Interview, Michigan Democratic Party, Michigan Democrats — February 9, 2015 at 8:46 pm

INTERVIEW: Mike Henry, candidate for Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus Chair


The message and the agenda of the black community is one that everyone can embrace…This should be a partnership because it makes the Party stronger

In my precinct organizing work with the Washtenaw County Democratic Party (WCDP) of which I am now the Chair, I have worked extensively with Mike Henry. Mike is the Chair of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party but he is much more than that as anyone who works in politics in the Ann Arbor and Detroit areas knows. He’s a tireless organizer and campaigner but he’s also a master at bringing groups together and forging alliances that benefit everyone involved. When discord crops up among Washtenaw County Democrats, Mike Henry is often at the center of the effort to resolve the conflict in a constructive, healthy way.

Recently he has taken a leadership role in getting both the Ann Arbor Dems and the Washtenaw County Dems to pass resolutions regarding Community Coordination & Law Enforcement Standards and has earned the endorsement of the WCDP for the Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus as well as my own personal endorsement.

I spoke to Mike this past weekend about his campaign for the Black Caucus Chair and his vision for the Black Caucus in the years ahead. You can read more about his campaign at The Michigan Black Agenda Facebook page and his website, The Michigan Black Agenda.

Let’s start out with a little background. Where are you from, what positions have you held over the years, that sort of thing.

I was born in Flint and grew up in New Orleans and Detroit. I went to New Orleans public schools and Detroit public schools and graduated from Renaissance High. I went to U of M for my undergrad and my first job out of my undergrad was as a copywriter for the Ross School of Business.

What was your degree in?

I studied Communications and Film. I thought I was gonna be the next Spike Lee! But I didn’t want to move to New York or California so you usually end up doing art films or advertising, some kind of other peripheral thing. I ended up being a pretty good writer. I received a Hopwood Playwright’s Award at U of M which U of M people think is a pretty big deal. I wrote a whole bunch of plays, as well as screenplays, and I produced & directed a lot of theater.

I ended up going down the marketing route. At the Ross School of Business, I was a copywriter at first and then later became a promotion coordinator. Back then we just flooded the marketplace with direct mail brochures for continuing education stuff.

After that I worked at the Polo Fields as a Corporate & Membership Sales Associate then took a job with some buddies in Chicago – the McKenzie & Roby Company – as their national Sales & Marketing Director. I’d set up trade show exhibits in different cities, hire spokesmodels, things like that.

I came back to Michigan after that and worked at Focus: HOPE in Detroit and was a Contract Compliance Specialist, basically helping Focus: HOPE to secure and follow government grant guidelines for their government contracts, mostly for workforce development stuff, training people who had been on public assistance to reenter the job market, that kind of thing. I then worked for the U of M College of Engineering at the Center for Professional Development which is like the continuing education for the College of Engineering. I did instructional media design there. At that time, in the late 90s, we were putting lots of training online. We were doing VHS tapes and CDs and shipping them all over the globe. So, the College of Engineering pretty much did the training programs for people that wanted to get Masters degrees in Manufacturing Engineering or Mechanical Engineering as well as other continuing ed, one-week or two-week courses. But you could actually get a degree online from U of M in Engineering in those two areas. GM, Ford, Chrysler, ITT, Steelecase, they all had people, mostly in Europe and South America and throughout the US and now in Asia, too, getting their degrees online. I did that and produced a whole bunch of educational video. Basically it was very boring!

I also did fundraising for the African American Alumni Council and now I’m working for a company called Cavanaugh Advisors. Our portfolio is mostly government relations, marketing PR, and raising capital.

So, how did you get into politics?

Well, I grew up in a union family. Three of my four grandparents were union folks. Two of them worked for GM, both UAW folks. My granddad on my dad’s side was a pipefitter at Marathon and we always talked about working families and things going on with the union like plant shutdowns, that was the normal conversation around the table. My grandma always took me to the polls to vote with her. My mom is a UAW member now. She’s retired from the State of Michigan, she worked for the Michigan Employment Security Commissions back in the day and ended up retiring from what is now the Department of Human Services.

So, my family has pretty much always been involved in politics. They’re union folks and organizers. My mom and dad met at U of M during the time of the Black Action movement back in the late 60s so I kinda have this hybrid pedigree of like activists, black power, and union folks. I’m a little bit of a different kind of manifestation of all of that. But all of that’s in my blood.

And you do work with campaigns, right? In addition to the work that you do for your day job?

Yeah, I do a whole lot of campaign work. I’m the Chair of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party. I had been co-Chair for two years and I’m going on my third term as the Chair of the Party solo. I’ve also been an adviser on a whole bunch of people’s campaigns and have been campaign manager for some proposals, citywide proposals, and involved in a lot of county campaigns.

What has brought you to the decision to run for the Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus?

Most of it is just us losing each time during the midterm elections.

“Us” being us collectively Democrats?

Yeah, Democrats. So, the key piece that I have been learning as the data has been coming in from this last election is that we didn’t organize black people. At all. Every place where we have a critical mass of black voters, the turnout was very low. What Obama proved when he came here for both of his elections – when his team came here because he didn’t really even come here the second time – was that, if you have black communities organized and black people are energized to vote, it puts us over the top in terms of the number of votes in the coalition that are needed for us to win. And any time the numbers are low, we just leave those votes on the table and we’re going to lose. We’ve got a million more Democrats in this state than Republicans and we win during the presidential elections all the time because of all of the attention that’s focused on them, we have all this media going on, it’s sexy to everybody and people think it’s important. But the midterm elections, the gubernatorial elections, people don’t think it’s sexy. It doesn’t get their attention.

My whole thing is that we need to keep those communities organized. There are about 20 of them around the state that we need to keep organized all the time. Those issues need to be front and center all the time because these communities are being attacked by Republicans. They’re being attacked in terms of policy. They’re being attacked in terms of the elected officials who were elected by the people and their ability to actually manage and lead those cities and have the authority to do that. School systems are being attacked. Money is being taken from local communities, being taken out of the school systems, and we need to shine a better light on that.

To be quite honest, the Black Caucus is pretty dysfunctional just in terms of its operational disposition. It doesn’t use technology well right now. I’m really good at that. It doesn’t do the fundraising that it could to provide the seed capital so that, when we recruit candidates, they have a little bit of help getting started. We don’t recruit candidates years and years beforehand so that we build organizations around them so that they’re not sacrificial lambs at the last minute.

These are some of the major reasons that I want be the Chair of the Black Caucus because, if we keep communities organized, if we keep putting those issues front and center in the discussion all the time, if we’re always recruiting and training candidates, then when election season comes, we’re not just pissed off because there’s no representation at the top of the ticket or nobody has reached out to black candidates. We’ll have already done that.

I’m also well-suited to better communicate with other partners throughout the MDP so that the message and the agenda of the black community is one that everyone can embrace and support. It’s integrated and won’t be seen as, “Oh, we have to deal with the black folks…” It should be aligned, it should be a partnership because it makes the Party stronger. The black agenda, when communicated the right way is something we should all understand and embrace. As Democrats we all share similar values and a lot of times we just talk past each other. Oftentimes leaders in the black community are just upset, they’re angry, they’re hurting, and I think I’m uniquely suited to communicate in a way that makes us more willing to partner together.

Do you think that not being from Detroit will be hard for you to overcome as a candidate?

I AM from Detroit! [laughs] I live in Ann Arbor now but I got Detroit in my blood. I’m always kickin’ it at Bakers. I’m always kickin’ it at Bert’s Marketplace. Cliff Bell’s. I hang in Detroit regularly. My mom still lives on the northwest side of Detroit. I know this is probably hard for some people to hear but I feel like a global citizen so wherever I live and whichever places that have influenced me, I still feel a part of those communities and I never let ’em go. I still volunteer a lot in Detroit. A whole bunch of my family is in Detroit and I still talk about Detroit. My Facebook says “Where are you from?” New Orleans, Detroit, and Ann Arbor, that’s where I’m from.

How do you feel the MDP did this last election cycle in terms of reaching out to the African American community? Because I know there was much more emphasis on getting that community involved early and to try to activate and engage them.

I think initially there was good intention. I do think the MDP leadership had a plan to, one, gather a lot of data, build up the membership lists of African Americans and identify leaders in different communities, but throughout the cycle we didn’t do a good job of actually executing that plan and operationalizing all of those ideas in terms of how to get black voters to the table. So, there were some approaches like a targeted piece, some mailings… We have this list of something like 85,000 black leaders and elected officials around the state but nobody’s working it. Nobody is working that list. We built up all of this data, we built up all of these tools but we didn’t execute.

The proof is in the pudding because we left all of those votes on the table. Voter turnout in all of these major cities with large numbers of black people was low. That tells me that we didn’t execute well. We may have meant well. Well, that’s not enough. You’ve got to have the right plan, you’ve got to mean well, you’ve got to have the right set of values but then you’ve got to execute, too. I don’t think we executed well in those communities.

Is that something that you think the Black Caucus plays a big role in, in terms of directing the MDP? Because I sometimes see the caucuses as being places for people to organize but I don’t often see it integrated into what the MDP as whole is doing. And that’s not just the Black Caucus. That’s the Progressive Caucus, the Labor Caucus, and all of these other Caucus groups.

It’s true. It’s true and part of what we need to do is not just have the ideas and the strategy come from the caucuses and then expect the staff and the central leadership to execute. We ALL need to be part of that executing of that strategy. One of the big challenges that I know [MDP Chair] Lon Johnson has, he says, you know,”I’ve got all of this data and organizing stuff but I’m a white guy. I can’t go around into these communities solo and expect to have any credibility in organizing these communities.” I’m like, yeah, you’re right! You need some black folks who have lived this experience and can speak with credibility. It’s not that he isn’t sensitive to a lot of the issues, it’s just the optics of it, the way it’s going to be perceived, they’re going to ask, “Hey, what do YOU know about what black communities are going through?”

So, I think that having folks at the table who can speak both languages, right? Speak Democratic Party central organizing language and speak the experience of coming from the black community and coming from an experience that is oftentimes very unfair. Blending those together and moving forward and having plans and taking action on it is what I bring to the table.

You’ve mentioned some things, but talk about some of the things that you’ve done, organizing-wise, education-wise, that you feel you bring to the table that are unique compared with other folks running for this position.

When this race started out there were six of us who stepped up to run for this position. Now there are two. I got a couple of folks onto my slate. Danny Craig from AFSCME got a couple folks onto his slate. I love and respect and admire Danny. He’s somebody that I’m proud of. He’s somebody that I hope to learn a whole lot from. He’s a retired AFSCME guy and he’s got tons of good relationships throughout this state. Early on I called him and said, “Is there any way that we can combine our slate and do this together?” and it just became obvious to me that he speaks a different language. He speaks the language of the civil rights activist, he speaks the language of union organizer, and that’s kinda it. Now, those are languages that I speak, too, but you’ve got to be multilingual these days. So, you also have to speak the language of black entrepreneurs, of students in universities who are worried about their tuition bills, who are struggling to even get into a lot of state-funded universities because education is being squeezed so tight. You’ve got to speak the language not only of students but educators, educators who are being disrespected in our school system.

It is unions and old-school civil rights activism but you have to learn how to scale out our messaging from a technological standpoint and those are things that I bring to the table. When I first became Chair of the Ann Arbor Dems we had a mailing list of 300 people. Now we have over 2,000. We probably did five or six meetings a year, sort of sporadically. We’re only required to do four a year but now we do eleven year, religiously. If I die, we have a plan that we’re going to do a meeting every single month, a general membership meeting to engage our membership. The only time we take off is August but our members know that we reserve the right to call it if we need to, if there’s something going on.

We did one event raised a few hundred dollars, it was our Labor Day Picnic. Now we have a portfolio, we do four major fundraisers each year. No budgetary issues at all. We never used to do any mailing of what our slate was, we didn’t do any printouts of the candidates who we endorsed. This last cycle we printed up 50,000 pieces for the local candidates who we endorsed and we bundled that with the statewide piece. We took a lot of hits for it because we were doing that kind of thing but I’m glad that our opinion and our voice was heard in this last election. We did it too little too late but moving forward, we’ll do it even better.

You took hits because people disagreed with the endorsements?

Yeah. Right. But they were voted on by the members. I didn’t agree with all of them myself. But it’s a democratic process. We also helped the Eastern Washtenaw Dems to put out another 20,000 pieces. And we did a lot of the organizing and bundling and distributing of that literature.

The other thing that we did was Camp Millie training the year before last and it was the first time we had done it in this particular way in Washtenaw County. They had tried to do Camp Millie in years before. I think the LGBT community tried to do one and they had about ten attendees. This time we were working with the folks from the Justice Caucus and they were saying, “If we get 25 or 30 attendees, that’s gonna be great.” Well, we said we’re going to market this and so we’re going to pack the room. They were still saying, “Don’t worry, if you get 25 or 30, that’s gonna be good, we’re gonna be happy.” We had over 80 people. We were pretty much sitting on top of each other. People are yearning for this kind of thing. Of those 80 folks, between 10 and 12 of them decided to run for office and another 15 of them were working on campaigns. So, at least 25 of those folks of the 80 that we trained got in play this cycle.

That’s the kind of thing I want to do statewide. We did it and had 80 people in Washtenaw County and people were coming from all over the place. We had people from Dearborn. We had some people from the eastern suburbs of Detroit. Had some folks from Lansing come down. Because people want to know what they can do to make sure that our voice is part of the discussion. I think the more we do training, the more we do recruiting, the more we do organizing, the stronger we’re going to be. It’s going to require a lot of work. More voices at the table means more work, it means more time spent understanding people’s differences, smoothing out friction points and stuff like that. But, in the end, we end up becoming more resilient so when it’s time for the battle, for election season, we’re way stronger because we have more folks at the table and arguments are resolved an everything has been vetted.

One of the things that I admire about you is your ability to wade into sticky conflict and find a pathway through that comes out where people are united at the end of it instead of banging heads.

Any time there is a conflict or a problem within the black community statewide, I want to be one of the people at the table to help resolve it. That’s much of the reason I’m running because I think a lot of times the dysfunction in the Black Caucus is because people get frustrated, they throw their hands up and they say, “You know, I don’t want to have anything to do with this.” I grew up in a union family where what you did was argue your point around the dinner table every day. After you got up from the dinner table, you hugged and kissed whoever was around the dinner table and you understood each other better. But you still loved each other in that family and that’s how I look at this.

That’s an interesting point because that’s something that I see when I go to events that are largely African American groups and there does seem to be a lot of internal dissension and tension. And, from an outsider’s standpoint, it is easy to perceive that as dysfunctional and not productive. But then, like you say, when the thing is done, everybody goes to church together, goes to get a beer together, goes to an event together and they’re happy and they’re smiling and getting along. I don’t know if that’s a cultural thing but it’s certainly something that is different from other groups and something that needs to be recognized for what it is and not misinterpreted.

Here’s the thing about that: you have to understand the balance there. I remember my grandma always saying, “You better behave, white folks are watchin'” [laughs] At the dinner table when you’re doing that, you’re yelling back and forth, it’s one thing. You hug, you kiss, and then you go watch the football game together, whatever. But then when you’re stuck into another environment where you have partners who have not grown up in that same experience, your disposition should be a little bit different because you should be considerate of what else is going on at the table. Say there are three black folks at the table and five white folks at the table. If the three black folks are arguing like they do in their families, the five white folks are going to feel pretty freaking uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. So, being able to speak both languages and being able to understand how to communicate in both environments and sometimes in the same environment and help everybody to understand what’s going on and to smooth out friction points, that’s one of the talents that I have and one of the things that I want to bring statewide.

Also, growing up in a union family and seeing what would happen when there was a strike or when there was going to be a plant shutdown and how people would band together. It wasn’t just the families and it wasn’t just the friends. It was the entire community saying, “We’re going to shut this plant down because we’re not being treated fairly.” Entire communities banded together and we don’t do enough of that now. Because everyone is so overwhelmed, we’re over-messaged to, we’re so busy in our lives, we kinda just retreat. I want to create a healthy environment where we start to look at banding together in tough times.

When a school system like Detroit or Benton Harbor is being attacked and they’re being thrown into an Emergency Manager situation, the rest of the state has to suit up and say, “They’re part of our community. This is BS. We’re not having it.” So, we need to figuring out how to band together in a broader sense and not be stuck in these silos. I think I know how to create those healthy environments to do that. The Ann Arbor Dems were as dysfunctional as hell when I first took that on. We were always arguing and there were very few people attending our meetings because they were, like, “Why should I go to this when it’s the same 10 or 15 people arguing? Now people know that we are going to come to the table and we’re going to have differing views but we’re going to respect each other. Everybody’s going to have a chance to speak and there’s going to be a process and it’s going to be fair, where everybody is acknowledged and everybody’s ideas are on the table and actually listened to. Even if we don’t prioritize that at the top, it’s in the mix somewhere. It’s part of the discussion and it affects how we move forward. That’s the environment I want to create.

I also want to keep using technology more and more aggressively. This campaign is doing that and we’re doing it really quickly. It’s just a two-week campaign but, just in terms of how we are using Facebook, Twitter, email, we’ve got a full website. It’s a full campaign. We’re doing lots of outreach statewide. Under my leadership it won’t just be a Black Caucus coming from Detroit. I’m reaching out to Flint, Saginaw, Muskegon, Benton Harbor, Lansing. I’m reaching out to a ton of communities and the slate that I have is going to be representative of the entire state.

It’s also going to have people like Erane Washington, a brilliant and talented lawyer. Rod Casey, activist extraordinaire. Mashif White who is a technologist and technology trainer. Dennis Perkins, a Sargeant in the Detroit police force. All of these different people with different views coming to the table and having people from the faith community as well as the union community, business folks, all sitting at the table to develop the strategy and then to also operationalize it I think that’s going to make the Caucus and the Party so much stronger because we’re going to be able to speak to everybody in black communities. So we need to figure out how to activate them and make sure that they’re involved in the next cycle when we need them to vote. In the end, I just want us to have an organized agenda that everybody will respect and will feel that is complementary to whatever the Democratic Party decides to do in the future, not something that is a drag on it.

Photos by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog