Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Michigan Democrats’ fall slate a work in progress



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 DETROIT — Remarkably, seven months before the November elections, Michigan Democrats and Republicans have the main candidates on their statewide tickets virtually in place. But not quite.

Republicans are running a full slate of incumbents for the top jobs: Gov. Rick Snyder and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, and Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Democrats have known for a year that their nominee for governor will be former congressman Mark Schauer of Battle Creek. Last week, in what may have been something of a coup for his campaign, Mr. Schauer added feisty and popular Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown as his candidate for lieutenant governor.

Mark Totten, an attorney from Kalamazoo, has a clear path to the nomination for attorney general. In an odd twist of the Michigan Constitution, major-party nominees for attorney general and secretary of state are chosen not in primaries but by delegates to state party conventions, usually just before Labor Day.

However, Democrats as yet have no announced candidates for secretary of state. There are several reasons for this. First, incumbents seldom lose. Twenty years ago, Secretary of State Richard Austin, a Democrat, lost his seat — but only after he seemed to be intellectually faltering in a highly publicized debate.

Even then, Mr. Austin might not have lost if 1994 hadn’t been one of the most devastating GOP landslides in many years.

Today, even mounting a major challenge for the office would require at least a million dollars, probably more. Democrats are likely to need every dollar they can chase down for the governor’s race — not to mention what is expected to be a tight race for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by longtime Democratic incumbent Carl Levin.

There is also another big difficulty. Democrats wouldn’t use these words — and might deny this altogether — but in putting together a statewide ticket, the party has long maintained an informal, yet very real, system of racial, gender, and geographic quotas — even when this hurts their ability to win.

Every Democratic ticket has had to have someone who is black, someone who is female, someone from outstate, and someone from the Detroit metropolitan area.

So far, the 2014 ticket has men from Battle Creek and Kalamazoo and a suburban soccer mom from Oakland County.

Historically, that suggests whoever the Democrats run for secretary of state will be an African-American from Detroit, or possibly Flint, a similar but much smaller city. Most likely, the candidate will be a term-limited black state lawmaker who doesn’t have any other office for which to run.

Democrats will nominate that candidate enthusiastically — and leave that person on his or her own, without money or name recognition. Eventually, the nominee will get buried in a landslide and forgotten. However, the party will be able to say it nominated a member of this key constituency for statewide office.

Does this sound cynical? Democrats have done this again and again. Sixteen years ago, when Republican Candice Miller was running for her second term as secretary of state, Democrats chose a little-known state representative, Mary Lou Parks, to challenge her.

After winning nomination, Ms. Parks essentially refused to campaign. She was beaten so overwhelmingly she even lost Wayne County.

True, odds are that nobody would have defeated Ms. Miller that year. She served a second term, went on to win a safe GOP congressional seat, and has been in the U.S. House ever since.

Eight years later, Democrats’ insistence on quotas may well have cost them the office of attorney general. Incumbent Republican Mike Cox was shaky in the polls.

Scott Bowen, a highly regarded judge from Grand Rapids, resigned from the bench in an effort to persuade his fellow Democrats to nominate him at that year’s convention. Surveys indicated he could have beaten the incumbent.

But instead, then-party chairman Mark Brewer and Gov. Jennifer Granholm threw their support behind Amos Williams, a former policeman and civil rights attorney who had little name recognition and less money.

He was, however, African-American. Though it was one of the best years for Democrats in recent history, Mr. Williams lost badly.

This year, there’s little question who the best qualified Democrat for secretary of state would be: Wayne State University law school dean Jocelyn Benson, the party’s nominee four years ago. She is an expert on the office, wrote a book on secretaries of state, and lost by a narrower margin than any of the party’s other 2010 statewide nominees. But she isn’t about to take on Ms. Johnson.

Michigan Democrats have a new state party chairman this year, Lon Johnson, who has vowed to break with the party’s ineffective and failed practices of the past.

So far, he has scored some initial successes by recruiting strong candidates in congressional races and preventing costly and possibly divisive statewide primaries for the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate nominations. It will be interesting to see whether he can move the party away from its outmoded interest and ethnic group quotas.

Michigan had a black secretary of state for a quarter-century, and twice gave President Obama large majorities. Meanwhile, black voters in Detroit had no problems electing a white mayor last year.

You might think tokenism ought to be out of date.

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.

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