Archived StoryPublished 6:17pm Sunday, February 24, 2013
By WILLIAM CRANDELL
Special to Leader Publications
New blood has taken over the Democratic Party in Michigan. On Saturday at the Michigan State Democratic Convention held at Cobo Hall in Detroit, the 3,600 delegates that attended the event elected a new chairperson that, according to many of the party members, has a fresh dynamic direction for the state party and will lead them to victory in 2014.
The two candidates seeking to run the state party, Mark Brewer, the current chairperson, and Lon Johnson, the challenger, have engaged in a very spirited campaign throughout the state for the past three weeks with both men fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party and what direction it would take in the future.
That’s why so many of the delegates were shocked when Brewer withdrew his candidacy at the last minute reportedly to avoid a lengthy floor battle that had the potential to tear the party apart. Brewer, a 57- year-old lawyer from Clinton Township has been steering the Democratic Party for the past 18 years, which makes him the longest-serving state chair in the country.
But many Democrats said they felt it was time for a change. Brewer’s campaign slogan “A trusted leader for the future” rang hollow for much of the membership, many of whom felt the party’s failure to win more state house and senate seats in 2012 lay upon his shoulders.
Even though he had the support of many of Michigan’s labor unions, including The Michigan Education Association, The American Federation of Teachers and The Service Employees International Union, it was widely believed by many at the start of the convention that he would be unable to pull off a victory.
Lon Johnson, 41, hails from Kalkaska and is married to Juliana Smoot, who served as president Obama’s social secretary. He also has a long history of working political campaigns, including serving as a campaign fund raiser for Al Gore in 2000 and managing John Dingell’s 2002 re-election campaign. Johnson’s campaign platform focused on his “plan to win” by modernizing and building a new Democratic party to meet the needs of the membership for the future. Many of the younger members of the party clearly supported his vision and attended the convention in record numbers to support him. Paul Clements, a professor at Western Michigan University and candidate for representative of the U.S. 6th District against Congressman Fred Upton, attended the convention to announce his candidacy and support Johnson.
“I like his energy and enthusiasm,” said Clements. “He has a lot of new ideas that will help to build the party, and he has a lot of support from the national party. I think he’ll bring a lot to the state Democrats.”
Brewer and Johnson addressed the individual district caucus meetings, adding their personal touches to gain votes. As did many current Democratic office holders, such as Sen. Debbie Stabenow, state Sen. Bert Johnson and John Austin, president of the Michigan Board of Education, all of whom spoke to caucus groups encouraging them to support Lon Johnson even though, according to the Brewer campaign, the majority of the caucus leadership, district chairs and Democratic club chairs had already publicly announced support of Brewer.
The United Autoworkers also threw their formative numbers behind Johnson, and had registered 1,300 of their membership as new members of the Democratic Party so they could attend the convention and vote for Johnson.
Unsubstantiated rumors abounded among Brewer supporters that the UAW was threatening to withdraw support from future candidates who didn’t publicly support Johnson and were bullying delegates into voting for the newcomer.
After a hard day of campaigning, many were shocked when Brewer withdrew his candidacy when the state convention commenced at 3 p.m.
“In the interest of party unity, he was withdrawing his candidacy, and he wished Lon Johnson the best and all the luck in the world because he was going to need it in the future,” said Brewer, explaining he would remain a member of the party and pledged to work with the Democrats every day to do his part and he also asked that everyone be willing to work together to help the new chairperson to succeed so the people of Michigan could succeed and rebuild the state for the middle class.
‘A class act’
About half of the approximately 60 members of Southwest Michigan’s local 6th District that attended the convention were supporters of Brewer and were upset with his announcement but commented that the manner of his withdrawal was dignified.
“A class act from a very classy guy, as a party we are going to miss Mark, but, as a party, I think now we will be able to move forward,” said Pawloski, the chairperson of the Kalamazoo County Democrats.
“Mark Brewer is a true Democrat that loves his party,” said Vicki Wagner, a longtime Berrien County Democrat and party leader. “Rather than force an ugly and divisive floor fight, he’s stepping down because he believes in unity and he believes in us.”
Pledge of unity
“Fellow Democrats, today we remake our party; today, we renew our purpose,” said Johnson in his acceptance speech. “And today, we reclaim our great state. Some of you came here to stand with Mark. Some of you came here to stand with me, but now we must all stand together because together, we are Michigan, one Michigan united.”
Even though at times during the day in the entryways and the hallways between the caucus meetings were full of contention, there was still a prevailing spirit of unity and optimism among the Democrats especially for the elections in 2014. That sense of buoyancy was reflected in the words of Dave Hecker, president of the AFT/MFT during his speech to the labor caucus.
“I want to tell everyone here at this convention to remember that we are the good guys and we will stand together no matter who is elected here today,” Hecker said.
“By our unity, we tell the state of Michigan that the Democratic Party stands together and that we are unified to take back our state in 2014.”