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Detroit – Michigan Democrats on Saturday promoted Chief Executive Officer Lavora Barnes and elected her to lead the state party into the 2020 cycle and against Republican President Donald Trump.

Barnes will be the first African American woman to chair the Michigan Democratic Party, which is coming off a strong 2018 cycle dominated by female candidates, including new Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and three new members of congress.

“Movements go forward, not backward,” Barnes said in a victory speech at Cobo Center in Detroit, “and this Michigan Democratic Party is only going one direction: full-steam ahead.”

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Outgoing state party Chairman Brandon Dillon did not seek re-election and instead backed Barnes, of Ann Arbor, who has worked alongside him since 2015 under a power sharing agreement brokered at that time.

Trump won Michigan in shocking fashion in 2016, but party leaders credit Barnes with helping spearhead several new initiatives that proved successful last fall. Convention delegates elected her over Greg Bowens of Grosse Pointe Park and Lisa DiRado of Northville. 

Barnes previously worked for state House Democrats, was state director for former President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and helped spearhead “last year’s historical wins for women and progressives,” said Lisa Canada, a political and legislative director for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters union. 

“Lavora has been at the center of all our major wins over the last two decades,” Canada said in a nominating speech, calling Barnes a “brilliant strategist.”

Democrats rallied around calls to take down Trump in 2020, but U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit pushed for even quicker action. The outspoken freshman reiterated her call for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings, calling Trump a “crooked CEO who hasn’t divested from his foreign or domestic investments.”

Tlaib warned against letting that stand as precedent, “because guess what, more CEOs want to run for president and basically make decisions based on the bottom line,” she said. Government “is supposed to be about people, about you and I,” not corporations and billionaires, she told Democrats.

Her comments came less than one week after Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said he may run for president as an independent. Businessman and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is also considering a run as a Democrat.

Dozens of Democrats are expected to compete for the nomination and the chance to take on Trump, including early entrants U.S.  Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kristen Gillibrand and Corey Booker as well as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.

Whitmer opened up the Michigan convention by celebrating a strong 2018 cycle for Democrats, including her win and those of Nessel, Benson, gains in the state House, state Senate and Congress.

 “Since the last time I was here, we made history,” Whitmer said to applause, urging Democrats to stay active and help flip the GOP-led state Legislature in 2020.

“I still have a Legislature I have to work with, and because of gerrymandering, it’s controlled by the other side of the aisle,” Whitmer said, attributing the GOP edge to lines drawn in 2011 that are now the subject of a federal lawsuit alleging partisan bias. “So we need the public to stay engaged.”

Whitmer, who campaigned on a pledge to “fix the damn roads,” said doing so should not be a partisan issue and told Democrats she is working to make sure residents have “a darned good life.”

“I don’t know why I’m going back to darned,” she joked. “I own damn, right?”

Whitmer visited all 83 counties during her 2018 campaign, and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist promised that they are “going to continue to meet people in Michigan everywhere they are.”

“When we stand tall together, we can enable the imagination in all of our hearts and minds to make this Michigan one where everyone has a chance to not just survive, but to thrive.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing predicted that Democrats will help defeat Trump and replace him with “a president who’s not going to hold hostage the wages of federal workers for some obnoxious political agenda,” referencing the record-long partial government shutdown Trump ended Jan. 25 by temporarily dropping his demand for border wall funding.

After winning her own re-election campaign in 2018, Stabenow touted fellow Michigan Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield, who is up for re-election in 2020.

“At a time when we’re seeing nothing but divisiveness and fear coming out to the White House, Gary is somebody who rolls up his sleeves every day and actually wants to get things done,” she said.

A recent statewide poll showed Peters begins the cycle with relatively low name recognition. Potential GOP candidates include Iraq war veteran John James of Farmington Hills, who last year lost by 6.5 percentage points to Stabenow.

Hinting at campaign themes, Peters called health care a “right” and called for Medicare expansion. He called climate change and the impact it is having “real, and not fake news.”

“I can’t wait when all of us on Election Day send one message, and that message will be to Donald Trump: You are fired,” Peters said.

Trump was the first Republican to win Michigan since 1988, and his narrow 10,714-vote margin here helped capture enough Electoral College votes to win the White House.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence predicted Michigan will play a key role again in the 2020 presidential election.

“Just like they blamed us for Donald Trump, they’re going to celebrate us in 2020, because we’re going to take back the White House,” she said.

Freshman U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Holly said Democrats were able to flip seats and win back a House majority “because we refused to believe that our current politics in Washington D.C. represent our best selves. This is not us, and we will not be represented by that vitriol and that way of speaking.”

Slotkin knocked off incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Bishop by fewer than four percentage points in what she called a heavily gerrymandered district that was designed to favor the GOP. U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills won an open seat that had been held by Republicans.

One month into her four-year term as attorney general, Nessel told Democrats she’s had several people tell her they think she’s doing a better job than her predecessor Bill Schuette, a Republican who lost to Whitmer by nine percentage points in the gubernatorial election.

“That’s great, but that bar is so low you can basically trip over it,” Nessel joked. “Basically every day I don’t set a kitten on fire, I’m a hero now.”

Nessel noted that she has withdrawn Michigan from several lawsuits Schuette had joined, including abortion and environmental cases. With Whitmer’s support, Nessel last week joined a suit seeking to protect the federal Affordable Care Act.

“Thank you Michigan Democratic Party for giving me the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream, because at long last, I have been able to sue the Trump administration,” she said.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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