Packard Plant partial demolition begins

Rep. Dillon poised to become Democrats’ new leader

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Democratic Party is poised to elect state Rep. Brandon Dillon of Grand Rapids as its new state chairman at a Saturday meeting of 243 central committee members and delegates in Port Huron.

Dillon, a third-term state representative who can’t run again for his District 75 House seat, is the only announced candidate to replace state party Chairman Lon Johnson, who is resigning to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek in northern Michigan’s 1st Congressional District. Other candidates could be nominated at the meeting, said party spokeswoman Heather Therrien.

Dillon has emerged as the favorite to succeed him in a possible power-sharing partnership with Oakland County Deputy Clerk Lavora Barnes. She was state director of the 2012 Obama presidential campaign and is a former political director for Michigan House Democrats.

The 44-year-old Johnson is targeting Benishek because the three-term congressman has won re-election by narrow margins and is considered potentially vulnerable by national Republicans and Democrats. The district covers the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula.

Johnson, whose resignation takes effect Saturday, has been party chairman for less than 21/2 years after unseating longtime chairman Mark Brewer in 2013.

He was elevated to chairman to reverse the party’s political fortunes. But the Republicans dominated the 2014 statewide elections with the re-election of Gov. Rick Snyder, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, The GOP even increased its majorities in the state House and Senate.

Despite these results, Johnson sent an email message to Democrats Friday that said the party had been strengthened through a 50 percent increase in membership and a 226 percent increase in individual donors.

Dillon said he would resign his House seat if elected, leading to a special election for someone to complete his final two-year term through 2016. Among Democratic candidates being mentioned for it is Grand Rapids attorney and school board member David LaGrand, who ran for state Senate in 2010 and lost a competitive race to Republican Dave Hindenbrand of Lowell.

In an interview with a liberal blog writer, Dillon said he would direct fund-raising and messaging while Barnes would handle day-to-day operations if he’s chosen the new party leader. He said Garrett Arwa, executive director, would stay on.

Dillon said Democrats need to expand their base and sources of revenue because traditional support from organized labor has been curtailed. He blamed it on such measures as the right-to-work law a Republican legislative majority and Gov. Rick Snyder pushed through in December 2012.

Dillon, 43, first was elected to the House in 2010. He’s a former Kent County commissioner and ex-legislative assistant.

He is not the only new party leader. Ronna Romney McDaniel earlier this year took over chairing the Michigan GOP after Bobby Schostak stepped down.

Johnson, a Downriver Detroit native who has a home in Kalkaska and an apartment in Detroit, will be running for one of Michigan's most competitive congressional seats.

The largest-area congressional district east of the Mississippi River has a base of about 53 percent Republican voters, but Democrats have strongholds in population centers such as Marquette, Traverse City and Petoskey. Democrat Bart Stupak of Menominee held the congressional seat from 1993 to 2011.