After last month’s disastrous election, a new generation of activists, many of them backers of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, are hoping to reform and reinvigorate the Michigan Democratic Party, which has suffered defeat after defeat in recent years despite Michigan’s onetime status as a Democratic stronghold.
The activists turned out in force to the MDP meeting in Westland on Saturday, where members of the MDP’s State Central Committee elected delegates to the Democratic National Committee. The response they received, however – including a physical altercation at the event – suggests some of the hurdles they face in reforming the party’s structure of leadership.
As the MDP meeting opened in Westland City Hall, a group rallied by the Young Democrats of Michigan marched through the building’s lobby chanting “Whose party? Our party!” The activists, mostly younger, had gathered in a show of support for Detroit native Keith Ellison, a key Bernie supporter, in his bid to chair the Democratic National Committee – succeeding Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who stepped down this past May, under fire for tilting the DNC in favor of the Hillary Clinton campaign during the primary.
However, when the group entered the hall where the meeting was to be held, they found it occupied by the MDP’s powerful Labor Caucus, which, unbeknownst to the group, was still meeting in a closed-door session before the general meeting.
Labor delegates confronted the first members of the group to enter the hall, shoving Sam Pernick, chair of the Young Democrats of Michigan, a dozen feet back to the door.”You guys are coming into a private meeting!” someone yelled, as other activists tried to shield Pernick, responding “We have every right to be here!” After a struggle, the demonstrators were forced back into the lobby, where they broke into chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” (Video by Curtis Greene here.)
In many ways, the scuffle was a fitting analogy for the condition of the Michigan Democratic Party itself. Long dominated by the state’s powerful labor unions, and the United Auto Workers in particular, the party has increasingly struggled as its traditional base in labor has declined. Republican control of Lansing has brought humiliation after humiliation for Michigan’s once prosperous unions, most notably the passage of Michigan’s “right to work” (for less) law in 2011. Yet the union leadership’s continuing lock on the party has also made it difficult for new grassroots leadership to find a way in.
Factions in Evidence
Once the meeting got underway, party leaders made rhetorical efforts to bridge the gap between the old guard and the new activists. Congressman John Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress – he was first elected in 1965, in the halcyon days of LBJ’s Great Society – opened with a call to continue Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggle for jobs and freedom. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell declared that”we have got to end the factions in this party,” urging the standing-room-only crowd to unite, “kick ass, and make this state blue again.”
The activists, however, standing around the edge of the hall – many wearing Bernie Sanders T-shirts – were not all ready to forgive the leaders for their role in the 2016 debacle. “We as a party, we have been stripped to the core, and we know we have to change,” said Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence – one of the Michigan superdelegates who backed Clinton over Sanders, despite Sanders’ victory in the Michigan primary.
Lawrence acknowledged that Sanders “stood up and said things we didn’t say anymore,” which promped someone in the crowd at the back of the hall to call out, “We tried to tell you!”
DNC Delegates: Elected or Selected?
Initially, no time for public comment had been scheduled before the vote on delegates to the Democratic National Committee. A “unity slate” with the names of six candidates for the DNC delegation had been circulated through the room a half hour before the official meeting began. Most of the candidates were longtime party insiders, and reflected the influence of organized labor.
According to party rules, the six delegates have to include three men and three women. The three men chosen for the slate included Norwood Jewell, a UAW International Vice President; Daryl Newman, Secretary-Treasurer of the Michigan State AFL-CIO; and Barry Goodman, of the Goodman Acker law firm. The three women included Shauna Ryder Diggs, UM regent and daughter-in-law of longtime Detroit Congressman Charles Diggs, Jr.; Gretchen Dziadosz, executive director of the Michigan Education Association, one of the state’s two major teachers’ unions; and Michelle Deatrick, who was recently elected to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.
The inclusion of Deatrick on the slate was the old guard’s nod to the insurgent activists of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Deatrick had been a key Sanders supporter, and according to State Representative Yousef Rabhi of Ann Arbor, former DNC delegate Debbie Dingell recommended Deatrick to take her place.
That wasn’t enough to satisfy the activists, however. At their urging, the Central Committee members approved a motion to allow public comment before the vote, and then extended the comment period to allow more people to speak.
“I believe that for past generations, the Democratic Party largely was a party of the people, but for my generation, unfortunately, it’s become a party of big donors,” said Dominica Convertino, 23, a UM-Dearborn graduate and activist with the Sanders campaign. “Now is the time to open the door to progressives and to make this a party of the people once again.”
However, when the time came to vote on the delegates, all the “unity slate” candidates were elected by an overwhelming majority. Only two, Goodman and Dziadosz, faced opponents nominated from the floor, and both were elected with 123 votes, about two-thirds of the total.
The Way Forward
This is not the first time the Democratic Party has faced a generational divide.
“Back in the McGovern days,” MEA director and DNC candidate Dziadosz noted in her remarks before the vote, “I was standing right back where the folks at the back of the room are standing.” She mentioned that she cast her first primary vote in 1972 against McGovern, for insurgent candidate Shirley Chisholm.
Another instance that comes to mind is the Democratic convention of 1968, when Mayor Richard Daley set the Chicago police on young student activists.
After that debacle, as described in Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, community organizer Alinsky told the students they had a choice to make. He told them they could “find a wailing wall and feel sorry for yourselves,” or “organize, build power, and at the next convention, you be the delegates.”
The next election of delegates to the Michigan Democratic Party State Central Committee is at the party convention in Detroit’s Cobo Center on Saturday, February 11, 2017. Voting is open to all party members who attend the convention. To join the party, you can go the party website and make a contribution – if you don’t have $2,500 (!) on hand, you can write in any amount you choose.
The late Walter Reuther, longtime president of the United Auto Workers, once wrote that where internal union politics were concerned, “one should encourage enough opposition to make it interesting but not enough to make it dangerous.” It remains to be seen how dangerous the new generation of activists will make themselves, but if Saturday’s gathering is any indication, the MDP convention in February could be very interesting indeed.