Michigan Dems change leaders, GOP faces challenge

3/1/2013
BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE COLUMNIST

DETROIT — Last weekend, one of the biggest internal battles in Michigan Democratic Party history ended not with a bang but a towel — the one thrown in by longtime party chairman Mark Brewer.

After a nasty campaign fought largely with mass emails, the incumbent withdrew from the race once he saw he couldn’t muster the votes to keep his job.

But while attention was focused on Democrats all last week, something happened at the Michigan Republican convention on the same day that may, in the long run, be even more significant.

First, the Democrats: For weeks, an epic battle had raged between Mr. Brewer, the party’s leader since 1995, and Lon Johnson, a much younger man whose candidacy had two big selling points.

For one thing, Mr. Johnson is married to Julianna Smoot, a former White House social secretary with close ties to President Obama and impressive fund-raising skills. For another, he isn’t Mr. Brewer.

The 57-year-old lawyer, the longest-serving party chairman in the nation, had worn out his welcome with the union that had been his biggest backer, the United Auto Workers. The Teamsters also wanted Mr. Brewer gone, as did the state’s entire Democratic congressional delegation.

But when he was approached about retiring gracefully, Mr. Brewer dug in his heels.

For weeks, he fought to keep his job. The Michigan Education Association stayed in his corner, as did a number of local party officials.

Other Democrats, however, said a change at the top was overdue. They noted that Mr. Brewer has long had a penchant for expensive and wasteful schemes.

Five years ago, his Democrats spent huge sums of money to get a proposed amendment on the ballot that would have rewritten a chunk of the state constitution. But the courts tossed it off, saying a constitutional amendment could address only one issue at a time.

Democrats also wasted money trying to get a phony “Tea Party” on the ballot, though Mr. Brewer was never tied to the scheme.

The party chairman’s fate probably was sealed last November. Democrats failed to recapture control of the Michigan House, even though President Obama and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow easily won the state.

Worse, union and Democratic efforts to pass a constitutional amendment supporting collective bargaining lost badly. Weeks later, during a lame-duck session of the Legislature, Republicans rammed through a bill making Michigan a right-to-work state.

Those who wanted a new chairman rallied around Mr. Johnson, a 41-year-old native of the Downriver area south of Detroit. He now lives in northern Michigan. Mr. Johnson lost a race for a seat in the Legislature last year, and is little known statewide.

But in addition to being a fresh face and having White House ties, he is technologically savvy, in a state and party where even basic Internet literacy is beyond some.

Though the Brewer-Johnson struggle got nasty at times, odds are that it will be forgotten quickly. Democrats have been a brawling lot since their party began.

Republicans, on the other hand, strive for order, especially in public. They need to present a united front.

Bobby Schostak, who is completing his two-year term as state GOP party chairman, sought a second term. He should have had no difficulty. He had the strong support of Gov. Rick Snyder and other top GOP officials. But he was opposed by Todd Courser, a little-known Tea Party activist and lawyer from Lapeer, in Michigan’s Thumb.

Yet Mr. Courser nearly won. Mr. Schostak barely squeaked by with support from 52 percent of convention delegates. When the results were announced, many Courser supporters left.

Not Mr. Courser. He delivered a bizarre prayer that seemed to be a personal dialogue with God. His campaign literature made it clear that his candidacy was about restoring “conservative Christian principles.”

On his Web site, he posted this before the convention: “Please pray that God moves in our state this coming weekend.” After he lost, Mr. Courser stood before the convention and seemed to be accusing God, saying: “I don’t know why You called me [to run] five weeks ago.”

He then added: “Save not just our party; save our country. Help us, help us, to save the country. I beg your mercy on our country.”

Some convention delegates were uneasy with that. It may seem odd to think that God is invested in local, internal political squabbles.

And there is clear evidence that the GOP’s focus on religious and social issues is costing the party votes. For years, Libertarians have fielded presidential nominees who received as many as 400,000 votes nationwide.

Last fall, however, libertarians tripled that, getting almost 1.3 million votes. These voters tend to be people who like Republican economic ideas, but have no use for the party’s stand on social issues.

Libertarians didn’t cost the GOP victory in 2012. But if their vote totals keep increasing, they will become a factor. Republicans in Michigan, as elsewhere, soon could be in a position where, to please their base, they have to do things that guarantee they can’t possibly win statewide elections.

If so, that will make Democrats happy.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com