Now Comes The Hard Part For Lon Johnson, New Democratic Chairman

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The race for the Michigan Democratic chairmanship looked as though it was going to be an old-time convention fight, the sort of multi-ballot slog going deep into the night savored by political nerds everywhere. Instead, the 2013 Michigan Democratic convention Saturday recalled another technique of throwback politics—the smoke-filled room.

Following feel-good montages from the state legislative caucuses, 57-year-old longtime party chair Mark Brewer unexpectedly withdrew from the race. Delegates then elected Lon Johnson, 41, by acclamation.

“I was surprised,” former Gov. Jim Blanchard said at the media table right after Brewer’s surprise. “But I wasn’t shocked.”

Cobo Center’s basement ballroom had held an overflow crowd as the formal convention began at 3 p.m., but was half-empty by the time Johnson took the stage to accept. The crowd quickly cleared out as what was supposed to be a fight turned into a fait accompli.

Now comes the hard part.

Brewer’s Democratic Party was tremendously successful in top-of-the ticket races. During his 18-year tenure, Democrats kept Michigan blue in all five presidential races, Democratic Senate candidates went six-for-six, and Democrats were two-for-four in gubernatorial contests.

Further down the ballot, however, Democrats fared poorly. The last time the Republican lost a secretary of state or attorney general’s race was 1998—when Jennifer Granholm succeeded longtime Democratic AG Frank Kelly. They’ve also struggled to win legislative majorities. Republicans now control both Lansing chambers. The Democrats' last state Senate majority was in the early 1980s.

Fresh energy and ideas

Johnson promises a more modern party that’s better able to compete up and down the ticket. That may diminish organized labor’s influence. Brewer had been a labor stalwart, while Johnson intends to expand the Democratic base through what he calls the “politics of addition.”

“Together we win when we build a party that more than the sum of our parts,” Johnson told the convention. “Our institutional partners have done great things. They’ve changed the world. But now we much recognize the power of the individual and how those individuals can work together with our great allies to go make a great change.”

But Johnson also owes a debt to the United Auto Workers. The union’s support was critical to his victory. At the convention, he sidestepped questions about whether he’s beholden to the UAW and its president Bob King.

“I will work with every single constituency and every single institution that makes up our great party because what we all share in common is a desire to win,” Johnson said when asked what he would do if he and King disagree.

If nothing else, voters can expect a more tech-savvy Democratic Party under their new chair. During his victory speech, he asked delegates to hold up their phones and take a picture of the convention hall. It was, he said, a symbol that the party’s organizing efforts must extend online.

#thisismichigan tweets go forth

“We need to show this state this is who we are and we’re ready to fight,” Johnson told the crowd before asking them to tweet their photos using the hashtag #thisismichigan. “When Lansing looks like this room and acts like this room, we will be Michigan again.”

The question now is whether that will translate into improved candidate recruiting and fundraising looking ahead to 2014. If just one thing was made absolutely clear Saturday, it’s that Democratic activists relish a chance to unseat Gov. Rick Snyder next year.

Johnson also indicates that a stronger effort in legislative races might replace the party’s recent—and largely unsuccessful—efforts to bypass Lansing and make policy at the ballot box. That strategy seemed particularly futile last fall when, following the defeat of a pro-collective bargaining ballot measure, Snyder and the Republican-controlled legislature passed right-to-work legislation during their lame duck session.

“We’ve had such a small presence in the Michigan legislature,” he said. “We’ve got to focus on these legislators and take those seats back. That will mean less the pressure for those initiative efforts.”

Johnson is a venture capital executive who lives in Kalkaska. He is married to Julianna Smoot, who was a deputy campaign director for President Obama.

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