Photo credit: LON JOHNSON, the favorite to become chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party who is touting himself as a change agent, sat down on Monday with Bankole Thompson, editor of the Michigan Chronicle, for an exclusive interview ahead of the party’s convention this weekend at Cobo Hall. The party faithful, election and political observers are expected at the high energy convention because of the battle being waged for the soul of the party between Johnson and current chairman Mark Brewer.)
Lon Johnson, a political operative with national and local election experience working in the campaigns of former Vice President Al Gore, Senator Debbie Stabenow and Congressman John Dingell lives and bleeds in the world of politics.
His wife, Julianna Smoot, is a former top fundraiser for President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, initially raising $880 million in 2008 and a similar amount in the last election. Johnson has an overwhelming desire, and an unlimited amount of energy, to change the Michigan Democratic Party as he wages a historic battle to unseat the long-standing two-decades chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, Mark Brewer.
Johnson sat down with Bankole Thompson, editor of the Michigan Chronicle, for a marathon interview on issues affecting the future of the party, including past major, damaging election losses.
During the interview he vowed to establish an office in Detroit with a goal to move the party headquarters to its largest Democratic base, while enacting reforms to expand the party’s reach with social media, an inclusive platform that truly embraces African Americans, women, Latinos and other people of color, not just three weeks before an election.
Johnson said the party should do away with the notion that qualified Black candidates can’t be elected statewide, saying that such a mindset is “politics of subtraction,” and he wants to usher in a “politics of addition” era, as exemplified by the Obama presidency.
MICHIGAN CHRONICLE: What is the state of the Michigan Democratic Party?
LON JOHNSON: We continuously make gains at presidential levels, U.S. Senate. We won the last six presidential, senate races we fought for, but those gains are not being replicated at the state House level. The last 16 years we’ve lost four straight secretary of state races, three straight attorney general races, we’ve only had a majority in the House for four years. Never in the Senate.
MC: As you travel across the state, what are you hearing?
LJ: People (our members) are asking themselves how is this happening? They are asking the party how is this happening? It’s about winning. Why are we not winning?
MC: People are wondering, if you have this number of deficits on the electoral map, shouldn’t that be a sign that it’s time for new leadership? Does it have to get to this point?
LJ: Well, I think people want a wholesale change. They recognize that what we are doing and how we are organizing ourselves, and how we are putting together our message, our team, there needs to be a change. This is not about any one institution or any one person. It’s a recognition that we are not winning and leadership starts at the top and you need to bring in the tools to get that done. And you need to start now. You cannot wait till 2014 or October 2014 to start the process. So the question is who’s best to do that? There are a number of people who say I am and there are some who say Mark is. That’s the debate we need to have. Who’s best to position our party, bring the tools, raise the money and to start now?
MC: So you like what’s going on. Is this tug of war between you and Brewer healthy?
LJ: I think it is. As long as it’s about that question it’s healthy. When it becomes about personality or institutional animosities, I think that is unhealthy. But it is absolutely critical and healthy to have a discussion among all parties as to how we win. And what is the party’s role in that process, what is the activist’s role and county parties, congressional parties, what do they need? I think that’s a very healthy process.
MC: Unlike their Republican counterparts, Democrats always complain about not having the finances to fund campaigns. How do you change that?
LJ: First of all, this is Michigan. The president won this state. He was outspent, as you saw he barely came here and this was Mitt Romney’s home state. Democrats are used to being outspent, but we have the ideas and we have the support of the people. But that being said, fundraising is important. We have an operating budget at the Michigan Democratic Party of about $9.5 million per year, $3 million per cycle. We need to double that. And the way we double that is you look at who is contributing to Michigan.
It’s between 30 and 50 million dollars going from individuals to progressive causes, candidates, committees and the like. The question is how do we engage those people to help our candidates at the state level? The way we do that is flat out work. We need to approach those donors one at a time and make our case that support causes that they believe in.
MC: If you do an inventory of the Michigan Democratic Party, what is the single biggest failure?
LJ: I don’t think there is a single biggest failure.
MC: What is the biggest shortcoming?
LJ: I think the biggest opportunity we have is the votes, the institution. We have the tools and the toolbox here to win.
How do we apply them more toward the state level stuff to win? And we haven’t been doing that. How do we transition, seize the tools and the technology we saw the president use in his campaign and bring them to Lansing and push them out to the counties, city clerks. What Barack Obama did that was magical is that he made it easy (to win elections).
MC: So you want to use the Obama model?
LJ: Yes. I’ve got a five-point plan. Change to me means five things. One, we need to restructure our executive leadership. We need both a chair and an executive director. The role of the chair should be raising money, deliver the message and find others to deliver the message. Keep the table — the constituencies representing the Democratic Party — keep them together and expand that table.
Two, we need to double the amount of money that we are raising. Three, we need to expand our outreach to minorities, women and younger voters. This is not a process we can start in June of 2014. We need to start now. And those programs need to come from the community. If they are coming from Lansing, from the MDP, they are going to fail. They need to come and be driven by the community and those plans have to be accountable. They have to have a budget, they have to be staffed, they need a timeline and we need to start right now.
Next is technology. The Obama campaign used technology in three ways that we are now applying. One, they used technology to understand who they should be talking to. Second, they used technology to test what messages do we deliver to those targeted voters because information moves so fast. And lastly, they used technology in a whole new way to deliver that message, to empower the person to put stuff on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter.
And last but not the least is recruitment. There is nothing more immediate or long-lasting that the MDP could do to recruit good candidates. I want to see a hundred new African American candidates, a hundred new Hispanic candidates, a hundred women candidates, a hundred candidates under the age of 35. Those candidates out of those hundred, 50 would win and 50 would fail. When you have new candidates, you bring them in they will engage, bring their friends, workers, their families and you bring in new people and donors. But more importantly they bring in new ideas, approaches to the challenges we face.
MC: I recall a DNC meeting in Detroit when Howard Dean was head of the party during which he urged Democrats to choose candidates that reflect the diversity of the party. How do you address the notion that minority candidates can’t win statewide for fear that they can’t get elected on the west side of the state?
LJ: We need to have our elected officers look like Michigan and have the values of Michigan. I believe in the politics of addition. Barack Obama was a personification of addition and that man won this state by nine points. So don’t tell me that there is such huge disparity in our state that can’t be addressed by having African American candidates on the ticket. That’s just wrong. That way of thinking does not add to our party. That’s the politics of subtraction. We as a party need to be about the politics of addition and Barack Obama proved that. That argument is led by people with their own self-interest in mind.
MC: Let’s talk about your political fortunes. Congressional redistricting is perhaps one of your biggest headaches. How would you tackle redistricting?
LJ: That’s part and parcel to a lot of the institutional disadvantages we as Democrats have. Whether it’s money, redistricting, term limits, but guess what? Life isn’t fair. We had 26 races in the state House level in 2012 that were won or lost by 5000 votes or fewer. And out of those 26 races, Democrats lost 21 of them. Again, the lines are hard but we’ve got to suit up and play just as hard. We can’t just roll over and blame redistricting and use that as an excuse. We’ve got to get in there, we’ve got to fight and compete, and it starts with good candidates, good technology and giving those candidates the tools and resources that they need.
We’ve got to get in district by district and fight. That line of argument doesn’t explain four statewide losses for secretary of state, three statewide losses for attorney general. It’s doesn’t explain the five-two (Supreme Court). We need to fight smarter, harder and faster.
MC: How does Detroit, which votes 90 percent Democratic, and Oakland County, which is rapidly becoming majority Democratic, play in the future life of the party?
LJ: Well, there are different centers of gravity in our state geographically and constituency-wise. We have to sit down with each of those centers of gravity and understand what they need to deliver and to engage their community. No one constituency is monolithic and the way that we address those differences is to sit down and figure out what we do have in common and operate from that base and then start to add. Politics at its core is the art of addition.
When you speak specifically of Detroit, we’ve got a community here that is overwhelmingly supporting Democrats. But that doesn’t mean we take that community for granted. To me coming in just in October with the last three, four weeks of the campaigns and only focusing on that last moment is taking the community for granted. We need the door knocks and we need the rallies. But we also need to start earlier with recruiting candidates and putting together real programs that are funded and staffed right now. We can no longer afford to wait to approach the community. That’s how we lose and that’s not how we practice politics of addition.
MC: How would you engage Detroit voters?
LJ: You have to engage the issues that concern them right now. The best way to motivate voters of any constituency is to engage them in real ways with real messages and substantive policies. If you wait till October it’s too late. We need to develop these plans now and sit down with the centers of gravity and understand what they need and what to get. I want to create an office here in Detroit for the Michigan Democratic Party.
MC: You don’t have an office in Detroit?
LJ: It’s a shame. No, we do not. That would end the day I get elected. Let’s have a discussion about the urban agenda, not just in Detroit but all of Michigan. Let’s lead the nation in the discussion. We are better to have that debate, to drive that discussion and become the thought leader in Detroit. We need to drive the nation. If not Detroit where? If not Detroit, who would take that debate? It’s up to us. We’ve got to do it.
MC: How would Organizing for Action (OFA) interface with the MDP on a state-by-state strategy?
LJ: We need to sit down with them and figure out what they are doing. The Michigan Democratic Party can’t rely on any one organization, OFA, DNC, unions or any one constituency. We have to be a stand-alone organization that can approach voters in our own rights. I love the work that OFA is doing. To the degree that we share common goals and tasks, I’m in. But we’ve got to take back the state House, we got the win secretary of state, the attorney general, we’ve got to win governor.
MC: Critics say if you become chair you will be taking over with hardly any real candidates to run for statewide office, including governor. True?
LJ: Right now it’s too early. There are plenty of leaders out there that are absolutely capable to be governor, attorney general, secretary of state. It’s the role of the Michigan Democratic Party to help inform our constituencies and those candidates of the path to victory. It’s not the role of the MDP to pick those individuals. That will be determined by all our constituencies, but it should be the role of the MDP to help inform the constituencies of the types of leaders we need to run and to win.
MC: Michigan’s aging Congressional delegation and the age range among Senator Carl Levin, Congressmen John Dingell, Sandra Levin and John Conyers Jr….it’s almost 200 years with their ages combined. That is as old as the U.S. Constitution. Futuristically, if either one of these individuals exit office, would it be challenging to find a Democratic replacement in the age of redistricting?
LJ: No. Those voters re-elect them not out of blind habit. They re-elect those leaders because they are effective and they work for Michigan. Those voters recognize in those leaders values they share. And when there comes a time when any of those leaders decide not to run again, they will still elect leaders with those same values and work ethic.
MC: How much of an influence would the UAW and other entities that have been a fabric of the Democratic Party have in a Lon Johnson administration?
LJ: Well, you can ask anybody about me. I’m independent. My allegiance is to a three letter word W-I-N.
MC: Does much of this credit go to your wife, Julianna?
LJ: (Laughs) I’m a better man because of my wife. This is not about her. She’s played no role other than what any spouse will play in this decision or in this movement to make me chair. The woman has been working straight for seven years for our president. This is literally her first week off. Her influence obviously on me is very positive, but this is about whether I or Mark Brewer can lead this party with the challenges we face going into 2014.
MC: How did you get to this point, where you talked into getting into this race?
LJ: I grew up Downriver. I graduated from high school in 1989. I went out west to college and I started working on campaigns in 1990. From that process I ran races at the local, state and federal level. Most notably I worked for Al Gore, John Dingell, Senator Stabenow. My life and career have always been working to get people a voice. During and right after the inauguration a lot of people asked if I would consider running for chair because they recognized the skills I bring. I also went to Iraq in 2005 as a civilian even though I was opposed to the invasion to work for the National Democratic Institute there.