---- — LANSING (AP) — Just 10 days after taking the reins of the Michigan Democratic Party, new chairman Lon Johnson had to add another task to a growing to-do list: find someone to replace the longest-serving senator in state history.
He does not make such a call on his own. But as Democrats search for Carl Levin’s potential successor — and someone to take on GOP Gov. Rick Snyder and other Republicans enjoying complete control of state government — Johnson is trying to help find consensus so the party can avoid primaries that could hurt its chances in November 2014.
He takes exception to the notion that Snyder is safe because no Democrats have stepped forward yet to run for governor and the party now has to focus on holding Levin’s seat.
After the 2012 election, Republicans passed a right-to-work law in the lame-duck legislative session — then came the holidays, President Barack Obama’s inauguration and state Democrats’ decision in February to replace 18-year party leader Mark Brewer with Johnson.
“There was no oxygen for any candidate to be discussed frankly,” Johnson, 41, told The Associated Press in an interview. “Now we’re in that process — same as the Senate — there are a number of people that are interested in this race.”
He said Democrats are probably further along in coalescing behind a Senate candidate because the field of potential candidates is smaller. Reps. Gary Peters of Oakland County’s Bloomfield Township and Dan Kildee of Flint along with Democratic national committeewoman Debbie Dingell — none are declared candidates — have “demonstrated ability to raise money, demonstrated ability to put together a statewide, protracted campaign,” Johnson said.
He also said the skill sets needed to run for Senate (legislative) and governor (executive) are not interchangeable. He declined to discuss specific gubernatorial contenders but stressed it is early and there is time to decide.
“We’ve got terrific, terrific people in our party that are considering this, from both elected and non-elected positions,” Johnson said.
Names being mentioned include former Rep. Mark Schauer of Battle Creek, state education board President John Austin, state Rep. Vicki Barnett of Farmington Hills and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, who lost to Snyder in 2010. It is the “non-elected” people — those who could come out of nowhere from the private or public sectors like Snyder did — who for now are unknown.
Johnson said he is not worried, citing a recent poll that showed Snyder’s job approval rating had not recovered since dropping after December passage of the right-to-work law prohibiting unionized workers from being required to pay union dues or fees.
“The numbers show that this man, this governor, can be beat,” he said. “Name a constituency that hasn’t paid a price for this governor’s inability to create consensus.”
Republicans see it differently.
“Nobody can say Michigan isn’t better off than it was four of five years ago or even three years ago,” said state GOP spokesman Matt Frendewey, adding that Snyder still has more work to do to fully turn around the state.
Frendewey said the Democrats’ bench is “extremely thin” and they are “having a hard time putting forth a credible candidate” against Snyder.
Johnson, who grew up in Rockwood south of Detroit, lives in Kalkaska in northern Michigan, where he lost a state House race last year. He has worked in Democratic politics for more than 20 years, with stops at the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Rep. John Dingell’s 2002 campaign. His wife, Julianna Smoot, is a top Democratic fundraiser who was Obama’s deputy campaign manager in 2012.
Johnson said Brewer left the party in great shape, and he is now working to set new goals, strategies, tactics, a budget and organizational structure in the next two months. Campaigns, he said, are no longer six-month affairs and are a 365-day process. He is looking to raise more money, improve communication, build up the party at the local level and double infrastructure.
He said he will avoid “fighting the last war” and trying to copy what worked for Obama because each election is different. But he will study the Obama camp’s process and thinking.
“All of us have to look in the mirror. This isn’t the fault of any one person or any one party or any one year,” Johnson said. “Our challenge is to see how we’re winning at the federal level handily year over year and those gains aren’t being replicated at the state level ... 2014 is going to be a big, big year. A lot’s at stake for Michigan.”
Email David Eggert at deggert(at)ap.org and follow him at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00