By Chad Selweski
Wednesday, February 6,2013
The political battle for the chairmanship of the Michigan
Democratic Party took a turn on Wednesday as the 18-year incumbent
stressed his deep roots in state politics and the challenger, with
limited connections to Michigan, emphasized his ability to rely upon
high-tech methods to recruit candidates and raise millions of dollars.
challenger, Lon Johnson, told reporters that he will rely upon
Facebook, Twitter and online tactics to dramatically improve the party’s
chances in the 2014 election. Johnson, 41, launched an aggressive
Facebook campaign for the chairmanship that outlined several items in
his platform, including building “a new party executive structure.”
need effective and efficient ways of winning at the ballot box. We …
need the tools and technology to do this, and we need to start now,”
said Johnson, a Kalkaska area resident who has worked for the Democratic
Party at the national level in Washington.
In response, party
Chairman Mark Brewer continued to stress his support from grassroots
activists while declining to level criticism at Johnson. About 1,500
delegates will elect the 2013-14 chairman at the party’s Democratic
State Convention on Feb. 23 at Cobo Center in Detroit.
began his political career in Macomb County politics in the early
1980s, asserted that the Michigan party’s use of technology and voter
databases puts his administration ahead of nearly every other state.
the chairman received a smack-down on Tuesday when the UAW and the
Michigan Democratic congressional delegation, including Sens. Debbie
Stabenow and Carl Levin and Rep. Sander Levin, unveiled their support
for Johnson. The Teamsters are also reportedly in Johnson’s corner,
adding to the perception that the political shelf life for Brewer, the
longest-serving state party chairman in the nation, may be fading.
the same time, Johnson, 41, may face scrutiny in the coming days about
his lack of homegrown connections to Michigan politics. By his own
admission, Johnson was working in Washington for several years prior to
his permanent return to Michigan in summer 2004 to serve as director for
a pro-Democratic group, America Coming Together. But the Rockwood
native’s gig with the ACT, which was backed by billionaire George Soros,
ended abruptly in September 2004 when John Kerry’s presidential
campaign decided they had sewn up Michigan and sent the state’s ACT
staff to other battleground locations.
For the past seven years,
Johnson has been employed by the Nashville-based venture capital firm
TVV – apparently working from his home – while also waging an
unsuccessful 2012 campaign for state House in northern Michigan.
that race against a favored Republican incumbent, Johnson raised
$335,000 – an eye-popping figure for a state House campaign in a
still-struggling Michigan economy. According to the campaign finance
reports that Johnson filed with the state, the majority of his
contributions came from outside the 103rd House District and outside of
His 2012 finance figures show that he received hundreds
of donations from across the nation, from Alaska and Hawaii to Florida
and Massachusetts. Overall, he benefited from campaign cash that flowed
in from 23 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
Only one contribution came from the place that he now calls his hometown, Kalkaska.
Johnson took advantage of his connections established when he was part
of Al Gore’s presidential campaign and subsequent political action
committee. In addition, he worked at the Democratic National Committee
for about 16 months in 2000-01 and at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign
Committee for one year in 2003-04.
Many political observers
assume that Johnson has benefited from his wife’s status – Julianna
Smoot served in key positions in President Obama’s 2008 and 2012
campaigns and she also demonstrated uncanny fundraising abilities for
numerous Democratic senators.
But Johnson said his promises for a more prosperous state party have nothing to do with Smoot.
“This is not about my wife coming in to raise money for the Michigan Democratic Party,” he said.
said he intends to put in place a “professional, permanent staff” at
the party offices in Lansing, including the creation of an executive
director post, so that day-to-day operations for the nearly two years
leading up to the 2014 elections are spent focused on organization and
broadening the party’s base.
He also wants to double the chairman’s salary from its current $70,000 level.
Johnson’s biggest advantage, as reflected in the endorsement letter
from the congressmen and senators, is the poor track record under Brewer
at the state election level.
Over the past 16 years, the party
has: four consecutive losses for attorney general and secretary of
state; just four years of Democratic control of the House; and an
overwhelming edge for the GOP in the Senate.
“Just because someone
has been in a post for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean they are
prepared to go forward,” Johnson said in his conference call with the
media. “This … is all about winning.”
In the Senate, where the GOP
holds a veto-proof supermajority of 26-12, beleaguered Senate
Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing may play a prominent
role in deciding which side wins this internal fight. But she has
remained quiet and her spokesman, Robert McCann, said Whitmer is
“She has a strong relationship with Mark Brewer
and I’m not sure what her relationship is with Lon Johnson, I … am not
sure if they have ever met,” McCann said. “But she’s certainly aware of
what Lon Johnson brings to the table.”