Ann Arbor, Michigan Democratic Party, Michigan Democrats — February 10, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Ann Arbor Dems host candidates for Michigan Dem Party Chair at the political event of the year (so far)


The Michigan Democratic Party’s center of gravity is in Washtenaw County

NOTE: my interview with Mark Brewer can be found HERE and my interview with Lon Johnson is HERE.

Yesterday, the Ann Arbor Dems held their monthly meeting and it featured a powerhouse line-up. In addition to Dr. John Callewaert, a University of Michigan professor who spoke for nearly 30 minutes on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in Michigan, the meeting attendees heard from Dean of the U.S. House of Representatives Congressman John Dingell, President of the Michigan State Board of Education John Austin, and local State House Representatives Jeff Irwin and Adam Zemke.

The highlight of the day, however, was appearances by both Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) Chair Mark Brewer and his opponent in the upcoming election for MDP Chair, Lon Johnson. The event was extremely well-run by Ann Arbor Dems chair Mike Henry and in the overflow crowd of around 250 people was nearly every elected official from the Ann Arbor area. It was, without question, the biggest political event in Washtenaw County since the election last November.

Candidates for MDP Chair Lon Johnson (left) and Mark Brewer (right)

Based on a coin toss, Lon Johnson, who has the support of both Senators Stabenow and Levin along with the entire Michigan Congressional delegation, spoke first. He told the crowd that his decision to run isn’t about being against Chair Brewer, it’s about change.

“It’s time for a change in the Michigan Democratic Party,” he said, “And that starts at the leadership level.”

Johnson used the example of the Obama campaign to illustrate how the MDP needs to convert grassroots energy and, at times, anger into electoral success.

“Barack Obama put the ward heelers out of business,” he said, describing the change that has happened in how election campaigns and political parties are run. No longer are decisions made exclusively by powerful groups and political operatives. Obama brought everyone to the table to play a role.

Johnson said there are five things he feels need to be changed at the MDP:

  1. Change the structure of the leadership organization so that there are separate people in the positions of Chair and Executive Director (Chair Brewer has held both positions for years.)
  2. More effective fundraising using modern techniques.
  3. Increase outreach to women, minority groups and young people to improve turnout on election day.
  4. Improve recruitment of candidates.
  5. Dramatically improve the MDP’s use of technology in all of the areas above.

During the question and answer period after his remarks, Johnson was asked how he would deal with the fact that African American candidates often feel neglected & snubbed by the MDP and feel bullied by the unions who currently hold tremendous power in the determining the Party’s direction. Johnson responded that the MDP needs to start early in reaching out candidates to begin filling the pipeline with people will to run for office.

Ann Arbor Dems Chair Mike Henry moderates the question
and answer period after Lon Johnson’s remarks

“We can’t start reaching out to people in September of 2014,” he said. “We need to go down to the precincts now and recruit people to run for every position from drain commissioner on up. It’s got to start at the community level.”

He also said that it’s important that there is much more transparency in the MDP, so that participants feel things are being done fairly. Nobody wants to participate in a convention or meeting where the outcome is predetermined because “the deal was cut two hours before,” he said.

Johnson was also asked about the MDP’s role in the fight to stop Right to Work in Michigan and the mixed reviews they have gotten in terms of that political battle. Johnson said that it’s time for the MDP to have a more equal position at the table when decisions are made about the direction of the party, referring to the various groups that participate in that process — labor, environmental groups, etc.

Sometimes the MDP “needs to be a traffic cop to say ‘Seven ballot proposals is too much!’,” Johnson told the audience.

Finally, Johnson talked extensively about “technology, technology, technology”. He said the MDP and its leadership haven’t embraced the new ways of running campaigns.

“We need to move past old ways,” said Johnson who is married to Obama campaign fundraiser Julianna Smoot. “We need to use the Obama campaign’s methods for reaching out to voters. That might mean changing how we do traditionally do things. You shouldn’t have to go to websites like Eclectablog for the ‘truth’. The MDP has a mailing list and a blog of their own. We need to upgrade our use of technology to get our message out.”

Obama for America fundraiser Julianna Smoot listens to her husband answer questions from the audience

Next up was MDP Chair Mark Brewer. He told the crowd that, in addition to the Michigan Education Association, the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters, and the Greater Lansing Labor Council, he has the support of 60 local Democratic Party Chairs (from County Parties and Congressional District Caucuses.) Brewer told the audience that the MDP raised and spent $20 million in the 2012 election. The party was $1 million in debt when he became Chair 18 years ago. He oversaw eliminating that debt and, since then, they have always been in the black.

“As Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party,” Brewer said, “I have been a responsible steward of your money.”

He described how, through their media campaigns and other activities, the MDP has saved candidates millions of dollars in printing and communications costs.

Addressing the issue of diversity in the Democratic Party, Brewer said that the MDP trained thousands of precinct delegates in urban areas during the 2012 election.

“Just look at our delegation to the Democratic National Convention,” Brewer said. “This year we had more African Americans, more Arab-Americans, more Latinos, more members of the LGBT community than most delegations. Our delegation looks like Michigan.”

MDP Chair Mark Brewer addresses the audience

Brewer said there are three critical elements that the party needs to focus on as we move forward:

  1. Recreate the OFA database and infrastructure.
  2. Pursue redistricting reform to avoid the political gerrymandering that has occurred after the last two census years in Michigan.
  3. Encourage early consensus on statewide candidates to allow for more opportunity to campaign following a spring endorsement convention.

Brewer explained that the database that was assembled by OFA from 2007 through 2012 is now in the possession of Organizing for Action, a non-profit organization outside of the Democratic Party. In order for us to be effective in the future, he said, the MDP needs to begin recreating that database and rebuild the grassroots-based infrastructure that was the hallmark of both of President Obama’s successful campaigns.

Brewer also explained how the spring endorsement conventions, a concept that he pioneered in Michigan, allows statewide candidates (Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State, for example) to run much longer, more effective campaigns. If we wait until the August primary to choose our candidates he said, “they have only two months to campaign.”

With regard to technology use, Chair Brewer said that the MDP’s Facebook page added more “likes” than any other Democratic State Party and their Twitter following increased by 70% last year. They have made extensive use of their mailing list, doing 67 statewide email blasts in 2012.

During the question and answer period, Brewer was asked how the state party can do a better job cultivating young leaders.

“It’s the role of local parties to find local candidates,” Brewer answered. “The MDP then needs to work with these local candidates and help them however they can.”

Like Johnson, Brewer was asked about expanding the diversity of the MDP and promoting minority candidates.

“During every election cycle, I have worked to ensure that our ticket is diverse,” he said. “Sometimes I have had to fight for it.”

The question of the power of unions within the MDP was also brought up again with regard to non-union candidates.

“The Democratic Party is a ‘Big Party’,” Brewer said. “We need to work together and balance everyone’s voice. I have tried to be a referee to make sure that happens.”

During several points in the meeting, Chair Brewer faced some pointed questions about his leadership over the past several years. One woman described attending the Women’s Caucus meeting at the last statewide convention only to find no leadership and no organization. “What will you do fix that?” he was asked.

Chair Brewer faces questions about his leadership of the MDP during the question and answer period

Brewer responded that the MDP encourages involvement and leadership from all of its members. “If you see deficiencies or a group that’s dysfunctional,” he said, “We encourage you to step up and help solve the problem.”

“We are truly a “small ‘d’ democratic group,” he said.

One man expressed his frustration about Republican control of the state Supreme Court.

“I look at the Supreme Court which used to be a very progressive group that reflected the whole state,” the man said. “Now it is controlled by some of the most conservative, anti-person extremists you can imagine. I don’t know you personally, but I have to hold you and the leaership that you represent personally responsible for that. What are your criteria for Supreme Court candidates?”

Brewer responded that the three women endorsed for the Supreme Court by the Michigan Dems in 2012 show exactly what he looks for candidates. “Look at Ann Arbor’s own Bridget McCormack who won,” he said. “And Connie Kelley and Shelia Johnson. They were terrific candidates.”

Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton challenged Brewer on his claims that the MDP has promoted diversity.

Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton (wearing the scarf) asks Mark Brewer about the lack of racial diversity among Michigan Democratic candidates

“First, I would ask you what you mean by ‘diversity’,” Clayton said. “Because if you take out metro Detroit and look at the rest of the state, I’m not seeing it.”

“I’d invite you to travel around the state with me,” Brewer responded. “I’ll show you how diverse our candidates are all over Michigan.”

“I may take you up on that,” Clayton responded, “Because, frankly, I just don’t see it.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Congressman John Dingell made some remarks and then took questions. He was asked about his support, along with all of the other Michigan Congressional caucus members, of Lon Johnson. Congressman Dingell explained that a small part of it was that he knows Lon Johnson well since he helped with his primary campaign in against Lynn Rivers in 2002. The two strong Democrats were pitted against each other after Republican redistricting in 2000 combined their Congressional districts.

Congressman Dingell answers questions about his endorsement of Lon Johnson for MDP Chair

“But my colleagues don’t have that connection,” Congressman Dingell explained, “And I feel very comfortable with the reasons they support Lon. I’ve been around for a long time and I remember a time when the Democratic Party was different.”

Dingell went on to describe how the MDP once did a much better job at fundraising and voter outreach and at recruiting new candidates. He supports Johnson, he said, because he believes he has the right vision for the future.

I want to heartily commend Mike Henry and the Ann Arbor Dems leadership for pulling together a truly important and excellent event. As Democrats get ready to vote for who will lead the MDP for the next two years at the February 23rd statewide convention at Cobo Hall in Detroit, they need to have as much information about the candidates as possible and this was the first time we’ve seen both candidates talking to Democrats and answering their questions together.

I have interviewed both Chair Brewer and Lon Johnson in the past week. Look for the Brewer interview tomorrow and the Johnson interview on Tuesday.

UPDATE: Amazingly (to me), this post appears to be the only media coverage of this event.

[All photos by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]