2008 and in 2010 and again in 2012, and they trained people how to do canvassing and phonebanks and how to organize themselves. I’m curious to see how we can activate those people and keep them active. Because it doesn’t take too long a period of inactivity for them to drop off.
Right, that’s why I want to figure out as soon as possible how to do that. Because, like I said, I’ve had people come up to me after the meeting and otherwise and saying, “We want to be part of something going forward,” and I am asking them “How do we contact your colleagues, your thousands of colleagues across the state?!” in order to recreate that. So that’s going to be our challenge, among other things to try to recreate the lists that we don’t have.

I guess that that’s a national problem.
Well, it is. I can guarantee you that state parties across the country are disappointed that OFA has gone this way. We understand that the President needs to forward his agenda, but we think both could have been done. But the decision has already been made so it’s up to us to adapt to it.

Once you’ve got data, you’ve already got some and it sounds like you’re aiming to get more, how would you use it? What would you do different in future elections, how would you leverage that data?
Well, what OFA had was that they did a really great job of — using very few paid staff, I think they probably peaked at ten paid staff in the state — they basically recruited, trained and supervised thousands of volunteers on an ongoing basis. It wasn’t just during election time. They were active throughout the last four years.

We had a very cooperative relationship with OFA. They were headquartered out of our headquarters here in Lansing. We worked very closely with their leadership. We had a number of projects together, even before the election last fall.

So that’s what they were able to do, they were able to keep people active during the entire two-year cycle. That’s the key thing: it keeps people activated and keeps them focused on issues. And then you use them, in turn, to keep issues alive, doing canvassing and phonebanking. It was somewhat a permanent campaign structure. That’s the goal, to recreate that, to keep people engaged for the entire two years.

So, you’re talking about using issues and things that happen between elections to keep motivated and activated?
Yes. But, you know, the best motivator, frankly, for volunteers I’ve seen, are candidates. But issues also motivate a lot of folks. So, you’ve got to find the right combination of that. For example, if we get early nominees for some of our offices, that may provide a spark and a recruiting tool and a focus for some volunteers. But, if we don’t have an early endorsement of a gubernatorial candidate, for example, and we have to wait until August of 2014, we will use issues against the Governor to motivate those folks and have them communicate those issues to keep the campaign alive until we have a candidate to focus on.

In terms of fundraising, what are your goals for the next two to four years and how do you see yourself accomplishing those? Are there any new things you have in mind in terms of raising money?
Yeah, I mean a little context there. Our annual budget, just to operate the state party, the staff I talked about plus all the help we provide to the local parties is about a million and half dollars. So I’ve raised that already. That’s $3 million that we’ve raised over two years in a wide variety of ways and I’m very proud of our diverse mix of fundraising. What I’ve see in other state parties, Chris, is that they become so dependent on an elected official or a couple of big donors, that when that elected official leaves office or those donors lose interest, the party collapses. We have a very broad base of fundraising which I think is critical. I’ve really worked to diversify. I mean we use bingo, we use direct mail, we use telemarketing. We have membership which virtually every other state party has given up on. We do online fundraising, we do events. We have a very diverse mix of fundraising. I want to keep and expand that.

We’ve been very successful in the past two years with online fundraising. More and more of our fundraising is moving in that direction. Not just memberships, because we do get a lot of people that join us online, but in outright appeals. I don’t know if you saw or remember that last summer, [State Rep.] Lisa Brown did a special appeal for us online which raised a lot of money when that whole “Vaginagate” controversy broke out.

So, we constantly study what works. What issues get a response, not only in terms of activism but in terms of finances, and then try to recreate that. We’re trying some of that stuff already after studying last years results.

So, we want to do that. We also want to continue to expand the individual contributions to the party, as well, stressing to them the importance of the party as an institution along with all of the services that it provides.


Photo courtesy of Mark Brewer

Do you see yourself working with progressive groups in the future? What is your relationship with progressive groups now and is that something that could be expanded in the future or is that not something you see happening?
I think people need to know a little about my background. I mean, look, I was the president of the Detroit ACLU for several years and I sat on their Board for a long time. I was active in the Sierra Club and other progressive groups before I became party Chair. I’ve obviously had to cut back on that due to time commitments that that requires but I am a progressive. I believe in all of those things, I’ve worked for them all of my adult life.

Now, as party Chair, I have to work with lots of folks. The Democratic Party is a very broad coalition of folks and they are not all as progressive as you and I. And they are welcome, they are all welcome in the Democratic Party. You know, we don’t push people out of the party if they are pro-Second Amendment or because they may not be pro-Choice. We are a pro-Choice party, don’t get me wrong, but we also don’t expel people and purge them like we see going on in the Republican Party.

My job requires that I have relationships with all of them and to work with all of them and that means, you know, sometimes I can’t push as much of a progressive agenda as I would personally like. Because it’s not about what I personally believe, it’s about keeping the party together as a very broad-based coalition.

But is there opportunity to work with some of these groups in terms of partnerships even though everybody in the party is not on board with them? Is there a way that the MDP can leverage working with these groups even though not everyone is as progressive. I mean, there are still things that we agree on. For example, if there’s an environmental issue that we’re fighting the Republicans on, most people would be supportive of that. Would that be something you could work with an independent group on, say the Sierra Club or Clean Water Action?
Yes, and we do. We have to be careful because some of those groups have a tax status means they can’t be partisan at all. Some of them, for example, are 501(c)(3) organizations and we’re very conscious of that. But, working with 501(c)(4) groups? Yes, that kind of stuff goes on all of the time.

I think that what really unites us as a party is our belief in economic justice, however that’s expressed. Whether it’s adequately funding education or protecting the rights of workers or making sure Social Security and Medicare are protected, those are the kinds of broad issues that unite all Democrats regardless of what people believe on social issues. So, that’s where a lot of the attention, I think, goes to keep us united as a party.

I was vice-Chair and still am, actually, for Precinct Organizing for the Washtenaw County Dems and I have to say that, during the last couple of election cycles, I felt a little on my own in terms of resources. I mean, I got a pretty large emailed pdf file of things that I could do. But I felt like there were some gaps in terms of training that could have happened from the state party. I’m wondering how you respond to that and if you see that as something that could be improved upon and how would you improve upon that in the coming years?
Well, we offer a lot of training already. We did a lot of training in Detroit, for example, of precinct delegates last year and what I’ve done, and I apologize if this has not been adequately communicated, we’re willing to work with and we DO work with local parties. We’ll come to Washtenaw County, for example, Chris, and do a specific training for precinct delegates. We have found that it works better to do in a more customized, tailored environment rather than call a statewide training, which is hard for people to come to. So, we’ve focused on doing it that way.

Next cycle I want to build on what we’ve been doing with precinct delegates and create a precinct captain program statewide where there would be someone who would be the coordinator and facilitator of a group of precinct delegates and lead them in projects. Ultimately where we need to get is that everybody — literally everybody, Chris — is getting precinct delegates and all of our members access to the VAN and giving them the skill level and the interest and the training so that they can go door-to-door between elections. They can do voter registration. We’re driving toward that. We’re not there yet but that’s where we’re driving toward. It takes a lot of training and so forth, but that’s our ultimate goal.

So, we want to do a precinct captain program, we’re going to organize that around the state, and use those precinct delegates and the precinct captains not only in the communities but in churches and other institutions where it’s appropriate to do that kind of political outreach and continue to try to energize and provide these tools to the grassroots folks.

I think during the last cycle, there were well over 1,000 users of VAN — candidates, party organizations and so forth. It started just a few years ago with just a handful of people having access to it. So, we’re making progress but it does take a lot of training to make sure that people understand how to use the tools and use them effectively. But that’s the direction we’re moving and I want to keep moving in that direction in the next two to four years.

It almost seems like the Obama campaign sort of took that over and people sort of migrated to them because they were being so aggressive about it. Maybe that was part of the reason why people like me, for example, saw them holding local trainings so I wasn’t as likely to reach out to the state party to do that because I had a local person doing it.
And that was great. Like I said, we had a partnership with them and we didn’t want to duplicate it…

And then they took all the data away when they left!
Yeah, that’s right! But, really, it was a great experience overall, they did a tremendous job organizing and did a lot of good. I just wish they’d left the data. [laughs]

One last question. We don’t really control anything in Michigan as Democrats right now so what’s your pitch for people keeping you in your leadership position?
Well, I think it’s this: We have got to do this redistricting reform. There is no one more knowledgeable about that issue in the Democratic side of the aisle than I am. I am uniquely qualified because of my background. I helped handle redistricting as the party’s lawyer before I became party Chair. That is something I am uniquely qualified to do. I bring a lot of history and expertise to that and I’m eager to lead that redistricting reform effort.

Those that know the Democratic Party history know that back in the 50s and 60s we had a similar problem and it was a partywide project over several years that ultimately led to equitable redistricting. That’s what we need to embark on again.

In addition to that, I think that there are strengths that I bring in terms of working with candidates, providing resources, doing training, do all of those kinds of things. I mean, we’re not going to give up trying to take the state House and state Senate back despite the gerrymandering, we’re going to continue to recruit candidates and train them and work to get those things done.

A lot of the innovations that I’ve created like the endorsement convention, which has enabled our statewide candidates to get a much earlier start on their campaigns and their fundraising, those are innovations that I think we need to again use this cycle. I’d like to see us reach a consensus as a party early in the cycle before the August primaries on a gubernatorial candidate, Secretary State, Attorney General candidates. And I will be actively working toward that so that we can get our candidates up and operating as early as possible and not have to wait until August of next year.


You can learn more about MDP Chair Mark Brewer’s candidacy at his website HERE and his Facebook page HERE. You can read the email he sent announcing his candidacy HERE (pdf).

[Photo credits except as noted: Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]

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  • dkmich

    Time for new blood.

  • sjmn

    My largest complaint about the MDP ( and the Democratic party in general) is it’s lack of risk taking. They only seem to want to take on matters they think they can win. But consistently picking the safe strategy is ultimately demoralizing and conveys the message that we aren’t willing to stand up for our principles.

    Take the Chicago Teachers Union. The year before they went on strike, they were trying to prevent 100+ school closings in mostly black and latino communities. At first, there were only a few of them fighting the closures, and a lot of people paid to be in the audience to support shutting them down. Ultimately, the story broke in the wider media about the paid supporters, and more people were coming to the meetings that to protest the planned closing. In the end, Rham did close every single one of those schools. In the small picture the CTU lost that battle. But they gained the support of parents and students who now know that the CTU will stand by their principles and demand a quality education for their students. If these relationships hadn’t been forged in this particular battle, I can’t imagine that their strike the next year would have been successful.

    We need to learn from that. We need to be willing to fight those fights that we will probably lose.

  • kirke123

    brewer is bad news for our party and state, simply put, he hasnt the balls!

  • gregsullmich

    “We have good candidates?”

    Not where it counts. If we’d had better candidates in US CDs 1, 7, and 11 we could have carried all three in the late election. This would have converted a 5-9 deficit into an 8-6 advantage. In 2014, that will translate into 3 of the 17 seats necessary to gain a US House majority. The Chair should see to it that better candidates are recruited, and not automatically defer to the respective legislative campaign organizations.

    • Fuzzy Slippers

      Who would you have run? The MDP can’t force better candidates to run. In the case of CD 11 who could’ve predicted the McCotter meltdown? HIs own party sure couldn’t. And in CD1? Who would be a better candidate than McDowell? McDowell campaigned his ass off, and raised a lot of money, which was expected of him.

      The lines were drawn to benefit both the party in power drawing them AND the favored incumbents in both parties. I find it ironic to complain about “bench strength” when we have had dozens of potentially great candidates in Dingell’s district or Conyers waiting for their shot.

      And at both the statewide and state legislative level, I’ve seen many races play out where the better candidate loses out to the UAW’s pick in the Primary or endorsement stage. So these better candidates grow bitter and leave the party and give up on running for office. It happened with Bernstein in 2010. He had a fantastic story, a ton of money behind him but the UAW crams a prosecutor from a notoriously crime ridden county down our throats to run for AG. I’m not saying Bernstein could’ve won in 2010, it was a Republican wave year. But he sure as hell would’ve tied up a lot of Schuette money in the fight. Leyton brought very little to the table.

      I’ve also seen it happen in state house and senate seats. You have one candidate who starts early, raises money, knocks the doors, sometimes starting a year before an election. Then come spring the UAW digs up someone to run for the seat and pretty soon a costly Primary damages whichever candidate ends up on the ballot for the General.

      I’m not trying to demonize the UAW. I’m from a UAW family. And I’ve seen races where the above scenario plays out with other organizations. Even local party chairs are pressured to play ball with the group that likely helps keep the local party afloat.

  • Dale

    Currently, we’re unorganized and irrelevant. We have no voice or message in the local press. Aside from “safe seats” we lose the state and national level district races. Time for a change.

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  • njs

    I am looking for a strong organized leader that can create the relationships that will bring Michigan back on track. I am of the opinion that our present Governor is hoping we all pack our bags, fill up the car one last time, and leave the state.

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  • a young Michigan Democrat

    I’m sorry, but I find the emphasis on growing their social media presence interesting. While yes, they certainly have a captive/large audience, they’re not maximizing it in interesting ways ala OFA. Until there’s a dedicated new media presence in the office, I don’t quite think it’s going to mean much.

    I’m glad Brewer is thinking about how to maximize data, but we need a better message. Think outside the box.

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