Michigan Democrats Fired Up, Still Divided

The hour-long convention registration line snaked around the Cobo lobby.

More than 4,000 people crowded Cobo Center in downtown Detroit on Saturday, February 11, as the Michigan Democratic Party held its first state convention of the Trump era.

The convention officially opened at 9 am, but by a few minutes past 8, a long line of idling cars had already accumulated outside, waiting to pull into the center’s parking facilities. Once inside, many party members waited in line more than an hour to register.

A feeling of urgency dominated the proceedings. Until last November, Michigan, once a stronghold of labor Democrats, had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Trump’s narrow victory capped a decade of growing Republican dominance in Michigan’s state government, as well as the widening social and economic divides evident in the mass closures of Detroit schools and the poisoning of Flint, both under state-imposed “emergency management” that stripped power from local elected officials in those majority African-American cities.

As the bold stickers distributed by Flint Congressman (and likely 2018 candidate for Governor) Dan Kildee suggested, many Michigan Democrats are ready to “FIGHT BACK.” The party’s dire straits have also energized a range of activists, many  supporters of Bernie Sanders, trying to take on what they see as the Democratic “establishment.” The convention represented their first major bid for a voice in the party organization.

Enter the “Bird People”

A member sporting a Michigan for Revolution bird patch holds her ballot aloft in the Progressive Caucus.

The largest activist faction was affiliated with the group “Michigan for Revolution,” referred to by some convention-goers as the “bird people” for their bird logo, which echoed Bernie Sanders’ famous encounter with a house finch during the 2016 campaign.

At the convention, those activists made some substantial inroads, most notably a successful bid to win the chair’s seat in the Progressive Caucus.

In many respects, the outcome of that contest reflected a generational transition. Incumbent Progressive Caucus chair Bob Alexander, 72, lost his re-election bid to Kelly Collison, 28, a leader of Michigan for Revolution. Both Alexander and Collison hail from the East Lansing area, and both were strong supporters of Sanders in the 2016 primary.

Collison faced skepticism from some party members. “Did you vote third party for President?” one delegate in the caucus room yelled to Collison after her campaign speech. (She responded that no, she did not.) Amusingly, when Alexander was Collison’s age, he was in fact a third-party activist, cutting his teeth as an organizer with the Human Rights Party, which won a large following on Michigan university campuses in the early 1970s.

Collison, a former pharmacy technician who quit her job of seven years last year to campaign for a Sanders-endorsed candidate in the Traverse City area, won election as chair with a flourish of colored ballots from cheering supporters in the packed caucus room. Since party rules require alternation of genders in caucus leadership (a female Chair and male Vice-Chair or vice versa), Alexander then ran for Vice-Chair – and won, giving the Progressive Caucus an inter-generational leadership structure.

In the afternoon caucuses, the Michigan for Revolution group also won dozens of State Central Committee delegate and alternate seats across the various congressional district organizations. That’s far from a majority, but the wins ensured that the insurgent activists will have a voice in party affairs going forward.

Unite and Fight?

Congressman John Conyers dances his way off the convention stage.

Some longtime party members have been unnerved by Michigan for Revolution and its members’ criticism of the party’s status quo. In a pre-convention post on his widely-read site Eclectablog, state Central Committee member and former Washtenaw County Democratic Party chair Chris Savage attacked Michigan for Revolution leader Sam Pernick for what Savage called his “tantrums” and “petulant displays of hostility.”

Instead of personal attacks and mutual recriminations, however, perhaps a rapprochement can be found between the Sanders partisans and party veterans.

Despite its faults, after all – and Michigan superdelegates’ support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race – the Michigan Democratic Party is not, for the most part, a reactionary force. In contrast to the national party, its most influential constituency is not corporate donors but labor unions. Indeed, as discussed during the convention’s final session, the MDP platform is among the most progressive of any state Democratic Party, including such key Sanders demands as a single-payer health care system and tuition-free college. MDP Chair Brandon Dillon and a number of state party leaders have also endorsed Keith Ellison, the Detroit-born congressman and Bernie champion, for chair of the Democratic National Committee.

On the other hand, few can deny that the party seriously needs new blood and a much stronger grassroots infrastructure. Longtime labor-backed standard-bearers like Carl Levin, John Dingell and John Conyers are either entering or approaching retirement, and Democrats’ miserable performance in statewide elections over the past decade, particularly in the wake of Republican gerrymandering, has left the party without a deep bench of candidates for higher office.

“We’ve become this complacent party that just perpetually loses,” said Collison, the newly elected chair of the Progressive Caucus. She says wants to see the party start canvassing voters year-round, instead of just during election cycles. In her own Clinton County, she told Detroit Democrat, she is urging the county party to host meetings around the county, instead of only in the Lansing suburb of DeWitt. As Progressive Caucus chair, she said, she hopes to use social media to “activate the base” and “get progressive leaders into local office.”

Facing Race

Bust of Albert Cobo, Detroit mayor and segregationist.

The two major candidates for the 2018 governor’s race, Gretchen Whitmer and Dan Kildee, are respectable enough, but on this writer’s relatively youthful Facebook stream, neither have generated the same level of enthusiasm as Abdul El-Sayed, the 32-year-old Egyptian-American director of the Detroit Health Department who just announced his candidacy last week.

At the convention, El-Sayed made a powerful pitch in the Progressive Caucus, arguing for the need to defend government as a public service, not a business, for the good of all. “I’m done with this notion that we should be separated, poor black people in Detroit from poor white people all over the rest of the state,” he said, drawing applause.

The line addressed, obliquely, one of the longstanding obstacles to Democratic majorities in Michigan, and the nation: the difficulty of sustaining a durable coalition including both working-class whites and people of color. As Thomas Sugrue has documented in The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Republican politicians were using racial strategies to put cracks in the Democratic coalition as early as the 1940s, when Albert Cobo defeated labor Democrat George Edwards in the Detroit mayoral race. Cobo, for whom Cobo Hall is named, won blue-collar whites to the Republican banner by promising to maintain racial segregation in Detroit neighborhoods.

For their part, Michigan Democrats have not always been responsive to communities of color. Indeed, several former party leaders have been complicit in the removal of democracy from impoverished, largely African American cities under so-called “emergency management” by the state. Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm imposed emergency management in Benton Harbor, Ecorse, and Pontiac, and appointed privatization advocate Robert Bobb as emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools. Andy Dillon, the former Democratic Speaker of the Michigan House, went on to serve as State Treasurer under Republican Governor Rick Snyder, and helped to craft Public Act 4, the expanded emergency manager law that gave state-imposed rulers unprecedented powers.

The fallout from these actions was also on view at Saturday’s convention, as Detroit community activist Theo Broughton challenged UAW Unity Slate candidate Jonathan Kinloch for chair of the 13th Congressional District in a caucus that, at times, approached pandemonium. Broughton and her allies accused Kinloch of complicity with emergency management, noting that he had been appointed to the board of the Detroit Public Schools by emergency manager Roy Roberts in July 2013.

Kinloch won re-election as chair, 212-143, but many Detroiters’ doubts about the party persist.

If El-Sayed is successful in his bid for governor, he would be the highest-ranking statewide Democrat of color in Michigan history. To date, Michigan’s most prominent statewide elected officials of color have been longtime Secretary of State Richard Austin (1971-95), a black Democrat from Detroit, and Lebanese-American U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham (1995-2001), a Republican.

Towards 2018

Joe Louis.

So much has already happened in the first month of the Trump presidency that it’s difficult to predict what the political landscape will look like a year from now, as the 2018 campaign season ramps up with practically all statewide offices up for grabs. Will a robust movement of resistance to Trump and the Republican agenda emerge in the coming year, as the Tea Party did under Obama’s presidency? Will it be limited to enclaves of affluent liberals, or extend beyond them to the more blue-collar communities that compose the majority of Michigan? What will happen to health care? To our schools, already suffering from the DeVos family’s machinations in Michigan?

To some extent, it matters more what happens outside the party than what happens inside it.  Yet there are things the party, and the contending forces within it, can do to advance the progressive movement and build towards wins for Democrats – and working people – in 2018.

The party establishment (including union leadership) needs to welcome Bernie supporters and grassroots activists into the fold, take uncompromising stands for progressive principles (how many people know about the state party’s position on tuition?, and dramatically increase local organizing.

There were a few promising signs on this front at the convention. The video played onscreen at the closing session prominently featured Bernie Sanders, and even a vintage photograph of the Students for a Democratic Society activists behind the Port Huron Statement, while Hillary Clinton was nowhere to be seen. Party chair Brandon Dillon, appearing with several Bernie supporters, announced plans for an 83-county organizing strategy and “weekends of action” to rebuild the Democratic base.

Meanwhile, the new generation of activists should keep organizing to expand their reach and build a bigger reform coalition, one that includes the people bearing the brunt of the state’s austerity policies. Michigan for Revolution is largely, though not entirely, composed of young, white activists. To avoid repeating the party’s past history, they should make a deliberate effort to connect with grassroots organizations in communities of color, building a united front against emergency management, the prison-industrial complex, and other threats of particular concern to those communities, as well as with progressive elements of the union movement.

Perhaps most importantly, the party should recognize that some level of dissension in the ranks is positively helpful for its growth. Or, as Thomas Jefferson famously stated: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

One can never say for sure what might have been, but speaking with a Chrysler worker from Lapeer in the convention registration line, it was hard not to wonder what could have happened if the party had remembered Jefferson’s dictum earlier.

“A lot of folks didn’t even vote” in November, he said of his fellow union members, disenchanted with the choice between Clinton and Trump. I asked whether they would have come out to support a Bernie Sanders candidacy.

“Absolutely,” he said.

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