Waterloo For Michigan Democrats In 2014?


These days it’s hard to imagine what kind of campaign Michigan Democrats are running right now (if any) or plan to run in 2014 against incumbent Gov. Rick Snyder, who just dissed the Tea Party wing of his party by supporting the expansion of Medicaid for the working poor.

It’s complex to comprehend how Democrats can marshal the right candidate with largesse to challenge Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose out-of-nowhere support for pensioners in Detroit’s bankruptcy crisis puts him in an advantage to disarm charges of public neglect.

It is almost unfathomable that Secretary of State Ruth Johnson can be dethroned at a time when the political calendar doesn’t seem to favor Democrats. The same doubt goes for placing a candidate on the Michigan Supreme Court.

Above all, Congressman Gary Peters’ ongoing campaign to replace outgoing veteran U.S. Senator Carl Levin is all but a sure thing given that Republicans appear to be lining up behind fundraising powerhouse Terri Lynn Land, the formidable former GOP Secretary of State who won re-election twice and obviously has mass appeal, including among women voters.

If you are a die-hard Democrat who believes the party “is always right” and reading this you might be asking what planet I’m living on. But if you are an open-minded Democrat who reads the tea leaves, you know that the party has some serious issues and could be in more trouble trying to claim victory in the 2014 election cycle.

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer is nowhere to be found, and don’t bother to look for him in Detroit either, the largest Democratic base but the most ignored that new party chair Lon Johnson now says he wants to change.

I only met Schauer once at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, and it was a chance meeting actually because we bumped into each other at the lobby of the hotel and his aides wanted to do a quick introduction. We spoke briefly. That was it.

At the NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner this year I had a conversation with a prominent African American in the labor movement who at the time was surprised that Schauer, who was introduced at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s 2013 Mackinac Policy Conference, has yet to make any meaningful or significant appearance in Detroit or to even meet with some of the labor officials here.

Well, he concluded like many that it’s almost like the same old story: Democrats jet in the last minute, set up a shop on East Jefferson, make no real investment and get the guaranteed votes at the polls and then disappear till the next election season.

I hope Johnson, the newly elected and energized leader of the Michigan Democratic Party, does not repeat the same old “game” that hoodwinks voters and doesn’t give them anything to look forward to.

Prior to his election, Johnson visited my office for an hour-long conversation about the fate of the Michigan Democratic Party, during which he was bustling with optimism speaking of a new era.

Johnson whose wife is Julianna Smoot, a former top fundraiser for President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, initially raising $880 million in 2008 and a similar amount in the last election, unseated the long-standing two-decades chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, Mark Brewer.

“I think people want a wholesale change. They recognize that what we are doing and how we are organizing ourselves, and how we are putting together our message, our team, there needs to be a change. This is not about any one institution or any one person,” Johnson said. “It’s a recognition that we are not winning and leadership starts at the top and you need to bring in the tools to get that done. And you need to start now. You cannot wait till 2014 or October 2014 to start the process.”

And waiting till 2014 is exactly what the party appears to be doing since there is no indication of a movement to build up a cohesive campaign next year.

In my interview with Johnson, I was impressed by his plans but only if he can implement them.

“Change to me means five things. One, we need to restructure our executive leadership. We need both a chair and an executive director. The role of the chair should be raising money, deliver the message and find others to deliver the message. Keep the table — the constituencies representing the Democratic Party — keep them together and expand that table,” Johnson explained.

“Two, we need to double the amount of money that we are raising. Three, we need to expand our outreach to minorities, women and younger voters. This is not a process we can start in June of 2014. We need to start now. And those programs need to come from the community. If they are coming from Lansing, from the MDP, they are going to fail. They need to come and be driven by the community and those plans have to be accountable. They have to have a budget, they have to be staffed, they need a timeline and we need to start right now.”

Next for him is technology.

“The Obama campaign used technology in three ways that we are now applying,” he continued. “One, they used technology to understand who they should be talking to. Second, they used technology to test what messages do we deliver to those targeted voters because information moves so fast. And lastly, they used technology in a whole new way to deliver that message, to empower the person to put stuff on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter.

“And last but not the least is recruitment. There is nothing more immediate or long-lasting that the MDP could do to recruit good candidates. I want to see a hundred new African American candidates, a hundred new Hispanic candidates, a hundred women candidates, a hundred candidates under the age of 35. Those candidates out of those hundred, 50 would win and 50 would fail. When you have new candidates, you bring them in and they will engage, bring their friends, workers, their families and you bring in new people and donors. But more importantly they bring in new ideas, approaches to the challenges we face.”

Notwithstanding all of these grand visions, the problem right now is that the leadership of the party is finding it difficult to identify winning candidates. If the party is serious about making a realistic stake for next year it should have been looking for candidates last year, not now or waiting toward the end of 2013.

Because there is no realistic pool of candidates from which to draw, an analogy that goes for Detroit as well, lacking a pool of qualified people to run for local office, the Dems are sure to hit a road bump next year or even a pothole.

Given that the chances of winning any major public office is like building a federal case to win, it’s hard to predict what the outcome of 2014 will be in the Democratic fortune column.

When Sen. Levin’s seat became open it was clear that Democratic powerhouse and female leader Debbie Dingell would have been an ideal candidate and one who polls showed had a shot at replacing Levin. But Dingell, who has fundraising prowess and understands Washington and Detroit, steadily initiating many White House projects for this region, withdrew her name from the race.

Congressman Peters is a fine legislator who goes to bat for Democrats and has a track record of doing so, but it would take more than that for him to win statewide against a former Secretary of State who’s won twice. Yes, Peters’ fighting ability is brilliant but there is no guarantee that he could easily win the Senate race. So that race is a gamble fair and square for both Peters and Land.

Yes, right-to-work law is fuel for energizing the base of the party, but it seems like Snyder is trying to put out that fire by pushing for and successfully gaining the expansion of Medicaid for the working p

So gubernatorial challenger Schauer will have to offer more than just right-to-work and his campaign of doing so must begin in Detroit.

Johnson, the party chair, promised to set up an office in Detroit. We’ll believe it when it comes to fruition, and if it is a sincere promise it should happen now.

If not, we’ll wait for the sleeping giant to wake up.

Bankole Thompson is editor of the Michigan Chronicle and the author of the forthcoming book “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future With Courage.” His book “Obama and Black Loyalty,” published in 2010, follows his recent book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty” with an epilogue by Bob Weiner, former White House spokesman. Thompson is a political news analyst at WDET-101.9FM (NPR affiliate) and a member of the weekly “Obama Watch” Sunday evening roundtable on WLIB-1190AM New York and simulcast in New Jersey and Connecticut. E-mail bthompson@michronicle.com or visit his personal page at www.bankolethompson.com.

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