Lon Johnson

State of Michigan

Gov. Rick Snyder is standing by his longtime friend and key adviser, Rich Baird, amid calls for his firing by state Democratic Party officials.

Rich Baird has played an important behind-the-scenes role for the governor since Snyder took office.

Control – the ability to command and direct events – is the elusive ambition of politicians. Politicians seek office promising to get things done or, in some rare cases, to stop something from getting done. But, mostly, they want to control their fates. We all want that, of course, but, it is not that simple.

Public life is complicated and messy.

Take, for example, Gov. Snyder. In just less than a week, Snyder will deliver his fourth State of the State address. He’ll wax on about the accomplishments of the last three years as he also proposes an agenda for this year and lays the groundwork for his reelection bid.

And, yes, we say his reelection bid. Though the governor has not yet announced he will seek reelection, as we’ve talked about before on It’s Just Politics, Snyder is certainly already acting like a candidate. The governor’s reelection campaign has already bought airtime, just like they did four years ago, on Super Bowl Sunday. (One more reason we know Snyder will run again: He’s said the Detroit Lions will be in the Super Bowl before he leaves office… yet another thing he can’t control.)

Going into the 2014 election, Gov. Snyder and other Republicans would like to be focused on good news like revenue surpluses and balanced budgets. But something always seems to get in the way. And, this week, that was the continuing drama surrounding former state Treasurer Andy Dillon’s personal and professional life.

Putative Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer rolled out his proposal this week to raise Michigan’s minimum wage to $9.25 over three years; which, as of right now, would make it one of the highest state-mandated minimum wage in the nation.

That’s sparked a debate over the efficacy of the minimum wage – does it encourage prosperity by pushing more money into the economy? Or does it stifle hiring and job creation?

But we’re here to discuss the red meat politics of the minimum wage. Mark Schauer’s announcement sets the stage for a classic class warfare throw down. So, instead of diving too deep into the policy side, let’s take on the political calculation that’s part of choosing that number of $9.25.

Polling shows big support nationally for a minimum wage of $9 an hour. There is some Michigan public opinion research that’s not quite as reliable, but still suggests it’s about the same - about 70 percent favor it.

But that support plummets as the suggested minimum wage goes up, especially above $10 dollars an hour. This shows the risk in using the minimum wage as a political wedge. To a point, it has populist appeal, but people still fear the consequences of setting wage floors. So the key is to find the sweet spot, and Mark Schauer seems to have settled on $9.25. (He says the policy-side reason is that number will make up for the erosion of its buying power over the last four decades.)

Which brings us to the next question: why now? Why not keep beating the Democratic drums - pension tax, school cuts, with a little right-to-work thrown in just to fire up the base.

The answer: Because the base isn’t fired up. And the most recent polling shows Rick Snyder expanding his lead over Schauer. No matter how much Democrats may dislike what they’re seeing in Lansing, a lot of them are still not warming up to Mark Schauer, who is low-key, to say the least.

The minimum wage is supposed to be a jolt to try to put some electricity into his campaign.

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.

Welcome to our post-Independence Day edition of It’s Just Politics and, today, we’re talking Independents.

This week, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel let it be known he wants the “D,” for Democrat, stripped from the column alongside his name in the Macomb County directory. Hackel told The Macomb Daily that he doesn’t think being a Democrat, or a Republican for that matter, really makes a difference in his job as county executive. And, that he doesn’t really consider himself a party person.

This certainly isn’t the only incarnation of Hackel’s independent streak. He has refused to endorse the presumptive Democratic candidate for governor, Mark Schauer. Nor, will he utter an unkind word about Governor Rick Snyder; and he’s been silent on the controversial right-to-work law.

But this latest episode did prompt a statement from Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson, who embraced Hackel and praised his service to the Democratic Party.

We should be clear: Hackel is not making noises about leaving the Democratic Party. But there is a history in fickle Macomb County – Michigan’s hotbed of political disharmony – of Democrats bailing.

Over the last half-century, whenever an incumbent Michigan governor has run for re-election, the opposing party has almost always chosen an opponent in a difficult and expensive primary.

Those battles have used up most of their cash, and given the opposition plenty of ammunition. Partly as a result, every incumbent governor running for a second term has been reelected.

New Democratic state chair Lon Johnson says it is time to learn from this. He's helped persuade his party to come together around statewide candidates more than a year before the election. Things can always change, but as of now Democrats have settled on former Battle Creek congressman Mark Schauer for governor. It would be difficult to exaggerate how much Democrats would like to beat Rick Snyder. They intensely dislike most of what he has done or tried to do, from taxing pensions to attacking unions.

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One month ago, Mark Brewer lost his job.

In February, the longtime leader of the Michigan Democratic Party withdrew from the race for party chair at the Democratic Party's convention in Detroit.

Lon Johnson replaced Brewer as the elected chairman.

Johnson is from southeast Michigan and recently lost a race for a state House seat in 2012.

He's worked on Congressman Dingell's campaign. He currently lives in Kalkaska.

For Johnson supporters, he represents a new era of ideas and a fresh energy that the state's Democratic party needed.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - The new leader of the Michigan Democratic Party says it has time to agree on top-flight candidates to replace Sen. Carl Levin and take on Gov. Rick Snyder.

Lon Johnson told The Associated Press that he takes exception to the notion that Snyder is safe because no Democrats have stepped forward to run for governor and the party has to focus on holding Levin's seat.

There was an epic battle last week to see who would become the next chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. In the end, longtime apparatchik Mark Brewer threw in the towel before the state convention vote, and conceded victory to Lon Johnson, a newcomer with ties to the White House.

What was most surprising is that Brewer waited so long. Every member of the party’s Congressional delegation was calling for him to go, as was the leadership of the United Auto Workers and Teamsters’ unions. It’s hard to understand how he could have hoped to function as chair with all those arrayed against him, but the job had become his life. He hung in there till it was clear to him that he didn’t have the votes to succeed.

Democrats, are, however, a fractious group used to fighting among themselves. This battle is unlikely to do them any harm, especially if Lon Johnson can revitalize the state party.

DETROIT (AP) - The longtime leader of the Michigan Democrats is losing his job.

Mark Brewer on Saturday withdrew from the race for party chairman at the state Democratic Party convention in Detroit. He said he wishes challenger Lon Johnson all the best.

Brewer announced his decision to thousands of delegates rather than continue an uphill climb to retain his seat after unions and Michigan's Democratic congressional delegation got behind Johnson. Brewer said he wishes Johnson all the best.

What looks like one of the tightest and toughest elections in recent years is happening tomorrow, and most of us can’t even vote. The battle is for leadership of the Michigan Democratic Party, and it will be settled at their state convention in Detroit. Major battles over who should be the next state chair are fairly rare these days, and when they happen, it’s mostly for ideological reasons.

It is now difficult to imagine that Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer can win election to another term when his party holds its state convention 17 days from now.

Yesterday, every single Democratic member of the state congressional delegation -- both U.S. Senators and five congressmen -- endorsed his little-known rival, Lon Johnson.

Earlier, both the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters said it was time for Brewer to go. Yet in what has to be embarrassing for all concerned, Brewer is still fighting to keep his job.

This appears to show that he is in hopeless denial of reality, and cares far more about clinging to a job than the good of his party.

User: Brother O'Mara / Flickr

The race for the Democratic chair

"Michigan's Democratic congressional delegation wants to replace the long-time chairman of the state Democratic Party. Sens. Carl Levin, Debbie Stabenow and five members of the U.S. House wrote an open letter to Democrats Tuesday backing Lon Johnson over incumbent Mark Brewer," the Associated Press reports.

Detroit moves to turn on its lights

"The Detroit City Council on Tuesday approved articles of incorporation for a public lighting authority in the city. The state legislature passed bills in December enabling the lighting authority. Detroit has chronic problems keeping many of its streetlights on, though no one can say for sure how many aren't working at any given time," Sarah Cwiek reports.

Lakes Michigan and Huron at record low levels

"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may take another look at placing structures at the bottom of the St. Clair River to boost water levels in Lakes Huron and Michigan. The lakes are at their lowest levels since record-keeping began in 1918, and many people in the region are demanding action," The Associated Press reports.

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This week on It’s Just Politics we’re talking political spouses.

There’s a whole lot of politics behind the role of spouses in campaigns. Just this week we saw Ann Romney speak about her husband, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, at the Republican National Convention. Over and over again we heard that her job was to “humanize” him. And, she got generally good reviews for the speech.

But this business of where spouses fit into campaigns and political strategies is a tricky game. Campaigns want to get a candidate’s significant other - presumably the person who knows the candidate like no one else - out there, in the public, making a case for their partner.

Double-edged Sword

But, spouses can also easily become involved in controversies. Opponents, for example, tried to use Michelle Bachmann’s husband and his counseling of gay people on how they can become straight as a campaign issue. And, just a few months ago, one of President Obama’s political advisors, Hilary Rosen, made a comment about how Ann Romney has never worked a, “day in her life.” That comment poked a serious hornet’s nest.  It would seem that there are just certain things you can say about a candidate that you cannot say about their spouse.

There was the infamous question from the 1988 presidential campaign when debate moderator Bernard Shaw asked Governor Michael Dukakis, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Many argued that it was Governor Dukakis’ passionless answer to this controversial question about his wife that cost him the election.  But, others, to do this day, argue that the question was totally out of line.

In 1992, Bill Clinton went on the attack during a primary against critics of Hillary Clinton telling California Governor Jerry Brown, “I don’t care what you say about me. But, you ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife.”

Johnson vs. Rendon

All of this, brings us to the race in the 103rd state House district in northern Michigan, where Democratic challenger Lon Johnson is trying to unseat first-term Republican incumbent Bruce Rendon. Representative Rendon sent out a fundraising letter that calls attention to the fact that Johnson’s wife is Julianna Smoot. Smoot is one of the people running President Obama’s reelection campaign, and a superstar of Democratic politics. The letter points out the connections the couple has to prominent national Democrats, including some wealthy donors, and devotes a couple of paragraphs to Smoot.