Democrats face liberal revolt at Michigan convention

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — They’re fed up with the establishment, they believe a key election was rigged and they’re plotting to reshape their party from the grassroots up.

No, they’re not tea party Republicans. They’re liberal Democrats, and they’re planning a show of force Saturday at the Michigan Democratic Party’s state convention in Detroit, where activists and elites alike will try to chart a new course for a party reeling from electoral losses.

Two separate groups inspired by Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 2016 presidential candidate and self-described democratic socialist, have spent months organizing ahead of the convention, where Democrats will elect officials to congressional district and statewide party posts.

One youth-powered group, Michigan for Revolution, is working to bus in Democrats from around the state in hopes of electing a slate of candidates to caucus positions and the central committee, the party’s main leadership and decision-making board.

“The Democratic Party doesn’t really listen to anyone but the establishment, and I think that’s the biggest problem,” said organizer Kelly Collison, 28, of Bath. “They don’t pay attention to the rural areas. They think they’ve already won over people of color because they’re Democrats.”

Sanders, who focused on closing income and wealth gaps in his bid for the White House, scored a surprise win in Michigan’s primary but ultimately lost the Democratic nomination to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Collison and other Sanders supporters argue hacked emails released by WikiLeaks prove the Democratic National Committee inappropriately aided Clinton.

President Donald Trump went on to defeat Clinton in the general election, becoming the first Republican to win Michigan since 1988. “Progressive” Democrats, as they prefer to be called, blame that loss and others on out-of-touch establishment leadership.

“Right now it’s a party that’s dominated by elite stakeholders and donors, and that’s not the way it should be,” said Michigan for Revolution organizer Sam Pernick, 24, of Huntington Woods.

Pernick and other young activists stormed a closed-door party meeting late last year in Westland, and he ended up pressing charges against a longtime Democrat and labor leader for alleged assault. He moved to drop those charges last week and said his group is not planning any similar demonstrations this weekend.

“What we have asked is that elections be conducted in a fair and democratic way that’s inclusive of all groups that want to participate,” Pernick said.

A second group, Michigan to Believe In, is forming alliances with traditional party leaders. It has helped register Democrats in time to vote at the convention and is preparing its own list of recommended convention candidates, including Flint water activist Melissa Mays, who is aiming for a seat on the party’s environmental caucus.

“I think it’s pretty clear the Democratic Party on all levels needs to take a hard look at what it’s doing and rethink its strategy and platform,” said Michelle Deatrick of Superior Township, a former Sanders campaign organizer recently elected as a Washtenaw County commissioner.

“We need to be connecting and reaching out to people and listening to voters year-round, not just a month before elections,” she said.

Dillon a lock for re-election

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon is unlikely to face a serious challenge for re-election. This is happening even though Republicans retained their majority in the state House, shocking observers who predicted Democratic gains, and unexpectedly won a handful of education posts long coveted by party leaders.

“At this point we don’t have anyone” to run against him, Collison said. “It’s not the most glamorous job, and I know Brandon has had a tough time as it is. He took over a failing party when he came in.”

As of Tuesday, Dillon remained the only announced candidate in the race. While party rules would still allow a challenger to declare ahead of Saturday’s convention at Cobo Center, he or she would be at a huge organizational disadvantage.

“I’ve been campaigning as if I have an opponent and been really talking about what I think is the way to move the party forward,” Dillon said.

The Grand Rapids Democrat took over the post in July 2015 after his predecessor, Lon Johnson, stepped down to run for an open U.S. House in Michigan’s 1st Congressional District, a race Johnson lost to political novice and now-U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet.

Trump’s unexpected win in Michigan proved a boon for other Republicans. The party maintained its 9-5 advantage in the U.S. House and even flipped traditionally Democratic local offices in Macomb County.

“Shortly after the election we started putting a plan together to reform what we do within the party, to rebuild power from the grassroots up and increasingly to activate people to resist the really incredible things that are going on with the Trump administration,” Dillon said.

Pernick has been rumored as a possible challenger to Dillon, but he denied any interest in running.

“I think he walked into a tough situation,” Pernick said, noting Dillon has served only a partial term as chair.

Dillon has attempted to embrace the grassroots insurgency, which recalls the Republican tea party movement that began eight years ago in opposition to Democratic President Barack Obama.

“The tea party was certainly successful in some of their efforts, but the comparisons stop I think at the level of energy and activism,” he said. “The (progressive) policy positions are in the mainstream of where Democrats have been for a long time. I think they’re just focused more on being bolder, stronger and giving people a reason to believe the Democratic Party can actually fight back and win.”

Other “establishment” Democrats have also extended olive branches to former Sanders supporters. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell of Dearborn, for instance, declined to seek re-election to the Democratic National Committee in December.

“I don’t think she stepped down specifically for me, but she stepped down specifically so a progressive could get a spot,” said Deatrick, who was elected to the DNC post.

Michigan AFL-CIO leader Ron Bieber said the new wave of liberal activists have a lot in common with the labor movement, which has long advocated for fair pay and workers’ rights.

“I’m a progressive,” Bieber said. “I’m with them on their issues. It was a matter of difference in candidates, and we can get past that.”

Looking to 2018

Despite Trump’s win, Democrats argue Michigan cannot yet be considered a “red” state. They remain optimistic they can regain at least some power in the 2018 elections.

Trump’s pledge to fight for blue-collar workers was nonsense, said David Hecker, Michigan president of the American Federation of Teachers, arguing Democrats must continue to focus on fighting for economic equality.

“It’s the Democrats who have always stood for that,” he said. “Trump talked about it because he knew it was a way to get votes.”

Deatrick, who has endorsed Dillon for re-election, questioned the Clinton campaign’s tactics and said she thinks poor performance at the top of the ticket dragged down other Democratic candidates in Michigan.

“They made a lot of big mistakes, and there was a lot of frustration here in Michigan from state party leadership on down about how the campaign was run,” she said.

Motivated by Trump

Party leaders say Trump’s election and early presidential actions have energized the grassroots in ways they haven’t seen in years. They point to massive women’s marches across the country and protests over the president’s executive order limiting immigration and refugee immigration.

“The Trump administration is doing everything it can to unite Democrats” Dillon said.

“I’ve never seen this type of energy and enthusiasm in an off-year,” Bieber said, “and that represents a huge opportunity, but also new organizing challenges. How do we bring all these new folks into the fold?”

Every seat in Michigan’s state House and Senate will be up for grabs next year, in addition to the governor’s office and the state’s 14 congressional seats. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, will also defend her post.

“I think 2018 is likely to be not only a referendum on the Trump administration, but on eight years of total Republican dominance in state government,” Dillon said.