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Published: Friday, 9/6/2013

Commentary

Mich. Democrats’ leader has a plan for party’s success

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
Johnson Johnson
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ROYAL OAK, Mich. — The last time Michigan voted Republican in a presidential election, the Berlin Wall was still up and the Internet was something computer researchers used to send code.

Jack Lessenberry. Jack Lessenberry.
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Democrats have won every U.S. Senate race in the state — with one exception — since Richard Nixon was in the White House.

Yet when you look at state government, Republicans rule everywhere. Democrats don’t have a single statewide officeholder, outside of a few education board seats.

They are outnumbered in both houses of the Legislature. You could fit every Democratic state senator into a couple of full-sized passenger cars.

Acutely aware of the problem, Democrats went for a radical fix two months ago. They fired their longtime party chairman, Mark Brewer, who went out kicking and screaming. The party replaced him with LBJ.

Not the original, long-dead LBJ, but one they hope will be as successful at corralling votes and developing strong candidates as Lyndon Baines Johnson was at running the U.S. Senate.

Lon Barton Johnson is a 42-year-old ball of energy who looks far more like a successful young private-equity banker than the son of a lathe operator in Rockwood, a downriver Detroit suburb that is about as blue-collar a factory town as you can get.

But he is both, plus many other things: a veteran organizer of successful campaigns from Arizona to New Jersey, a former aide to legendary U.S. Rep. John Dingell of southeast Michigan, and a former staffer for the Democratic national and senatorial campaign committees.

Somehow, he managed to find time to take off for conquered Iraq for six months to try to bring democracy there (“an incomplete success”) before he returned to Michigan.

Along the way, he married Julianna Smoot, a top fund-raiser for President Obama who did a stint as White House social secretary, and ran for state representative in Kalkaska.

Why Kalkaska? “Well, my grandfather had a home there,” said Mr. Johnson, who now lives mainly in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak. Mr. Johnson gave the race his all last year, raised $347,000, but fell short.

Which may have been a blessing. For years, Democrats had been growing disgruntled with Mr. Brewer, their state party chairman for nearly two decades.

Mr. Brewer, many grumbled, was more interested in controlling party machinery and nominating candidates who were loyal to him rather than winning elections. Mr. Brewer blew millions of dollars on unsuccessful ballot proposals.

He kept his job by currying favor with the state’s unions. But they ran into disaster last year. First, a proposal to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution overwhelmingly failed.

Weeks later, vindictive GOP legislators enacted right-to-work legislation. That led most of the state’s unions, and the state’s entire Democratic congressional delegation, to pull the plug on Mr. Brewer, who nevertheless didn’t withdraw until the Feb. 23 party convention.

He was replaced by Mr. Johnson, whose message was that he would use modern techniques to build a winning Democratic party.

“Absolutely we can do this,” he said during an early morning interview at the start of what he said was, for him, a fairly relaxed 70-hour work week. “It’s good to finally be home,” he said, after calculating that he has lived in at least 13 places since he graduated from Arizona State University in 1994 — “not counting Iraq.”

For Mr. Johnson, winning is largely a series of formulas. Recruit good candidates, and whenever possible, avoid expensive, divisive primaries.

Then, he said, it comes down to three things: “Messaging voters. Identifying who your voters are. And lastly, GOTV,” political slang for “get out the vote,” as in, get your voters to the polls. That, plus raising money.

Three years ago, analysts agree, while Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s landslide victory was helped by support from independents, it was inflated by the fact that half a million disillusioned Democrats didn’t vote. Mr. Johnson is determined not to let that happen again.

His goals for 2014 are clear. Keep the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by the retiring Carl Levin. Win, if possible, the state House, where Republicans won a 59-51 advantage last year. Knock off U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, a Tea Party favorite who last time barely won re-election. Move Heaven and Earth in an effort to defeat Mr. Snyder.

Those elections are well over a year away. But Mr. Johnson has scored some early successes. He helped persuade Democrats to settle on their top two nominees early. U.S. Rep. Gary Peters is their apparently unchallenged nominee for the U.S. Senate. Former congressman Mark Schauer will be the Democrats’ choice for governor.

Mr. Johnson also has recruited Jerry Cannon, a popular county sheriff, to take on Mr. Benishek. Independent observers say Democrats are fighting a largely uphill battle in most of these races.

Mr. Peters is favored to win the U.S. Senate. But otherwise, the party in control of the White House tends to do badly in second-term off year elections in Michigan. Nobody expects Mr. Snyder to match his 59 percent victory of 2010, but no incumbent Michigan governor has been denied a second term since 1962.

Mr. Johnson rejects the conventional wisdom. “I’m a Midwestern guy,” he said. “I do the job in front of me, and let the future take care of itself.”

If Michigan Democrats defy tradition next year, his future in the state, and perhaps the nation, ought to be assured.

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



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