Bankole: Michigan Dems could elect first black chair

Bankole Thompson
Bankole writes: "Lavora Barnes, who served as the 2012 statewide director for Obama’s reelection, announced her candidacy last week."

The Michigan Democratic Party is standing on the threshold of having its first African-American chairperson.

 Lavora Barnes, the party's chief operating officer, is the favorite to win the chairmanship at the upcoming convention on Feb. 2 at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. Oakland County Commissioner Nancy L. Quarles, another African-American and longtime party official, is also running.

Barnes, a veteran of the Barack Obama campaign for president, where she served as the 2012 statewide director for his re-election, announced her candidacy last week. 

“I think it is important that the leadership of the party is reflective of the membership as a whole,” outgoing party chairman Brandon Dillon told me in an interview. “Lavora Barnes is arguably one of the best political people in the country. We had to work hard to keep her here.”

Dillon, who is fully backing Barnes to succeed him, came together with her in 2015 after the two were tapped to lead the party. According to Dillon, the two cut a deal after Barnes wanted to run against him.

“Essentially, it was a co-chair arrangement without the title,” Dillon said. “Lavora is always two steps above everybody else. She is the architect of all the grassroots organizing we did and she gets things done.”

Her election would resonate strongly with the party’s base, especially in light of the continued and persistent questions about the lack of political diversity inside the party. To have a black woman leading the party would mean more engagement with black voters not only in Detroit, but also in other urban cities across the state.

“For us here in Detroit, if we are successful in getting her elected, it would mean automatic attention from our standpoint,” said Eddie McDonald, a political consultant and party insider. “I think Detroit gets elevated because we can’t afford to go backward.”

McDonald said one commitment the party is working on is having a permanent Detroit office. That’s been an issue with the party, especially after former chairman Lon Johnson made it a campaign issue in 2013 when he waged a political battle that unseated longtime chairman Mark Brewer. It shocked a lot of people who took it for granted that the party actually had an official presence in Detroit, its largest base.

“Lavora Barnes is no shrinking violet, and she comes with a pretty good reputation nationally but has also been involved with the party here for a long time,” McDonald said. “If you have someone diverse, at least folks from our base communities will be able to look at somebody who likes them.”

Daniel Aldridge, a local Detroit minister and political activist, said the party’s engagement with Detroit has to go beyond electing someone who is just black.  

“It’s got to be more than black. We need someone who is going to return phone calls and take care of the community’s business,” Aldridge said. “Just being black is not enough. I think the Democratic Party needs to see Detroit as a major player. One of the biggest problems Democrats have is low voter turnout in the city.”

And the next party leader, according to Aldridge, “Will have to put more energy into getting people out to vote. Democrats have to do more between elections to address people’s needs and interests.”

He added, “There is no reason why the party couldn’t be involved with issues like water shutoffs and other social justice issues affecting many people in the city. It shouldn’t just be about elections. People are not going to vote if you don’t work to address their needs in between elections. They have to be out there fighting for people. That’s their constituency.”

Dillon maintains his confidence in Barnes, saying, “She is able to work with pretty much everybody in the Democratic Party. There is nobody who comes close to what she can offer for the party. She will take what we did in this election to another level.”

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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