INTERVIEW: State Rep. Brandon Dillon, candidate for Michigan Democratic Party Chair


State House Rep. Brandon Dillon first came onto my radar when I watched this video of a floor speech he gave shortly after Republicans made Michigan a Right to Work state where he described Michigan as “where democracy goes to die”:

Since then, he’s been a rising star in the House, joining with former Rep. Ellen Cogen-Lipton and others to take a leadership role on the issue of education and being an outspoken critic of his Republican colleagues and their overreach & hypocrisy.

Last month, after Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson made the surprise announcement that he was stepping down to run for Congress in the 1st Congressional District, Dillon threw his hat into the ring. The only other person whose name was being discussed at the time was Oakland County Deputy Clerk Lavora Barnes, the former state director of the 2012 Obama campaign and House Dems Political Director. However, Barnes and Dillon were able to reach an agreement that, if Dillon is elected at the MDP State Central meeting this Saturday in Port Huron, allows both of them will play significant roles in running the Party, avoiding a bruising campaign for Chair in the middle of an election cycle.

At this time, so far as I am aware, no other candidates have stepped forward, making Dillon’s election a near certainty. I sat down with him on Monday to ask him about his candidacy, his power-sharing arrangement with Barnes, and his vision for the MDP.

[Hat tip to Scott Urbanowski for setting up the interview.]

Thanks for sitting down to talk to me. I think this is something that will be helpful and that people will be interested in. When did you decide that running for the Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party is something you were interested in?

Very recently! I had actually had some really cursory conversations back in January about, “Hey, ya know, when I’m term-limited, I think there are some things I could do to help the party…” But nothing serious at all. Then I got a call from somebody shortly after the Mackinac Island Policy Conference telling me that Lon was talking about resigning. At that point I think his timetable was significantly longer than what it ended up being. So, I started having some conversations. It was probably late May, early June when I started talking to a few people. At that time I don’t think it was clear that Lon was intending to resign but as the days went on, it became more evident that he was serious about making a run in the 1st District. At that point I became a little more serious in talking to people about it and it’s really just gone from there.

My understanding is that you and Lavora Barnes are sort of running as a team. How did that come about?

Lavora’s name had been mentioned early on by some folks who I called to see what the level of support or interest might be. Having known Lavora when I was in the House and getting elected to the House, I actually told her that I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for her. She was the only one in that House operation who advocated to keep me in the program because, as you can recall, 2010 was a terrible year. I barely won, I won by 600 votes. So I had really developed a strong relationship with her.

What was she doing then?

She was the Political Director for the House Dems so she was actively involved in running the campaigns and making decisions about who gets resources and who doesn’t. So I joked with her that she obviously had an eye for talent! [laughs]

I think there was a general consensus among many in the Party that they wanted to avoid any sort of rancorous campaign for Chair which I agreed with and I know Lavora did, as well. There was a suggestion that we have mutually complementary skill sets and that we should talk and see if there was any way that we could bring both our talents to the Party. The more we talked the more we felt comfortable with this. I bring a certain skill set and so does she and we both really want to have a strong partnership at the MDP. Because, look, no one person can do this alone.

She won’t actually be on the ballot on Saturday, right? You will be on the ballot with the understanding that Lavora will be your partner if you are elected?

Right. The Chair is the only elected position. But we are committed to having a partnership where she will essentially be running the day-to-day operations of the Party in an expanded capacity commensurate with her extreme skill set.

What is that position called?

Chief Operating Officer.

How does that differ from the Executive Director position that Garrett Arwa holds right now?

It’s hard for me to know. I have talked to Garrett and really think he’s great. We have a vision where I’ll be doing more of the fundraising, the politics, and the message coordination and Lavora will be doing, almost exclusively, the day-to-day functions of the Party and will be making sure that all of that runs smoothly. That’s just not my skill set. It is hers. She’s run Coordinated Campaigns, was heavily involved in running the Obama campaign in Michigan. So she’s going to have a very strong role to be able to speak for the Party in a way that I don’t know if that’s how the current relationship is set up.

Is this under the understanding that Garrett would be staying on staff?

Garrett will not be pushed out. If I am elected on Saturday, he will remain Executive Director and there’s certainly a major role he will play in the transition. Continuity in the staff is going to be very important for us as we move forward so that we don’t lose any momentum with a new Chair coming on, especially in the middle of an election cycle.

Let’s talk about how you see a Brandon Dillon-run MDP as being the same as or different from what’s been going on under Lon’s leadership.

That’s the question that everyone wants to know, of course. I think there are some things that Lon has really done well in terms of expanding the fundraising base of the party. I think that’s critically important. Right to Work and Citizens United have really made it difficult for us to continually count on a reliable source of resources from our friends in the labor movement. It’s just not there. But, even if it was there, it’s probably good for us to expand our reach. The Party has to continuing to evolve.

We have the ability to find and reach people in ways we never did before with technology and social media and other ways. We have to continue that and even ratchet that up a bit. I think Lon really started something that, no matter what’s happened in the past, it’s something that has to go forward in the future.

I think that Lon’s looking at technology as a way to help us deliver our message is important. We have to always be on the cutting edge in terms of how we communicate with voters, how we identify activists, and how we get people out to vote on Election Day.

We also need to continue to build our Party and attract new members. That’s even more critical now that you don’t have the same readily-available supply, for lack of a better word, of people coming from the labor movement in the Democratic Party. I mean the Republicans have been very good over the last 20 years of going after our friends in the labor movement to make them concentrate on their own internal stuff and less able to advocate for and work for Democrats. They choke off the money, they make it hard for them to retain members, that sort of thing.

So, we have to find a way to empower or re-empower County Parties, District Parties, etc. to be able to find members, to be able to recruit them in, and to be able to engage young people in a way that we haven’t had to do before because we were able count on being able to replenish people as they cycled out. We have to find a way to engage people on issues.

One of the things I’d like to do, and I think Lon had started to do this but there simply wasn’t the time to do it, is to actually have a strategic planning process at the Party where we look at where we are now, which is not a good spot – I don’t think anybody could tell you with a straight face that this is where we want the Democratic Party to be in Michigan – and then we need to envision this place ten years down the road after redistricting and maybe an election cycle, where we’re going to be in 2024 and that presidential election, and what we need to do to get there. And we need to identify the problems. I think we all know what they are: Trying to keep a coalition together after Barack Obama, especially in the off years. Make sure we’re relevant to young people. Making sure we’re not ignoring our core voters in urban areas in Michigan and just coming to them at election time and expecting their vote. And making sure we can compete in the fundraising aspect of politics which we all know is critically important.

Once we identify those problems and people understand them, I think we really need to go out around the state to certain stakeholders and activists and say, “Look, how are we going to do this?” Get buy-in on a plan that we can bring back in a very short period of time and say, “This is the plan we have for the Party to get us to 2024 and this is what we have to do in every cycle going forward.” Hopefully in 2016… well let’s just say I’d love it if the Democratic presidential candidate didn’t have to campaign in Michigan and they can take Michigan off the boards early which gives us an opportunity to really refine the techniques and strategies that we’re going to need going into 2018.

Because the pressure is off in a presidential year compared to a midterm election…

Right. Then we can really concentrate on the state House and use that message, but also in those other areas where we may not have a competitive statewide effort. There we can fine tune how we’re going to engage those voters in a year-long, cycle-long process rather than just the three weeks before the election. That’s why I think getting a plan together is so important. Everybody has great ideas, I hear them all the time. And everybody can identify the problems, But we really need to get some concrete things on paper and say, operationally, this is how we’re going to go out and find voters. We can set targets like increasing membership by 10% in voters under 35, for example, and say here’s how we’re going to do it. And then just get people to do it.

It sounds a lot easier when you say it but I think we are going to be continuously spinning our wheels if we don’t take a little bit of time to sit back, assess where we are, find out where want to be, and then develop a solid plan to get there.

How long do expect that process to take?

I think we can do it in a few months. I’d like to be able to come in by the beginning of August and get some folks at a higher level to identify the problems. I don’t think that’s really tough. I think we all know what the problems are. Figure out the four or five things that we need to deal with and also look at what we want the role of the Party to be in an era where we know that there are other avenues for people to contribute their money and where there are other organizations out there replicating, to a certain degree, the functions that the Party has done exclusively over the years. How do we coexist in an environment where that is the reality instead of fighting against it? I don’t think that’s fruitful for anybody. But, to the extent that the law allows, we need to understand what is going on in the environment around us and then position the Party to do the things that only the Party can do and do them well.

It will take a couple, three weeks to identify the problems and get a process in place for how we then go out and try to engage people on what the solutions are. I think we can do it before the end of the year. In fact, I would say we HAVE to do it before January 1st so that we have something that we can start working on. Because, ultimately, any plan is going to require resources and in order to get resources you have to have a plan. I think it makes it a little easier to sell to people when you can say, “Here’s the plan for the Party going forward.” Then I think you will get some of those people who are Democrats, that vote Democratic, they feel like they are Democrats, but just haven’t had a reason to invest in the Party either monetarily or with their time and energy. If they feel like we’re moving toward something and that we have a realistic approach to getting there, I think it makes it easier for them to buy into over the long haul. If we set the goal too high and that first year you don’t get there, people get excited and then they just retrench. I think that’s our best chance for success.

It sounds like the use of issues to organize around is something that would benefit that sort of approach. Do you think that ballot initiatives are the sort of thing that will help coalesce people around the Democratic Party in Michigan? And, if so, which ones would you highlight as the ones that would be most important?

I think they can. I think we have to be careful that we don’t have competing ballot initiatives that make it so that resources get divided in a way that neither of them can be effective. For instance, and this may not even be something that’s driven by the Democratic Party, but if there is an effort, which I hope there is, to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to get protections for EVERYBODY in this state, that we could use that as an opportunity to go out and engage those voters who may not have been involved in any other issue before that.

There are going to be issues surrounding the legalization of marijuana. I know that’s controversial to some. I’ve personally come out in favor of it but, even if you don’t believe in marijuana legalization in its entirety, I think that people are going to be astounded at the numbers of people that are going to get involved on that issue alone. If you can find a way to get them to understand that that’s important but there may be some other issues that they care about, as well, that might be taken care of in the more traditional political context, that can be helpful. But ya gotta meet people where they are even if they’re not issues that dovetail perfectly with the Democratic platform. If they are progressive issues with progressive people pushing them, we need to go find them.

What about redistricting and forming a non-partisan, independent redistricting commission in Michigan?

I think redistricting is an issue that we have to look at. I think this one that has the potential to be successful but I think it really has to be driven by nonpartisan, independent people in order for people to understand that this isn’t just some sort of partisan power grab. But, to the extent that there are a lot of progressive people who understand that redistricting has made it really difficult to do any progressive policy in Michigan, I’m hoping that people get engaged and, if they are engaged in that effort, again, as a Party and as local Parties, we can meet those people and try to let them know that these are issues that we care about.

I know people with clipboards who are ready to go. They want this bad. Gerrymandering was such a big issue on everybody’s mind after the last election. That’s all people were talking about. It restores Democracy in this state, if we can redraw the districts fairly.

I think it’s a great issue for activists, Democratic activists who haven’t felt like they’ve had anything to really go after. It’s important to get those people energized. Then we have to get those other people who maybe just don’t understand it involved. But, I think if you get the activists out there early talking to people and they are talking about it in a way that appeals to that generation that is progressive but also independent and just like to see fairness and equality, it really plays right into that.

When you see how many districts not competitive at all, it’s shocking. After the 2014 election I went through each of the districts and most of those districts were won by 70, 80 percent of the vote. And not because one of the candidates was lopsidedly better than the other but because that’s a Democratic district or that’s a Republican district.

It has such as a corrosive effect. I think that and term limits have really hurt us. The entire system of representative democracy is set up to kind of recognize and temper people’s blind personal ambition. So, the idea that you have to seek election to the House every two years, if you’re seeking that and want to be elected because it’s important and you have great ideas, that’s one thing. But if half the people may on any one issue may not agree with you, it kind of tempers your natural instinct to try to impose your beliefs on others. But, if you’re frame of reference is an increasingly small electorate of extreme primary voters, it works in the entirely opposite way. It forces you, because of self-preservation, to cater to a group that is entirely unreflective of the state as a whole. And that is really what is driving the really bad policy in the state.

When we lost the state House in 1998, Democrats went down by something like 58 seats to 52. Republicans actually got about 30,000 more votes than Democrats statewide that year so, 58-52, that’s roughly about what you’d expect. Maybe they’d pick up a seat or two. This last cycle Democrats go 51% of the vote statewide and we’re in a 63-47 seat minority. And the seats we lost were by a combined 7,000 votes. So, no matter how good your candidates are, when the entire system is just stacked in that way, you really have to thread the needle and run the table nationally to be able to win. Hopefully, if you had nonpartisan redistricting, that unfairness would be removed. And, honestly, even if some of the districts are redrawn badly, you simply cannot make them any worse than they are now. It can’t be done. There is no scenario that I can think of that wouldn’t benefit us.

I think that even in heavily Democratic areas, people become complacent because they don’t think they need to vote in order for their candidate to win. If they are in districts where their vote DOES make a difference, you might get more people engaged.

That’s exactly right. There are a lot of theories about this. People once said, “All politics are local,” and things bubbled up. Now I think politics are more national because people’s frame of reference is not just the local newspaper, for example. They’ve got so many more ways to consume information and really cut through a filter national news. But, if you can start generating that energy from below and you can layer in, say, a competitive school board race or a competitive county commission race, or state House race, or maybe a Congressional, that will drive some of your turnout for the statewide ticket as well.

But none of this should take the pressure off of us. We need to double down and make sure that we at least have one or two seats at the table in 2020 when those lines are redrawn.

So, you’ve had a fairly substantial change of position on the matter of reproductive rights and a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. You came out pretty publicly on that with an op-ed at MLive. Talk about that. Are you a pro-Choice Democrat?

Absolutely. 100%. It’s an issue that I’ve talked about to people for years and years and years. Since I was first elected to the state House. I think it’s one thing when you’re raised in an environment that’s kind of culturally normal for people to be pro-Life or a little more conservative on some issues. But once you actually have to cast votes and really have to think about it in terms of the actual impact that this is going to have on people’s lives, it really changed my perspective on the issue. It became less of a philosophical statement of how I felt about things to being about what the real world implications are of casting a vote to take away somebody’s right to have preventative health care or somebody’s ability to make these decisions for themselves. Actually, being in the legislature for a little while and watching how poorly decisions were being made on a whole host of issues, to think that a group of 110 people who can barely figure out how to get to their seats on time are actually going to be making decisions on the most personal thing in a woman’s life, in no small way it came to me that this in not a decision that I or anyone else in a position of political power should be making. It’s a deeply personal decision between a woman, her doctor, and her family.

My wife has been a very strong influence on me, making sure that I was putting those beliefs as they evolved into practice. I stopped voting that way back in 2012. I had debated whether or not I should make a public statement about this at that time and ultimately came to the decision that it was important for other people who may be feeling the same way as I was that how they felt at one point in their life was in any way reflective of how they felt now. And to come out and say that publicly would hopefully encourage other people to take a second look at it.

Right to Life came after you when you did that, right?

They came after me very hard which I fully expected and actually have no problem with. Despite the fact that I think that there are some good people in the world who share that position, as an organization and as a policy, it’s just totally wrong. It does not do anything that they want it do and in many ways it encourages the behavior that they are trying to discourage.

It’s hard to overemphasize the culture, even in Democratic circles, in Grand Rapids and West Michigan on this issues for years and years and years. You know Tom Matthew was the author of the law banning Medicaid abortions and he was a Democrat from Grand Rapids. I was the first elected official in the history of Kent County to make a vote on an issue that was not supported by Right to Life. People thought that was a huge deal but actually when it happened, I think a lot of people discovered that there are actually a lot of people who don’t agree with them. I tried to tell people that this is important, not just because it’s the right thing to do but it’s important for a whole generation of Democrats coming up after this to understand that they do not have to cater to an increasingly narrow view on this issue and that they can embrace being pro-Choice and not have to worry about somebody telling them that they can’t win an election because it’s just entirely the opposite.

If you are chosen to be the Chair on Saturday, will you step down from your position in the state legislature?

I think it’s going to be very difficult to do both jobs but I want to be able to have a conversation with the Speaker of the House and the Governor about that and I’ll be making a decision very soon after I’m elected.

How about your thoughts about running for the state Senate in two years?

Oh, I’m not. I won’t be a candidate for Senate in 2018. I’m committed to this and hopefully we can be successful as a Party in 2016 and, if that’s the case, I would prefer to continue to help building the Party after that. We’ve got some great people that will be running for Senate in 2018 and I want to be in a position to help get them elected.

We have a lot of opportunities but I really think we have a lot of work to do and I really want people to understand that this is not going to be solved by any one Chair or any one COO. We’re going to have to bring as many people as we can in, people who are disaffected with the Party now or felt burned by the last Chair’s race or however they feel, we’ve got to all get back to do this. The stakes are really high this year. We’ve got five years to figure this out and then hopefully it will springboard us into a position where we can be back where the Democratic Party in Michigan should be in eight years, in two presidential elections. But that’s the sort of long-term planning that I think we have to go through. Even if the process and even if the product isn’t perfect, I think the process is going to be important for people who feel like they’ve been left out and that their opinion isn’t valued.

That is especially true for those activists on the ground who are continuously asked to do things but are not necessarily seeing the payoff. We need to keep them engaged and let them know that this is still party of the people from the ground up. Then we can create a vision from the top but that’s not going to happen with a plan that’s handed form down on high from an office on Townsend Street. It’s got to come from every precinct and every district and all the Party Chairs, and activists have to have a voice. They need to know that we have a plan. Even when things are tough and are going against us, we keep working the plan.