Lon Johnson: the man in the hot seat

Aug 14, 2013

For some time, there has been growing discontent among Michigan Democrats. The state has become reliably Democratic in presidential elections.

Republicans have won only one statewide race for the U.S. Senate in the last forty years. But below that level, Democrats have a stunning record of failure. Republicans hold the governor’s office, as they have for more than two-thirds of the last half-century.

Republicans control the Supreme Court and both houses of the state legislature. Democrats haven’t controlled the state senate for thirty years, and today don’t even have a third of the seats.

Those numbers -- and even stronger unhappiness among organized labor -- helped foster a revolt in the party that led to the ouster of longtime party chair Mark Brewer last February, and the election of Lon Johnson, a 42-year-old whirlwind, as his successor.

Johnson today looks more like a successful private equity banker, which he actually was for a time, than the son of a lathe operator and nurse’s assistant in Rockwood, a downriver Detroit suburb which is about as blue-collar as you can get.

But he is both things, as well as a consummate political operative. As a freshman at Arizona State, he had an assignment to interview someone doing a job that they were interested in, but felt they could never possibly do. He picked … campaign manager.

The next thing he knew, he was running a successful congressional campaign. Since then, he has lived in at least thirteen places, from Chicago to New Jersey; mainly running campaigns. He took time out eight years ago to go to Iraq, to work for the National Democratic Institute for six months trying to build democracy there.

Now, he is trying to rebuild a winning Democratic Party, here.  I caught up with him yesterday. Since this is not an election year, he is only working a seventy-hour week. Campaigns, he told me, are all about three things: Sending the voters a message, identifying the voters who want to get to the polls, and running a get out the vote, or GOTV, operation. That, and, of course, recruiting candidates and raising money.

Ironically, he’s had some early successes statewide by managing to get the party to settle on Mark Schauer for governor and Gary Peters for senator next year, and keep other potential candidates from challenging them in a primary.

That both eliminates intraparty fighting, and more importantly, leaves more money available for the fall contest. But he’s not stopping there. He recently helped persuade Jerry Cannon, a Vietnam veteran and Kalkaska County sheriff, to challenge Congressman Dan Benishek in a congressional race Democrats lost last year by less than one percent.

Johnson says he felt drawn to this job because he realized he wanted to get back to Michigan, and do something to save the middle class. “I’m just a Midwestern guy,” he says. “I do the job that’s in front of me. Traditionally, the President’s party does badly in second-term midterm elections, but he thinks he can break that cycle.

Whatever happens next year, Democrats have themselves a ball of energy running their party, and as they have no statewide office holders, Johnson is THE voice of Democrats statewide.

It will be interesting to see if he can turn their fortunes around.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee the University of Michigan.