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Ronna Romney McDaniel new chair of Michigan GOP

Gary Heinlein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing— National Committeewoman Ronna Romney McDaniel pledged to help elect a Republican president in 2016 as she was elected Saturday the new chair of the Michigan Republican Party.

McDaniel, the niece of former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, was considered the frontrunner going into Saturday's gathering at the Lansing Center and defeated two other candidates with 55 percent of the vote. Oakland County businessman Jeff Sakwa was elected vice chair.

The assemblage of more than 2,000 Republicans from across the state chose Romney over businessman Norm Hughes of Metamora, who held posts in the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and Kim Shmina, a nurse practitioner from Fair Haven.

McDaniel, who lives in Northville, announced her candidacy shortly after Bobby Schostak decided he wouldn't seek a third term as chairman of the state party. She compiled an impressive list of endorsements from party insiders and Republican state lawmakers.

"We need to get a Republican in the White House through Michigan in 2016," she said in her acceptance speech.

But in a separate interview, she acknowledged it will be a challenge for the state GOP to unite behind a candidate if right-leaning and mainstream factions continue to battle for control.

That infighting was evident during the weekend as three district chairs were unseated by challengers, including longtime insiders Norm Shinkle and Paul Welday.

Shinkle, a former state senator now on the Board of State Canvassers, was defeated as 8th District chair by former state Rep. Tom McMillin of Rochester Hills but remains on the state committee. Welday, an ex-Oakland County Republican Party chair, lost in the 14th District to Oakland County GOP activist Janine Kateff.

McMillin is leading a group opposing Proposal 1, a May 5 ballot proposition that's part of the road repair funding plan some lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder want voters to approve.

"We have a lot of different factions within our party. We need them to coalesce if we're going to be successful in 2016," McDaniel said. While there's a "huge appetite to take the White House back" among Republicans, she said, "that's a hard task."

Like McMillin, she personally opposes the ballot proposition her own governor is pushing.

"(But) I do appreciate that the citizens of Michigan want the roads fixed," McDaniel said. "I want the roads fixed ... so I think voters are going to have a very important choice, come May 5, and they're going to have to make a decision whether they want the roads fixed or they want lower taxes."

The statewide vote will ask taxpayers to increase the sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent in support of a plan to double the annual road repair budget, boosting it by $1.2 billion.

A potential convention resolution against Proposal 1 didn't materialize, but opposition was evident at Friday night district party caucuses. In northeast Michigan's 5th District, for example, hand-made signs urged: "Stop Prop 1; Say No Now."

Snyder didn't attend the convention because doctors ordered him to limit his mobility and keep his injured right leg elevated. He recently was hospitalized for a blood clot in the leg he injured in early January.

But the party's top leader discouraged fellow Republicans from using the convention as a platform to protest the roads plan.

He told The Detroit News Editorial Board last week that the added money, essentially doubling the annual road repair budget to catch up on a backlog of crumbling roads, "isn't a partisan issue, this is a public safety issue. And for people that don't like that fact, their memory is probably fairly short, and we'll see how they feel in the spring when they're out on the roads and potentially hitting a pothole and being at risk because they're going to blow a tire or bend a rim," Snyder said.

Another issue circulating at the convention was an anonymous push toward a closed process to award Michigan delegates to presidential candidates through party caucuses, an effort two key party insiders say was organized by backers of potential presidential candidate Rand Paul.

Unlike a statewide primary vote, caucuses usually are held among members within party districts on a given night and then tallied statewide. Rand Paul's father, Ron Paul, effectively used closed caucuses in Iowa and other states to build support for his candidacy in 2012.

Fliers circulated Friday night contended Michigan's current open primary assists "Democrats trying to steal our primary elections like what happened in Mississippi and across Michigan for the past few election cycles."

But GOP strategist Greg McNeilly predicted the change, which would take a two-thirds majority vote of the newly elected 98-member state committee, won't happen because members chosen in Friday night district caucuses constitute little change in party philosophy.

Despite some tea party victories "at least 65 percent of them are normal (Republicans)," McNeilly said. "For all the ballyhoo, there's not going to be a caucus for Rand Paul."

The Legislature's GOP majority last week passed legislation setting March 8 as the date for the 2016 presidential primary in Michigan and Snyder immediately signed it into law. That followed through on a September 2014 Republican State Committee decision calling for a March primary election.

But McNeilly, former party chairman Saul Anuzis and many other GOP members would like to use a closed primary rather than the current open primary process to decide Michigan's party presidential choices in the future. The process they favor would require voters to register as Republicans or Democrats in order to vote in primaries.

"We're all for a closed primary, but you need time," Anuzis said. "Do it now for the election in 2020."

Henry Hatter, president of the Clio Board of Education and a former district chairman, said he, too favors that process.

"It allows a party to choose their candidate without interference. You get a true feel for what the philosophy of that party is," Hatter said, while open primaries in which voters don't have declare a party affiliation, "allow people who are lukewarm about politics to come to the polls and choose a candidate."

"And we don't want that," said Flint delegate Lucullus Penton, a retired county administrator who also favors a closed primary process.

Saturday's election of Darwin Jiles Jr. as state GOP's new ethnic vice chair created a stir. The 29-year-old was involved in a February 2014 Auburn Hills police incident in which an acquaintance was shot in the leg. Jiles eventually had a more serious charge reduced to a misdemeanor and was placed on probation.

Genesee County Circuit Court records also confirm media reports that Jiles faced serious charges in 2001 — two counts of assault with intent to murder, carrying a concealed weapon and felony firearms. But he eventually was treated as a juvenile in a plea bargain in which he spent time in counseling and at the state training school, court records show.

Party insider and blogger Dennis Lennox blasted the election of Jiles as "an epic embarrassment for a party struggling to deal with unsavory characters and a huge distraction for incoming leadership."

Jiles emerged as a candidate at the tea party's Michigan Grassroots PowWow last month in Mount Pleasant, where he was endorsed by the party's controversial national committeeman, Dave Agema of Grand Rapids, and former U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio of Milford.

In his acceptance speech, Jiles said he looks forward "to bringing the vote out for Republicans in the inner cities like never before." He wasn't available to the media afterward.

But state GOP spokesman Darren Littell said there was nothing in the rules to block Jiles, a former Flint community activist, from running for the position. Jiles defeated incumbent Linda Lee Tarver of Lansing.