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Commentary: The close race for Democratic Chair


What looks like one of the tightest and toughest elections in recent years is happening tomorrow, and most of us can’t even vote. The battle is for leadership of the Michigan Democratic Party, and it will be settled at their state convention in Detroit. Major battles over who should be the next state chair are fairly rare these days, and when they happen, it’s mostly for ideological reasons.

Republican Chair Bobby Schostak is being challenged by attorney Todd Courser, who says Schostak isn’t conservative enough, but Schostak is expected to win fairly easily.

The Democratic contest is entirely different. It is about competence, not ideology. Most party chairs last about four years. They are supposed to raise money, recruit good candidates, and needle the opposition. If you do the job well, you usually burn out pretty quickly.

Mark Brewer, however, has been state Democratic chair for 18 years, longer than anyone else in the country. He has lasted so long primarily because he has been supported by the big private sector unions, the UAW and the Teamsters.

But they now think it’s time for a change. So does the entire congressional delegation and former Governor Jim Blanchard. But Brewer still has the teachers and some other union support, and is fighting desperately to hang on.

Those who want to oust him are backing Lon Johnson, a downriver native who lives in Kalkaska these days, where last fall he lost an election for a seat in the state house. His supporters feel the party needs fresh energy. At 41, Johnson is 16 years younger than Brewer.

There’s also a widespread feeling that Brewer has failed to recruit strong candidates. Others grumble that Brewer has wasted millions on harebrained schemes like a wide-ranging 2008 constitutional amendment, a boondoggle the courts threw off the ballot for being too broad. 

Given all this, it seems hard to imagine that Brewer can survive, and harder to imagine that he’d want to. Who’d want to be state party chair when everyone in the congressional delegation is against you?

The answer seems to be that Brewer has no other life. While he went to Harvard and Stanford law school, this is the job he’s always wanted. Though he lives in Macomb County, he’ll drive to Escanaba at the drop of a hat to meet with a handful of party loyalists. The question may be how many of those people will drive to Detroit to vote for him.

There are also some Democrats who believe Brewer is a liability, but wonder whether Johnson is the right man for the job. He hasn’t lived in Michigan much in recent years, and Brewer is trying to make a big deal out of the fact that Johnson has often not voted in state elections.

If Johnson does win, it may be due to another factor. He is married to a woman named Julianna Smoot, a North Carolina native with considerable fund-raising skills and close ties to President Obama; for a while, she was White House social secretary. She is clearly a real plus for the challenger. My guess is that he may have a slight edge. But for once, we have a race that is really too close to call.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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