There’s a fight underway over who will lead the Michigan Democratic Party for the next two years, pitting an 18-year incumbent against a political insider living in Kalkaska County.
A Rare Public Squabble Between Unions
This is largely a fight among unions for influence in the party, and that this fight broke out into the open is a bit of a surprise. Michigan’s union leaders typically like to keep their spats out of the public eye.
“One of the biggest things about the union movement is it stresses solidarity,” says Micki Maynard, a journalist and a visiting professor at Central Michigan University who has long followed politics and organized labor.
“‘Solidarity Forever,’ that’s the famous song. And if you’re in the union movement, you feel that you have brothers and sisters in the movement. And so unions don’t like to make their squabbles public because that frays the perception that everyone is on the same side,” Maynard says.
Well, too late. Unions are lining up on both sides of the race for Democratic Party chair. The United Auto Workers and its president, Bob King, want long-time chair Mark Brewer out. One reason: A lot of Democrats say their party should have done better in 2012, when President Obama won the state by more than nine points.
“I’m frustrated that the gains we’ve continuously made at the national level are not being made at the state level,” King says.
Northern Michigan Contender Seeks “Modern” Campaigns
Meet Lon Johnson, who is challenging Brewer. He’s not well known by the general public, but is quite well-known in Michigan Democratic circles. He’s worked on presidential, Senate, and congressional campaigns, knows how to fundraise, and came close to winning a Republican-held state House seat in northern Michigan last year. Johnson says he’s the guy to raise the Democrats’ game in Michigan.
“These are modern campaigns,” he says. “They’re professionally developed. They’re professionally executed. And they’re run very well and, obviously, voters receive these messages and they win. Obviously, that’s not so at the state level.”
2012: A Tough Year For Unions
That’s the complaint -- that Democrats keep winning national campaigns in Michigan: six presidential victories in row, as well as U.S. Senate races, and often by big margins. But those margins don’t hold further down the ticket in legislative races. And that’s cost labor big.
Last year was not a good one for unions. A ballot bid to put a host of union rights into the state constitution took a shellacking in November, and then Republicans used their controlling position in Lansing to push through a right-to-work law.
“We are!!” “The union!!” Unions yelled, protesters filled the Capitol, but they couldn’t stop it.
A lot of Democrats said their party and organized labor would have been better served by focusing more on state House races than an ill-fated ballot question.
“When Republicans have control of the governor’s office, the Legislature, and the Supreme Court, you don’t have much option,” says Mark Brewer. “If you want to affect policy change, that’s the option.”
Current Party Chair Says District Maps Favor Republicans
Brewer says that’s because Republicans drew the legislative district maps to the benefit of G.O.P. candidates. So how does Brewer want to fix that? Another ballot question. He wants to put a question before voters in 2014 to change how districts are drawn.
No one can say Brewer lacks know-how and experience. He’s has been the state Democratic Party chair for 18 years.
“And I’m doing what I do every two years when I’m running for reelection, which is I go out and I make the case,” he says. “Here’s what I’ve done. Here are my plans for the next two years, and I’m very content to let the voters at our state convention in late February make the decision on whether I get another term or not.”
That’s from Brewer’s appearance on WNMU TV in Marquette. He has the support of the Michigan Education Association and a lot of local party chairs.
Democrats have to make big strategic choices as the decline in union membership is expected to accelerate now that Michigan is a right-to-work state. The Detroit party convention could be a classic political rumble with floor fights, and battles over rules and credentialing delegates. Democrats and union leaders hope to avoid that sort of spectacle, but for now, solidarity will have to wait.