Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 8, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Republicans rule state government

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — The last time Michigan voted Republican in a presidential election, the Berlin Wall was still up and the internet was something computer researchers used to send code.

Democrats have won every U.S. Senate race in the state — with one exception — since Richard Nixon was in the White House.

Yet when you look at state government, Republicans rule everywhere. Democrats don’t have a single statewide officeholder, outside of a few education board seats. They are outnumbered in both houses of the Legislature; in fact, you could fit every democratic state senator into a couple full-size passenger cars.

Acutely aware of the problem, Democrats went for a radical fix two months ago. They fired their longtime party chair, Mark Brewer, who went kicking and screaming… and replaced him with LBJ.

Not the original, long-dead LBJ - but one they hope will be as successful at corralling votes and strong candidates as Lyndon Johnson was at running the U.S. Senate.

Lon Barton Johnson is a 42-year-old ball of energy who looks far more like a successful young private equity banker than the son of a lathe operator in Rockwood, a downriver Detroit suburb which is about as blue-collar a factory town as you get.

But in fact he is both things - plus many more; a veteran organizer of successful campaigns from Arizona to New Jersey; a former aide to legendary Congressman John Dingell; and a staffer for the Democratic National and Senatorial Campaign Committees.

Somehow, he managed to find time to take off for conquered Iraq for six months to try and bring democracy there (“an incomplete success”) before returning home to Michigan.

Along the way, he managed to marry Julianna Smoot, a top fundraiser for President Obama who did a stint as White House social secretary, and - oh yes - run for state representative in Kalkaska.

Why Kalkaska? “Well, my grandfather had a home there,” said Johnson, who now lives mainly in suburban Royal Oak. Johnson gave the race his all last year; raised $347,000, fell short.

Which may have been an enormous blessing. For years, Democrats had been growing disgruntled with Mark Brewer, their state party chair for nearly two decades.

Brewer, many grumbled, was more interested in controlling the machinery and nominating candidates loyal to him than winning elections; he also blew millions on unsuccessful ballot proposals.

He kept his job by currying favor with the state’s unions. But they ran into disaster last year. First, a proposal to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution overwhelmingly failed. Weeks later, vindictive GOP legislators enacted right-to-work legislation. That led most of the state’s unions, and the state’s entire Democratic congressional delegation, to pull the plug on Brewer, who nevertheless didn’t withdraw till the Feb. 23 convention.

He was replaced by Lon Johnson, whose message was that he would use modern techniques to build a winning Democratic party.

“Absolutely we can do this,” he said, during an early morning interview at the start of what he said was, for him, a fairly relaxed, 70-hour work week. “It’s good to finally be home,” he said, after calculating that he has lived in at least 13 places since graduating from Arizona State University in 1994. “Not counting Iraq.”

For Johnson, winning is largely a series of formulas. Recruit good candidates, and whenever possible, avoid expensive, divisive primaries. Then, it comes down to three main things: “Messaging voters. Identifying who your voters are. And lastly, GOTV,” political slang for “Get Out the Vote,” as in, get your voters to the polls.

That, plus raising money. Three years ago, analysts agree that while Gov. Rick Snyder’s landslide was helped by support from independents, it was inflated by the fact that half a million disillusioned Democrats didn’t vote. Johnson is determined not to let that happen again.

His goals for 2014 are clear. Keep the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Carl Levin. Win, if possible, the state House of Representatives, where Republicans won a 59-51 advantage last year. Knock off Congressman Dan Benishek, R-Iron River, a Tea Party favorite who barely won re-election last time, and then move heaven and earth in an effort to defeat Snyder.

Those elections are well over a year away. But LBJ has scored some early successes: He managed to help persuade Democrats to settle on their top two nominees early. U.S. Rep. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township is their apparently unchallenged nominee for the U.S. Senate; former congressman Mark Schauer of Battle Creek will be the Democrats’ choice for governor.

Johnson has also recruited Jerry Cannon, a Vietnam veteran and popular Kalkaska County sheriff, to take on Benishek. Independent observers say Democrats are fighting a largely uphill battle in most of these races.

Peters is favored to win the U.S. Senate seat, but otherwise, the party in control of the White House tends to do badly in second-term off-year elections. Nobody expects Snyder to match his 59 percent victory of 2010, but no incumbent Michigan governor has been denied a second term since 1962.

Lon Johnson, however, rejects the conventional wisdom. “I’m a Midwestern guy,” he said. “I do the job in front of me, and let the future take care of itself.”

If Michigan Democrats do defy tradition next year, his future in the state, and perhaps nationally, ought to be assured.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.