Michigan Democrats picking new leader, gearing up for Trump in 2020

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Democratic Party COO Lavora Barnes

Lansing — Michigan Democrats are riding high after 2018 election wins, but memories of stinging 2016 losses loom large as activists prepare to elect a new party leader to guide them through the 2020 presidential cycle.

Lavora Barnes of Ann Arbor, the state party’s chief operating officer, is the odds-on favorite to succeed Chairman Brandon Dillon, who is not seeking re-election but is backing her in the five-candidate race.

Dillon and Barnes reached a power-sharing agreement before he won election in July 2015, just weeks after Donald Trump announced his long-shot bid for president and 17 months before he would win Michigan — and the White House — over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“The lesson we learned from 2016 is that we can’t wait until we have a nominee chosen to get to work on the grassroots organizing we know we all have to do,” Barnes told The Detroit News. “And No. 2, we actually have to do that grassroots organizing.”

Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to win Michigan since 1988, and his victory forced Democrats to look in the mirror. Barnes in 2017 helped build Project 83, an effort to organize activists in all of the state’s 83 counties, and last year she  masterminded the “One Campaign for Michigan” coordinated effort.

Michigan Democrats swept the top of the ticket in 2018, and party officials have rewarded Barnes with support. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who was elected by 9 percentage points last fall, is backing her bid for chair and was joined this week by Michigan’s entire Democratic congressional delegation.

But Barnes is facing challenges — and opposition — from other Democrats contending for the party chairmanship, including Greg Bowens of Grosse Pointe Park, Lisa DiRado of Northville and MD Alam of Detroit.

Echoing claims of party favoritism by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary, her opponents claim that Barnes’ position gives her an inherent advantage in the race. They’ve blasted the party for rules that prohibit Democrats from voting in the convention election unless they registered as members at least 30 days before the vote.

The Michigan Democratic Party published registration instructions online just two days before the deadline, said Bowens, who helped lead a protest at party headquarters on Jan. 22.

Democratic activist and public relations professional Greg Bowens is running for Michigan Democratic Party chair.

“We push real hard to make it easier for folks to vote in general elections…, but then when it comes time to make decisions inside the Democratic Party, we’re not as amenable to that,” Bowens said. "I'm pushing to open the doors. To make it more inclusive. To get more people involved in the party."

As a party official, Barnes has access to membership lists that allow her to send targeted texts to voting activists, he added. The party said Barnes paid for list access, an option available to any candidate.

“I guess it’s the power of incumbency even though she’s not the chair. For all of us, it’s a David versus Goliath thing, because she has access and she’s been coalescing support since way back in the summer.”  

Bowens is a well-known party activist and public relations professional. He helped lead the successful push to a overturn a controversial state emergency manager law in 2012 and said he thinks the party needs “a fighter, not an administrator” heading into the 2020 presidential election season.

The “blue wave” of 2018 “is in many respects a false narrative,” Bowens said. “More people voted for weed than governor.”

DiRado, 56, has spent years working both within and outside the party as president of the Northville Democratic Club, a co-founding member of Northville Indivisible and second vice chair of the 11th Congressional District Democrats.

Lisa Dirado is president of the Northville Democratic Club. She is running for Michigan Democratic Party chair.

She said she wants to focus on party building and empowering local leaders, even in “red” and rural areas where Republicans have won in recent years.

“Sometimes when I go into these areas, I’m like a rock star because nobody’s visited them in so long, and I love it,” she said. “They’re doing grassroots politics. It’s really beautiful.”

The Project 83 effort that Barnes helped organize “is a terrific start, but from my perspective as a local leader, it was very top down,” said DiRado, who works as a hazardous material chemist for Wayne County. “What we wanted to do was personalize it for what I know works in Northville, but that wasn’t an option.”

Alam, a former U.S. Army sergeant who has worked on or around several Democratic campaigns, is pitching an ambitious plan to create nine party caucuses in each county with seven caucus leaders, producing an army of more than 5,000 activists to mobilize on social media or at events.

MD Alam, pictured from his days in the U.S. Army, is running for Michigan Democratic Party chair.

“We have to give them ownership, empowerment and give them the felling their included, very much like Bernie Sanders did with Our Revolution,” said Alam, who lost primary bids for Missouri secretary of state in 2016 and the Michigan House in 2018.

If the Michigan Democratic Party fails to win over “Bernie Democrats” again in 2020, “Trump will win again,” he predicted.

Barnes downplayed any lingering animosity between factions that warred over the presidential nomination in 2016.

“This idea that we are a divided party I think is sort of overblown,” she said. “When you get in the room with folks, we all realize our goal is to win.”

Barnes pledged that the party will remain “completely neutral” in the 2020 presidential primary, which she’s heard could include as many as 31 candidates, “but once that nominee is chosen, we’re going to already be in the field on the ground working, not waiting for someone to come.”

As for opponents who have criticized convention voter registration rules, Barnes said she appreciates their desire to have more people active and involved the party.

“I think we can have discussions about rules changes," she said, "but we certainly aren’t going to change the rules in the middle of the race.”

Patrick Biange

Patrick Biange of St. Clair Shores said he has inadvertently been left out of candidate forums but remains an active candidate heading into the convention election. He is pushing what he calls a "thermo-dynamics economics" platform focused around sustainable energy, agriculture, transportation and manufacturing infrastructure. 

"Our goal is to encourage continuous equality and create a strong economy with fair wages that supports sustainable and meaningful platforms in accordance to 21st century technology," he said in an email. 

While Barnes enters the convention as the heavy favorite, even supporters acknowledge establishment endorsements don’t hold the sway they once did. Attorney General Dana Nessel turned the conventional wisdom on its head last spring when she won a party endorsement vote over Pat Miles, who had been backed by the powerful United Auto Workers union.

“After that endorsement convention we just experienced, there’s no such thing as running away with an election,” said 13th Congressional District Chairman Jonathan Kinloch, who is backing Barnes and running for vice chair. “You take nothing for granted. You count your votes until that gavel goes down.”

Under new party bylaws meant to encourage diversity, the state party chair and vice chair cannot be of the same gender.


Democratic Party chair candidates

  • Lavora Barnes, 53, Ann Arbor. chief operating officer of the Michigan Democratic Party since 2015. Former Deputy Clerk, Register of Deeds in Oakland County.
  • Lisa DiRado, 56, Northville. president of the Northville Democratic Club. Hazardous material chemist for Wayne County.
  • Patrick Biange, 52, St. Clair Shores. Educational consultant. Former U.S. Army officer.
  • Greg Bowens, 54, Grosse Pointe Park. Political and media consultant.
  • MD Alam, 47, Detroit. Former U.S. Army sergeant. Founder of MichiganDems.org  

Source: Candidate biographies and statements