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Fighting for a Future


Here’s something you may not have thought about: Who are the Michigan Democratic party’s future leaders? The Republican landslide last fall eliminated a generation of politicians.

Today, the Democrats don’t have a single statewide officeholder, other than some judges and school and university board members.  Five of the six Democratic congressmen are elderly.

Gary Peters, the only one not eligible for Social Security, may not survive the redistricting process. In fact, the best bet for reviving  the party may rest with two charismatic women still in their thirties. Gretchen Whitmer, the senate minority leader, is  probably the party’s most likely candidate for governor next time.

The other is an even younger woman with an astonishing record of accomplishment, the only statewide Democratic candidate  who had any chance of winning last time.

Jocelyn Benson is a tenured law professor at Wayne State University, a graduate of Wellesley College, Oxford University and Harvard Law School. She has written a well-regarded book on America’s Secretaries of State, and has worked as an investigative journalist for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

What’s perhaps most astonishing about all this is that she is barely 33 years old. She also spent two years campaigning for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state. That’s harder than it seems. You can’t just take your case to the voters -- you have to persuade the party bosses who pick the candidate at the convention.

Somehow she did it. But in the fall election, neither labor or the party did much for her in the way of commercials or mailings. What money they spent went to the doomed gubernatorial campaign.

Benson ran a hundred and fifty thousand votes ahead of the ticket, but it wasn’t enough. She knows she wants to run for office again, she told me over lunch yesterday; she feels that’s the best way to make a difference in people’s lives. For now, however, she’s concentrating on two projects. First, she thinks citizens should not only know how and why congressional and legislative districts are drawn, they should take an active part in the process. So, Benson is promoting a Michigan Citizens’ Redistricting Competition, in which anyone interested will be given a set of on-line tools and shown how. A panel of experts will judge the plans, and the best will be sent to the legislature, which will be strongly urged to consider them.

Historically, the boundaries have been drawn by the politicians,  and then imposed on the people. But Benson says “the voters should choose their representatives, rather than the other way around. ”  She is also kicking off another new venture Monday, the Michigan Allies Project, designed to track and document hate crimes and sue on behalf of the victims.

She’s also become a unlikely member of another group -- military families. After her campaign, her husband decided to pursue a dream he’d had since September 11. At age 34, Ryan Friedrichs joined the army as a regular soldier, and is now in boot camp, after which he hopes to be deployed to Afghanistan.

“Ryan and I have always believed we should go where we can have the biggest impact,” Jocelyn Benson told me. It will be interesting to see where she goes -- and what she runs for -- next.

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