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Can a young high achiever change the Democratic party?

Oct 18, 2017

Jocelyn Benson announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state yesterday. She has actually been running for the job for many months, though not as long as Bill Schuette has been running for governor; he is, after all, almost a quarter century older.

Jocelyn Benson
Credit Southern Poverty Law Center

These days, making a formal announcement that you are running for office is actually something you do well into your campaign. This is something, by the way, that has dramatically changed about Michigan politics over the last few years; early, high-spending campaigns in both parties to get the nominations for secretary of state and attorney general, two positions that aren’t filled by primary voters, but by what we used to call party hacks at state conventions.

Benson’s candidacy is interesting for a number of reasons, one of which is that there probably has never been anyone who has prepared as long or as hard for this job. She published a well-received book called Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process seven years ago, the first time she ran. She lost then; but so did every other Michigan Democratic candidate for statewide office that year, and she ran well ahead of the ticket.

Another interesting thing about Benson is that her biography is so stunning that it would be unbelievable in a fictional character. Wellesley; Oxford; Harvard Law School. She worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center as an investigative journalist; for National Public Radio, and was Dean of Wayne State University Law School when she was 35. She ended up in Michigan when she came to Detroit to be law clerk to a legendary black federal judge.

She ran the Boston Marathon when eight months pregnant and started a group called Military Spouses of Michigan after her 30-something husband went to fight in Afghanistan.

Last year, Benson stepped down as law dean and has become CEO of something called the Ross Initiative on Sports for Equality, or RISE. If I were directing a show like Veep or West Wing and a writer brought me this character, I would send the script back with instructions to make her more believable. But Benson, who turns 40 on Sunday, has in fact done all this.

She may be the most ambitious person I’ve ever met, and I find nothing wrong with that. She’s especially intriguing, when you look at the national, and to some extent, Michigan Democratic parties, which in demographic terms, largely look like assisted living facilities.

This is no longer a party of the young and the brash.

Nancy Pelosi is 77; Joe Biden 75, Bernie Sanders 76. Elizabeth Warren, perhaps their next presidential nominee, will be a mere lass of 71 three years from now.

Here in Michigan, their congressional delegation is led by 88-year-old John Conyers and 86-year-old Sander Levin. This is no longer a party of the young and the brash.

Democrats, by the way, held the Secretary of State’s office for 40 years, lost it 23 years ago, when the incumbent exhibited signs of senility during a televised debate, and have seldom seriously competed for it since. This is probably the one statewide race they are best positioned to win next year; so far, the only Republicans in the race are third-tier candidates.

You never can tell in politics. But should she win, Jocelyn Benson is someone Democrats nationally might do well to watch.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.