Michigan Democrats promise ‘fight’ at record convention

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Detroit — An estimated 5,000 Michigan Democrats rallied Saturday at a state party convention in Detroit, an energetic – and at times chaotic – gathering of longtime members and new activists.  As they regroup for the 2018 election cycle, they vowed to fight Republican President Donald Trump.

“The history books will remember 2016. We need to make sure they remember 2017 and 2018 -- which by the way I’m on the ballot,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who is up for re-election next year.

The turnout – the largest February convention attendance in modern history, according to officials – came despite an uncontested race for state chairman, which saw Brandon Dillon of Grand Rapids win re-election without a challenger.

“What you’re seeing here is just the beginning of the fight against Trump,” said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak. “He is not the president when it comes to our values. We’re here to stand up, to fight, to organize, to carry on.”

Liberal activists inspired by Vermont U.S. Sen Bernie Sanders, a former presidential candidate and democratic socialist, looked to make their mark on the party by targeting a number of lower-tier party positions. They boasted a series of wins in caucus races and seats on the state central committee, the party’s main decision making board.

“It’s unbelievable,” Dillon said of the turnout, which included 4,126 voting delegates and additional Democrats who came to Cobo Center to observe the proceedings.

“We’re not going to be able to control this energy, but we don’t need to. We just need to make sure people know we’re standing side-by-side with them to really organize, rebuild and resist – and make sure we keep this going forward as long as we possibly can.”

Michigan for Revolution, a youth-led group that has vowed to take on the party “establishment,” scored an early convention win when lead organizer Kelly Collison was elected chair of the state party’s progressive caucus.

“We need to move the progressive caucus to the left, because that’s what progressivism is about,” said Collison, 28, a former grassroots Sanders organizer. “I’m hoping to get candidates running across the state, including and especially the rural areas that don’t get enough attention from the party right now.”

The Cobo Center gathering came three months after Michigan Democrats suffered a series of crushing losses in the 2016  election, including the president's race. Trump was the first Republican to win the state since 1988, and the GOP also maintained its majorities in the state House and Congress.

But Democrats maintain Michigan remains a “blue” state, something they hope to prove in 2018, when voters will pick a new governor, other statewide officers and decide every seat in the state Legislature and U.S. House.

“The history books will remember 2016. We need to make sure they remember 2017 and 2018 -- which by the way I’m on the ballot,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who is up for re-election next year in a race for which Republicans are hoping to recruit a top-tier candidate.

An influx of new Michigan Democratic Party members led to some confusion in caucus meetings, prompting a few minor skirmishes over rules, but traditional party leaders generally welcomed the fresh faces.

“This is a very scary time (under Trump), and it got a lot of people out of their seats” said Melissa Mays, a Flint mom who was inspired to activism two years ago because of the water contamination crisis in her home town.

“We had people in jeans and tennis shoes standing up and saying, you know what, I’m not a politician, and I don’t know politics, but I want to make a change."

Mays, a non-politician herself, won election Saturday as environmental caucus chair. She was endorsed by Michigan to Believe In, a Sanders-inspired group that worked with organized labor on a joint “progressive unity slate” of convention candidates.

Kildee amplifies statewide message

East Lansing Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, who was the first high-profile candidate to announce her 2018 campaign for governor, made the rounds at Saturday’s convention, dropping by a series of caucus meetings to discuss her plans for the state.

“We’ve got to learn from 2016 and fight for the Michigan that we deserve,” said Whitmer, a former state senate minority leader.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, also considering a run for governor, was equally visible and spoke during the main convention. His supporters wore t-shirts declaring he “fits Michigan like a glove” – a statewide slogan for a candidate who has not yet announced any plans for a statewide race.

“I won’t decide for a while,” Kildee told The Detroit News before his convention speech, where he chanted “fight back, fight back” on stage.

Former Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Executive Director Abdul El-Sayed, who resigned Monday to run for governor, was engaging potential voters at the Democratic convention.

“It is absolutely critical we win the governor’s office,” state chairman Dillon said, expressing confidence Democrats will have a “number of highly qualified” candidates to take on potential Republican nominees like Attorney General Bill Schuette or Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint speaks during the Michigan Democratic Party State Convention 2017.

“I believe we’re going to set the gable for not only the governor’s office, but the other statewide offices -- the state House, Senate and Supreme Court – by the work we do in 2017. That will really lay the foundation.”

Kildee promised to fight against Trump’s agenda in Congress, but he argued Democrats must continue to promote their own policies rather than become the “party of no.” In a speech to his own 5th Congressional District caucus, he also focused on state issues, including the Flint water crisis in his own hometown.

“We see a state government that is trying to turn the promise of public education for every child into a for-profit enterprise where people really don’t think about kids, they think about their stockholders more than anything else,” he said.

Whitmer and Kildee both said the turnout at the convention is consistent with their own experiences at “women’s march” rallies and other events since Trump took office.

“It’s exactly what we’re seeing in the campaign,” said Whitmer. “People know that we’ve got to rebuild this state, and they want to be a part of it. They’re energizing it and really encouraging it.”

Convention drama

Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of Detroit’s 13th Congressional District Democratic Party, won re-election to his post in one of the convention’s most combative elections. He held off a challenge from precinct delegate Theo Broughton, who was backed by former mayoral candidate Tom Barrow.

The race had turned negative in recent weeks, with Barrow accusing Kinloch of trying to bend the rules to allow additional voters at the convention. Kinloch responded by comparing Barrow to Trump and calling him "Detroit's own alternative facts author."

Tension spilled over in the caucus meeting, which broke into shouting early on as competing factions fought over rules before voting even began. Demetrius Heade of Detroit said he would appeal Kinloch’s election, calling him “part of the problem why ‘Overlord Cheeto’ runs the country,” a reference to the new president.

“We have a lot of work to do with Trump,” Kinloch said after his contested election. “The enemy is not in this room.”

The statewide convention was less dramatic. Democrats approved resolutions to support the Affordable Care Act, confirm a commitment to the people of Flint and express opposition to the Trump administration. Officials also championed an existing party platform that includes calls for a single-payer health care system and tuition-free college.

Dillon was the only chair candidate who submitted signatures to run by the noon deadline, and he was nominated by several prominent Sanders supporters, including new Democratic National Committee member Michelle Deatrick of Superior Township and activist Lena Thompson of Detroit.

Despite frustrations after a rough 2016 election cycle, liberal activists largely rallied around Dillon, who took over the post in July 2015. He spent months traveling Michigan after the 2016 election and pledged to focus on local parties and candidates, retrain local leaders and activists and rebuild the Democratic brand.

“We are united, embracing our strong traditions of organizing and grassroots leadership, and infusing it with a new progressive spirit, energy and passion that will carry us forward, armed and ready to fight the battles that lie ahead,” he said after his re-election.