Interview, Michigan Democratic Party — October 21, 2014 at 6:48 am

INTERVIEW: MDP Chair Lon Johnson – “The days of the Democratic Party playing defense in the state of Michigan are over!”


Following the 2012 presidential election, for the first time in many years, there was a real race for the leadership of the Michigan Democratic Party. Mark Brewer had been at the helm for 18 years and, though challenged by others over that period of time, no one had done so successfully. However, in 2013, Lon Johnson, a former Congressional candidate, campaign manager, and fundraiser took over the MDP after Brewer gracefully stepped aside during the statewide convention after a vigorous race.

During that race, I interviewed both Chair candidates. With Johnson a relative unknown by most Michigan Democrats, my interview with him was of particular interest to many who planned to vote at the spring convention.

During that interview, we talked in-depth about his plans for the party which came down to five specific things: Returning the MDP leadership to two positions – Executive Director and Chair, increasing fundraising, outreach to women, minority groups, and young people, enhanced candidate recruitment, and technology. I asked Johnson to sit down with me again as we approach Election Day to see how he’s doing on this five-point plan.

I caught up with Johnson – and that’s not easy to do these days as he criss-crosses the state with candidates to get out the vote (GOTV) – at a breakfast with the African American Alliance in Detroit. The breakfast attendees got to hear from Mark Schauer, Gary Peters, Godfrey Dillard, and Coleman Young, Jr. who all talked about the importance of voter turnout in Detroit in order to return control of our state to Democrats. When Johnson spoke, he discussed the many ways the MDP has increased its participation in communities of color as well as increasing their voice within the Party itself. “We opened nine offices in African American communities,” Johnson told them. “Not in October like in the past. We did it in May.”

After his speech, we sat down for a chat.

So, we last sat down about a year and half ago? Something like that? I just wanted to catch up with you to talk about the upcoming election and how you see things going. One of things that I thought was interesting was something you told me in our first chat. You told me that you once ran a race in 1992 where you were outspent 3-to-1, it was a 52% Republican, 35% Democratic district and John McCain’s old seat, and you won that. Is this feeling like that to you?

It is. In fact, last night I was out to dinner with some staff the other night and they were asking what was the race that I was most proud of and that was one of them. I was very young. There were three of us who were working on that race, I think the oldest was 24 or 25. It showed me very early on in my career how much of an impact one person can have. That was a lesson that really stayed with me for my entire political career; that one person can have a considerable impact, no matter the odds.

The thing is here in Michigan, we have better odds than we see around the rest of the country. I mean Michigan is a Democratic state by nine points. Nine points. What we’ve been attempting to do with the Party over the last year and a half is put Michigan back into its default position and that’s Democratic. So the question is how do we do that? We do it by opening up this Party, by engaging more people, playing the odds. And you play those odds by recruiting a candidate for every single state House district, for every single state Senate district, for every Congressional district, by getting more people to vote. Open, open, open. On every front open the Party.

How effective have been at that?

Well, I think the numbers are showing that we’ve been very successful. The metrics that we have thus far are good. Like I said, we’ve recruited a candidate for every single state House, state Senate, and Congressional office. We’re on track to double the Party membership. We’ve quadrupled our email list, we now have over 400,000 emails. We’ve taken our Facebook followers from 15,000 to 34,000. We’re increasing our contributors. We’ve increased our Precinct Delegates. We’ve increased our absentee voting efforts. We’ve increased our offices. I don’t know how many offices we had in 2010, I think it was less than five statewide, now we have 34. We have 110 staff. And it’s producing results.

We’ve recruited over 15,000 volunteers and those volunteers have made over 700,000 phone calls and knocked over a half a million doors.

It looks a LOT different than 2010.

Yeah, it sure does. The numbers are proving that when you open up the Party and when you show them strategically what needs to be done, that they’ll respond. And when they do, we’ll win.

When we talked last time you talked, when you were running for Chair, there were five particular things that you wanted to accomplish. I thought maybe we should just revisit all of those and do a little report card on that. The first thing you wanted to do was to split up the leadership from just a Chair to an Executive Director and a Chair position and make that two distinct positions with distinct roles. How is that going? You’ve done that so how is it working out?

Yeah, we have. We’ve changed the executive structure of the Party. We expanded the Executive Committee to now, I think, over 105 Executive Committee members. And then we brought in an Executive Director, Garrett Arwa. The Chair’s role is to raise money and deliver message and to work with the institutions of our Party and work to expand it. The Executive Director’s role is to run the day-to-day operations of the Party.

Does that include field operations?


So Garrett’s overseeing the ground game.

Yep, he runs everything.

And he’s got experience with this from his time with OFA and he ran the Coordinated Campaign in the last couple of cycles.

Right. If we’re to work to expand this Party, we had to change how we structured roles at the party and we’ve done that. As I said during the Chair’s race, we needed to change how we ran the party and we’ve done that.

The second was fundraising, you wanted to amp up the fundraising for the Michigan Democratic Party. How is that going?

[Laughs] I think it’s evident! These things cost money. We’ve taken the Party’s budget and massively increased it through our fundraising efforts. And it’s showing. We’ve had the resources to go out and put 34 offices in the field and mail out absentee ballot applications, things like that.

One of the things that I’ve been saying is that the odd-numbered years are when we need to be working to engage people so that when we come back to them in the even number years, they’re willing to contribute and to volunteer. I get the sense that that’s happening, in a sense. For example, at the African American Alliance breakfast this morning you told them you were present in May instead of waiting until October to engage, for example, the African American community or other particular groups.

Right. Too often we come to the communities – whether it’s the women’s community or the labor community or the African American community – in October. We made a very conscious decision last year that that wasn’t going to be enough and that we had to start early. So, that’s what we set about doing and we’ve done it.

As far as fundraising goes, we’ve brought in Vice President Biden. Bill Clinton’s coming here. The First Lady’s been here and the President is coming, too. Those are national folks.

All four will have been here in the space of just a month or so. It’s impressive.

We’ve got the hottest governor’s race in the country!

The third thing was – and you’ve kind of touched on a little bit – was outreach to women, minority groups, and young people. How has that gone?

I think it’s gone well. The Democratic Party is made up of many communities and we have many centers of gravity. But our primary constituencies are African Americans. Women. Labor. Youth. Minority communities. We have to reach out to them. We have to engage them by recruiting candidates. We have to engage them with issues. We have to engage them tactically. I believe we’ve done that.

The African American Alliance is part of that, right? That’s something created by the MDP?

Yeah, that’s right.

Is there something similar for women and the other constituencies that you mentioned?

Yeah, we have. Women, right now, I don’t know if you’ve been following, but we’ve been running a series of events across the state with Senator Debbie Stabenow, Debbie Dingell, [Democratic National Committee’s Black Caucus Chair] Virgie Rollins, and others, we’ve been running the same thing we’ve done with the African American Alliance with women’s leadership events all around the state. We had, I think, four last week with Debbie Stabenow alone.

We’ve got to engage the leadership and we’ve got to engage the voters.

How about young people? How effective have you been on that? I mean it’s always a struggle, I think, to engage them.

Sure. Just in Michigan alone we’ve got 93 college campuses, over 900,000 students. We set about, very, very early on, engaging those voters through a number of issues. One of the ways we’ve done that is You know, Martin Luther King and Walter Reuther, they organized with phone trees and index cards. Coleman Young organized the TULC, the Trade Union Leadership Council. Walter Reuther organized the locals. Today, people are gathering on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and we’d better meet them there and that’s what we’re doing. We’ve ramped up our digital presence significantly. Like I said, we’ve gone for 15,000 Likes on Facebook to 34,000. Our Twitter following has increased significantly, as well.

We developed so that you can apply to absentee vote right from your mobile phone or from your tablet. We’re working hard to connect with the student population.

I’ve always found that to be a challenge in the organizing I’ve done because young people get so focused on their own lives that they don’t pay attention to politics.

Sure, just like everyone!

Number four was candidate recruitment and you’ve mentioned that already. You’ve got a candidate for every state House and Senate seat and every Congressional seat…

Well, we came out united, ya know? I mean “get out the vote” is a bottom-up game. It’s not a top-down thing. So, there’s nothing we can do that will have a more immediate or permanent effect on organizing than recruited candidates. I feel we’ve been successful with that. It obviously hasn’t been perfect but I feel like, when you look across all lines, we have a candidate in every state House race, every state Senate race, every Congressional race. For our top two candidates on the ticket we came out united. We didn’t have a primary, for the Governor or the U.S. Senate race. We didn’t spend a year beating up on each other.

When you’re taking on power the way we are, and seeking to defeat power, you have to be united. Us being united gave us time and time gave us organization and gives us the ability to organize.

The last was technology. We’ve talked about There’s also the Win Machine, I remember hearing something about that…

That just launched today, in fact.

Oh, it did really? So tell me about that.

That was the last thing on our checklist. The Win Machine is now open!

I think we talked about this last year. What was really the secret sauce of Obama, organization-wise? It was taking the supporter and turning her into a volunteer. Taking the volunteer and turning her into a check writer. Then taking the check writer and turning them into a raiser. Compounding the activist engagement every step of the way. And the reason he did it is that he made it easy. He made it easy to do. And, that’s what we sought to do.

We’ve got gold in our state. We’ve got a million voters, a million IDed Democrats who are with us but who don’t normally vote in off-year elections. So, who are our assets to deploy against those people to get them to vote this year? We’ve got 20,000 assets. We’ve got 3,500 Precinct Delegates, 4,500 elected officals, and about 10,000-15,000 Party members, and about 3,000 hardcore activists. So, we asked ourselves, what are we doing to give those 20,000 tools to find those million and to easily communicate with them in a meaningful way to overcome our number one strategic objective: turnout.

The Win Machine.

So we developed first Now, this morning, you can go to, put your name in and your zip code, and what will happen next is a map opens up and on that map are ID’ed Democrats that we need folks to encourage to vote on Election Day.

So they can use it right from the comfort of their own home?

From the comfort of their home, right. If you don’t want to walk a door, then we’ve got something else. You don’t want to make phone calls, okay. You can go right now and find … you know, also what we’re trying to do is encourage … you take your mouse and roll if over those dots and names appear and what we’re asking you to do is find your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers and engage them. That’s the premium of communication, that friend-to-friend, member-to-member, neighbor-to-neighbor communication. What we had to do was empower that.

I’ve been canvassing with the miniVAN app. I don’t think that’s unique to Michigan, but that’s been another piece on the technology side that’s been extraordinarily impressive. For me, as a canvasser, I’m used to fiddling with sheets and clipboards and all of this stuff. Now I walk out with my iPad and a handful of lit and upload the data at the end. I mean, that sort of stuff is just amazing.

There’s two theories on how to win an off-year election. One theory says, find the voter who you know is going to vote and persuade them. The other theory says to find voters who you know are with you that don’t typically vote in off-year elections. So what the Party has been focused on is that second bucket of work.

We have 995,000 ID’ed Democrats who did not vote in 2010. We know their name. We know their address. Their phone number. In many cases how to find them socially, on social media. So, we’re engaging those voters

First off we have to find them. We’ve done that. Second we have to engage them, engage them with candidates and engage them with the issues. Show them why this election matters. We have everything we need on that front. There’s not one constituency that hasn’t paid a price for this Republican Governor. Seniors are getting their pensions taxed, over half the African Americans live under an Emergency Manager. Teachers and students have seen a billion dollars taken out of education. Women have seen their reproductive rights just continuously assaulted. Labor has seen their collective bargain rights stripped away.

So we have the candidates and we have the issues. So, now, what we’ve spent the entire summer engaging those voters with candidate and issues. Now we’re on the mechanics. Now we’ve gotta figure out, we have to say, “Here’s how you affect change.”

Now that we have your attention…

Right! Now that we have your attention, here’s how you make change. We’ve got to make sure that those voters have an absentee application and the ability to apply, we’ve got to make sure that those voters know when Election Day is, that they know where to vote, if they have a ride, do they have a way to get to the polls. That’s what we’re focused on in the last 15 days of this election.

I wanted to talk a little about the Coordinated Campaign. From the ground level, I’ve heard good and bad things in terms of how it’s working and I was curious to talk to you about that.

When you talk to someone like Erick Schertzing, he’s excited about it because it’s really helped him because it brings resources to the table he wouldn’t have had otherwise. Other folks, for example in Ann Arbor – there’s a couple of local judicial races where they have had a sort of sketchy experience with the Coordinated and there’s been some resistant to carrying their lit and things like that. How would you characterize the Coordinated Campaign relative to previous years and are there things that you’re working on improving?

Well, I’ll let the results speak for themselves. As I’ve said, we’ve made over 700,000 phone calls and we’ve knocked on over a half million doors. Now, again, our target is to go after those ID’ed Democrats who did not vote in 2010. It’s up to the individual candidates to seek to persuade the independent voters. The results speak for themselves and we’re very pleased with the results.

Now, look, with the Coordinate Campaign, where we have strong political leadership that’s existing, those strong organizations and the Coordinated have to work together. But, you gotta remember, for too long, in off-year elections, we haven’t had a strong political organization – and there are certainly areas where we’ve had very strong leadership. The Dingell organization there in Ann Arbor… I mean they are impressive year after year after year. Even in municipal races they’re strong. So, those areas have to work together.

However, too often, where we don’t have a Dingell, where we don’t have a Conyers, where we don’t have a Levin, there’s been no presence and that’s what the Coordinated Campaign is for.

So, that’s your focus, to hit those areas where you’re thin otherwise?

That’s one of the focuses but, again, I’ll let the results speak for themselves. The Dingells and the Conyers and the Levins, they’re out there ADDING to the Coordinated’s efforts.

The last thing that I wanted to talk to you about was your approach to going after the Republicans and holding them accountable in terms of filing lawsuits and complaints and things like that. Have you seen that as an effective strategy?

You heard me at the Jeff-Jack in April: Offense! Offense! Offense! This is OUR state. We have greater shared values with the voters than do the Republicans. And we are NOT going to make any apologies for that fact. We are going to fight everywhere and we are going to play offense. The days of the Democratic Party playing defense in the state of MICHIGAN – with a nine-point advantage – are OVER! Unapologetically we are going to go on the offense. This is OUR state. Because when we cower and when we play defense, we lose.

This Governor has angered every single constituency. That’s why we have a Governor who can’t get over 45% and we are 16 days out. His transgressions against every constituency are so deep that he can’t recover. There’s not one constituency that he hasn’t lost faith with or broken faith with and it’s our job to expose that. Whether it’s Rich Baird or John Covington or MSHDA or Andy Dillon, we’re not going to apologize and sit in the corner meekly, while these Republicans take our great state down a path that’s not working.

[NOTE: As if to punctuate this final point, as I was typing up this interview, news broke that the “Office of Inspector General of HUD is investigating a complaint Michigan Democrats filed in September alleging a potential conflict of interest or misuse of federal funds by former Michigan State Housing Development Authority executive director Scott Woosley”. This is just one example of many of the MDP, under Lon Johnson’s leadership, going on the offense and holding Republicans and the Snyder administration accountable for their illicit and potentially illegal activities.]

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