Democrat leader faces party criticism
Lon Johnson won't face a challenger to his Michigan Democratic Party chairmanship this weekend at the party's annual state convention, but some party insiders are criticizing his leadership for the electoral beating the Democrats took last fall.
Although critics contend the charismatic chairman from Kalkaska should show contrition for a failed strategy that allowed Michigan Republicans to consolidate and expand their political power, Johnson shakes off that appraisal.
Since the GOP firmly controls every corner of state government and nine of the 14 U.S. House seats, Johnson contends Democrats need to focus more on their message to voters in 2016 and less on the mechanics of campaign organizing.
"It's kind of like Netflix — you've got to come up with new content," Johnson said in an interview with The Detroit News. "We can't keep showing the same three movies. If Netflix showed the same three movies, they'd be out of business. ... We need to demonstrate to Michigan residents how we're going to create a state where they can stay and succeed."
But some party insiders say Johnson's tech-savvy voter outreach and emphasis on bolstering absentee voting failed and that some races — including the governor's race that Democrat Mark Schauer lost by 3 percentage points — were winnable. He should have relied more on the traditional door-to-door campaigning that others argue works in urban centers, critics say.
"When General Motors has problems, it falls at the CEO's desk and the board of directors will get a new one," said Alex Albritton, a Democratic political consultant. "When UM needs a new football coach, a new athletic director, they've got problems, they go out and get one. The Michigan Democratic Party should be no different. They have huge problems with their brand and their identity."
"People seem to be more concerned with control rather than winning," Albritton added.
Still, no one has stepped forward to challenge Johnson at Saturday's convention at Cobo Center.
Johnson rose to power in 2013 after the United Auto Workers and party elders such as U.S. Rep. Sander Levin of Royal Oak decided to end the 18-year reign of chairman Mark Brewer following two straight subpar elections.
In 2010, Republicans swept to statewide power and in 2012 Democrats and organized labor were disappointed with their results in Michigan, even with President Barack Obama carrying the state on his way to a second term.
Johnson previously worked in private equity and political campaigns across the country, including former U.S. Rep. John Dingell's 2002 Democratic primary bout with Lynn Rivers.
New approach, no gains
Democratic leaders said they wanted to take the new approach Johnson was offering in diversifying the party's fundraising base beyond the coffers of labor unions as well as in recruiting independents and like-minded progressive voters. Johnson says he raised money from 20,000 new individual contributors.
But the 2014 election produced no tangible gains for Democrats. Then-Rep. Gary Peters held the Democratic U.S. Senate seat long controlled by Carl Levin, and Farmington Hills attorney Richard Bernstein won a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court to keep the Democratic justices in a 5-2 minority.
Democrats lost races for governor, attorney general and secretary of state. But their greatest losses occurred in the Legislature, where Republicans expanded their majorities.
"I don't think (Johnson) had a clue what he was getting into," said Deborah Thomas, a Democratic candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court last fall and a longtime judge in Wayne County. "It reflected that he was a novice. He had never held that position before, he had never been connected to the party."
Thomas said Johnson didn't give "enough credence" to people who understand the urban electorate. The 166,338-voter turnout in Detroit in November was 10,000 lower than the 2010 turnout that led to GOP dominance in state government.
"His plan, it did not work. Period," said Virgie Rollins, a Democratic activist from Detroit who was the late Mayor Coleman Young's strategist. "I think there should be some serious consideration for a new leader when you failed to get the vote out."
Johnson said the narrative that the party abandoned door-to-door campaign is "completely false." Democrats made 2.3 million calls to voters and knocked on 1.5 million doors, including 177,000 on Election Day, he said.
Johnson said Democratic volunteers and canvassers knocked on the doors of 503,000 African-American voters — one-third of all door visits in the 2014 election cycle — and contracted with 19 African-American vendors. The Michigan Democratic Party mailed absentee ballot applications to 365,000 black voters, generating 89,898 ballot requests, 27,440 from people who did not vote in 2010.
"We strengthened the infrastructure of our party significantly," Johnson said.
Much of the beef some Detroit Democrats appear to have with Johnson stems from his decision not to hire political activists to recruit paid canvassers for get-out-the-vote operations.
Johnson used in-house party employees to recruit 700 paid canvassers in Detroit directly.
"We had a very coordinated campaign, (and) we didn't rely on the existing political infrastructure," Johnson said.
Not all Johnson's fault
Political strategist T.J. Bucholz, a Democrat, was among several in the party to express concern last year that Schauer was not offering a clear alternative agenda to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Schauer's campaign focused on making the election a referendum on Snyder's record, and Schauer lost.
"You can't heap all of that blame on one person," Bucholz said. "Some of the stuff Lon is trying to do is a sea change for the party, which is going to take some time. This next cycle that we're in right now is going to make or break Lon Johnson. ... He has his reputation staked on quite a few initiatives."
Paul Stevenson, an attorney who co-chairs the Democratic Party's justice caucus, is hesitant to blame the election losses on Johnson because 2014 turned out to be a wave election for Republicans nationwide.
"If Michigan were an isolated case of disappointments for Democrats, it might be a different story," Stevenson said.
Johnson said he's still studying election data to try to pinpoint where Democrats' plans to oust Snyder went wrong.
"People are angry — I am as well," he said. "We have to figure out why we lost."
But some Democrats aren't satisfied with Johnson's answers.
"You can't just come in and say, 'Look, we're going to ignore people who have always done this because I believe it doesn't work,' and then put all your money in another operation, which dismally failed, and then don't want to acknowledge that you were wrong," said the Rev. Horace Sheffield of Detroit.
Education: 1989 graduate of Gibraltar-Carlson High School; Arizona State University
Background: Fundraiser for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. Managed U.S. Rep. John Dingell's 2002 re-election campaign. Worked in Iraq July 2005 to January 2006 with the National Democratic Institute. Ran unsuccessfully for state House District 103 in 2012. Vice president of TVV Capital, a Nashville, Tenn.-based private equity firm, 2003-present.