Michigan Democratic Party, Michigan Democrats — February 28, 2013 at 9:36 am

An open letter to newly-elected Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson


Lead on, Lon!

Dear Mr. Johnson,
First of all, sincere congratulations on your recent election to the position of Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP.) I was impressed that you ran a completely positive campaign that focused on your own strengths and vision and didn’t resort to tearing down your opponent. That one thing makes me confident that your stated desire to move forward with a unified party, united in our focus on winning back control of our state, is not just sincere but entirely possible.

I was also incredibly encouraged by the intensity of your short, three-week campaign. In my interview with you, you talked extensively about the importance of “technology, technology, technology” in winning elections. It quite clear from my observations of your operation at the Cobo Center convention last Saturday and in the discussions that I’ve had with various folks that, even for this short campaign, you brought technology and the smart use of data to bear, calling targeted MDP voters and being strategic in your mailings and phonebanking. This allowed you to accomplish an incredible level of outreach on a small budget and with a great return.

Much of the concern that I heard voiced about your candidacy in the weeks leading up to the convention on Saturday centered around the influence of the UAW on the election results as well as on YOU as their chosen candidate. While Democrats are solid in their support of labor unions, many are fearful that the UAW has far too much control over the MDP and squelches the voices of others. Considering that only about a fifth of the jobs in our state are union jobs, not all of which are UAW shops, this is a quite valid concern.

The UAW clearly turned out to help you at the convention. It’s no surprise, of course, that a union the size of the UAW would have an impressive level of organization. But I was happy to learn from various sources that, as I had predicted the week before the election, the influence of the 1,349 UAW delegates that became MDP members at the last-minute was quite small with only a portion of them actually attending the conference. The fact that you were able to have so much more support than your opponent among the rank and file, non-UAW members of the MDP is a tribute to your campaign, to your message and to your overall ability to win.

And, if there’s one thing Michigan Democrats need more than anything else, it’s the ability to win.

Having spent a great deal of time speaking with people around the state, including you, and covering your election to the chair of the Party, I want to take advantage of my cyber megaphone to share some thoughts with you. Some are from people I have talked with, most are my own, and I offer them as a perspective from “the trenches” as someone who has put considerable time and effort organizing at the local level, knocking doors, making phone calls and getting others to do the same.

One of things I hear frequently from folks who worked for the Obama campaign, what was then called Obama for America or OFA, is that they are new to politics and are very reluctant to get involved in the Democratic Party itself. They see the formal party structure as not inclusive of grassroots organizers, full of intra-party politics, and basically an organization full of people who are set in their ways, comfortable in their position of power within the party, and not open to new ideas & new participants. This is unfortunate because many of these new organizers are still full of energy to effect change in our state and beyond. At the end of the day, they don’t see the MDP as a group that has anything to offer them either at the county or state level. Based on our conversation, I believe that you recognize this disconnect and see this as an area where we as a party can improve. If we can show these folks that the MDP in its various manifestations — state party, county party, and Democratic clubs — can actually help them achieve their goals with resources, training, and networking opportunities with other like-minded Democrats, we have a real chance to expand the party and make it stronger, more successful.

The fact is that there are lots of different politically progressive groups competing for this pool of trained grassroots activists. Issue-focused groups like Planned Parenthood, Clean Water Action, LGBT rights groups and myriad other organizations are all eager to engage volunteer organizers to help them advance their agendas.

OFA’s new iteration, Organizing for Action, a group that has your wife Julianna Smoot as a board member, is now going to be competing for these activists time and energy. As I pointed out earlier this week, I am personally asking Michigan activists NOT to work with OFA, despite the fact that they have the advantage of their impressive database to help people organize. While I completely support the efforts of OFA to promote President Obama’s agenda, here in Michigan we simply do not have the luxury of taking our eye off the ball in terms of the changes that need to be made in this state.

However, in order to compete with these other groups, the MDP has to offer local organizers something to compel them to get involved. Without the powerful tools that OFA has to offer, the souped-up VAN database, and veteran trainers & leaders with incredible field expertise, the MDP is at a bit of a disadvantage.

However, we do have one very important advantage: we are here in Michigan. We live here. We work here. We stay here between elections. Each and every day we live with the horrific impact of the Republican dominance of our government and their harmful policies that affect every single Michigander.

In our interview and in my piece earlier this week, we talked about the idea of “Organizing for Michigan”. The concept is to replicate the OFA model of continuous activism and organizing every single day with an emphasis on building networks, relationships, and coalitions to engage in the person-to-person contacts that can make the difference in winning on issues and winning elections. While the Voter Action Network (VAN) data we have now isn’t as robust as what OFA had/has, that doesn’t mean it can’t be again. If we build something similar but something that is uniquely “Michigan” and remains here year after year, we would have a distinct advantage over our political opponents, an advantage that can overcome and overwhelm their money & propaganda machines and their corruption of our political process through gerrymandering and dirty tricks.

It’s my hope that you will embrace this concept. Call it what you want but the time ripe right now to capitalize on the energy and the existing teams and networks that worked together in the 2012 election. But that has to begin immediately and make it a top priority.

As many people know, I was highly critical of the MDP’s lack of involvement in recall efforts and in the effort to stop the Emergency Manager Law that is disenfranchising so many of our state’s citizens. While I understand the reluctance to get involved in recall races — reasonable people can and do disagree on that — these, along with other issue-based efforts, present opportunities to form activist networks that can have long-term benefits for the progressive movement and Democrats in general in our state. Michigan Democrats have an abysmal record of turnout during midterm elections. However, we could change that if local teams were in place well ahead of time, working on issues important to Democrats between elections.

This won’t be easy. It requires resources and effective communication over a whole range of media. We need to give local organizer tools to make their efforts easier and we need to provide them with the information that they need to be effective communicators of our message. Rebuilding the VAN database with a “Pure Michigan” focus will be a huge part of that. But also having places where people can make copies and make phone calls and access the VAN network is also going to be crucial. So, too, will use of social media, email, and other forms of communication.

As you begin your work as our new Chair, I urge you to consider how we can implement something like this, something that will show Michigan Democrats that we are serious about engaging ALL of them in the effort to win elections. As you said in your acceptance speech on Saturday, “We don’t believe in trickle-down economics so why would we believe in trickle-down organizing?” It will start with you and your MDP staff but will necessarily need to spread out to the county parties and the Democratic clubs to be effective. Ultimately, in order to be successful, it must be locally driven.

Related to this, one of my biggest complaints as a Precinct Organizer for the Washtenaw County Democratic Party (WCDP) was that I didn’t even know what resources existed to help us with our local and regional organizing efforts. I hope you will consider assigning an MDP staff person to reach out to folks like me in each county to ensure that we are fully knowledgeable about what resources we have at our disposal.

If the MDP is effective at recreating itself with a renewed focus on local activism that is coordinated across the state, we can begin to roll back the egregious and overreaching policies and laws that the Republicans have put in place in just two short years. We can repeal Right to Work. We can overturn the Emergency Manager Law and elect leaders who are interested in building up our struggling urban centers rather than cutting and cutting until there’s nothing left but real estate to be exploited by greedy corporatists. We can end the endless War on Women and ensure that all women in Michigan are treated equally and have complete, unfettered access to the full range of health and reproductive services they are entitled to by law. We can reverse the anti-democratic gerrymandering that skews our elections in favor of a political minority in our state and that gives them more power than they have earned. And, finally, we can return control of our state government to the party that represents the majority of people in Michigan: The Democratic Party.

When we accomplish this we will have done more to advance the priorities and national agenda of President Obama and the Democratic Party than any work we might do with groups like OFA. Then, and only then, we will have the luxury of engaging once again in the national issues that affect our whole country.

One final thing: it is critically important that the MDP ensures that all Democrats, whether they are new to the party or a veteran and whether they belong to the UAW or some other labor group or not, have a voice and a role to play in the direction of the party. You have already shown that you understand this and that you value it. As you asked during your appearance in Ann Arbor, “Who wants to participate in any MDP convention or activity when the outcome has been predetermined by a small group of power players?” Whenever a decision is made by you and the MDP leadership, I hope you will first ask the question “Does this expand our party or does this benefit a small group only?” If you apply your “Politics of Addition” concept in this way, you will be well on your way to making the MDP an inviting, inclusive group that even those new to politics want to be part of. And that is a recipe for winning.

We wish all the best, Mr. Johnson. It’s not an overstatement to say that we are counting on you. Your effective leadership of the Michigan Democratic Party will be the key achieving our goals and we look forward to helping you every step of the way.

Lead on, Lon!