Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 14, 2013

Kalkaska man makes bid for state Dem position


KALKASKA — A veteran campaigner who calls Kalkaska County home is making a bid for arguably one of the state's most powerful political positions: chairmanship of the Michigan Democratic Party.

Lon Johnson, 41, seeks to unseat Democratic Party lion Mark Brewer, chair for 18 years. The contest will play out at a Feb. 23 convention at Cobo Hall.

Johnson wants to reverse the Republican Party's domination of both the state House and Senate, along with other key positions.

Johnson experienced his own bruising race last year. After settling into his Bass Lake home full-time, he ran for state representative in the firmly Republican 103rd district.

Johnson raised $300,000 for the race, but narrowly lost to incumbent Bruce Rendon.

One campaign issue was Johnson's marriage to Julianna Smoot, deputy manager of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign. Johnson stepped lightly when asked how his wife's experience might help state Democrats if he's chosen as party chair.

"We both have 20-year careers in fundraising and executing campaigns at the highest levels, he said. "Obviously, like many Democrats I saw firsthand the tools of the Obama campaign and how effective they were at the ground level."

Johnson isn't a familiar public name, but he's well known as a highly skilled fundraiser and campaigner, efforts that included Vice President Al Gore's 2000 bid for president.

Some state politicos believe Brewer is vulnerable; Johnson garnered endorsements from U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, as well as from the entire Michigan Democratic Congressional caucus.

But Grand Traverse County's Democratic Party supports Brewer, said Lynn Larson, former chairwoman of the local group.

"Mark Brewer is the face of the Democratic Party," Larson said. "His connections and his willingness to travel to the north make the party real for us."

The Leelanau County Democratic Party chair also supports Brewer, but Cindy Robb, who's active in that group, said she'll vote for Johnson.

Doing things the "same, old way isn't working," she said.

"Federally, we are electing Democrats. But in a blue state, we can't seem to elect a Democratic legislature and the courts," she said.

Kalkaska County Democratic Party Chair Martha Moses endorsed Johnson, said Darci McConnell, who works for the campaign.

Any party member can vote, along with precinct delegates and elected officials.

Brewer said he's being blamed for Proposal 2's defeat, an effort to constitutionally protect unions. The Republican legislature hit back with a right-to-work law.

"I had nothing to do with that ballot proposal," he said.

Brewer said gerrymandering is to blame for Democratic losses. Some Senate districts are pie-shaped, while others look like a long needle.

Johnson countered that gerrymandering doesn't explain why Democrats lost four straight secretary of state races and three straight state attorneys general races, despite state voters opting for Democratic presidential candidates in six consecutive elections.

Winning the election will require modern tools to reach Democrats, not only at election time, but immediately and long-term, Johnson said.

The contest has revealed a public spat among the state's largest unions seeking party influence. The Michigan Education Association endorsed Brewer, while the United Auto Workers and Teamsters support Johnson. Steven Cook, MEA president, said the chairman job is a learned skill, yet Johnson signed up as a party member only about a year ago.

"That's a hell of a step," Cook said. "Could he be a fantastic chair? Absolutely."

Johnson works from home for a Nashville-based private equity fund. Bass Lake is a beloved vacation spot where his great, great grandparents put down roots in the 1890s. Johnson said he bought a house on the lake in 2011.

"I came back to where I wanted to live and dig in," he said.

The chairman job is Lansing-based, so he'll have to figure out his living arrangements if he wins.

"I'm taking it one step at a time," he said.