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Michigan Democrats elect new leader

February 24, 2013
The Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) - Eager for the 2014 election, Michigan Democrats dumped their long-time party leader Saturday in favor of a challenger who said Republicans' complete control in Lansing must no longer stand.

Lon Johnson won when incumbent Mark Brewer, the longest-serving state Democratic Party chairman in the country, conceded the heated race after seeing the writing on the wall.

"When we don't win, bad things happen," Johnson, a national campaign operative who lives in Kalkaska, told thousands of Democrats gathered at Detroit's Cobo Center for their state convention.

Johnson's victory along with GOP Chairman Bobby Schostak's narrow re-election in Lansing Saturday sets the stage for 2014 - when the governor, attorney general, secretary of state and Legislature are up for grabs.

Republicans have controlled all three branches of state government for just over two years.

That is a sore spot for Democrats used to easy presidential and U.S. Senate wins in Michigan, and angered by right-to-work, emergency manager and other laws signed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Party chairs raise money, recruit candidates and coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts. Johnson, 41, told reporters he plans to hire an executive director to handle operations. Brewer, a lawyer, did both jobs during his 18 years as the helm.

"I wish Lon Johnson all the best," Brewer told the capacity crowd while formally withdrawing his candidacy shortly after the convention's start, which avoided a floor fight. "He's going to need it. And I urge all of you to do everything you can to help him succeed because if he succeeds, we all succeed."

During Brewer's long tenure, the Republican Party has had six chairs.

Schostak, a real estate developer who took the helm two years ago, fended off a challenge from conservative attorney Todd Courser of Lapeer, 52 percent to 48 percent.

Supporters credited Schostak for helping Republicans hold onto the state House and Supreme Court in November despite President Barack Obama's and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow's lopsided wins in Michigan. Detractors said the GOP had a lousy year.

Snyder, who is expected to seek re-election, supported Schostak's candidacy.

"It's time for us to stand up and say we're reinventing Michigan," the governor told thousands of delegates in the Lansing Center. "It's time to sweep the ticket again in 2014."

Brewer's reign was imperiled in recent weeks when his powerful backers such as the United Auto Workers and Teamsters supported Johnson. So did every member of Michigan's congressional delegation.

While the Michigan Education Association and other unions stuck by Brewer, his fate appeared to be sealed once the UAW signed up more than 1,300 new party members to vote at the convention. Brewer argued they were ineligible but was overruled. Non-union interests also got behind Johnson, and his momentum was evident at delegate meetings held earlier Saturday before the convention officially began.

Johnson, vice president of a Tennessee-based private equity firm, ran for and lost a state House election in northern Michigan in November. His wife is a top fundraiser who was Obama's deputy campaign manager in 2012.

Asked if Brewer will have a role with the party, Johnson said he would see what Brewer wants to do.

"The man has worked for 18 years, very hard, for our party. I have nothing but respect and everybody in that hall has nothing but respect for that man, for what he's done."

Citing Obama's nine-point win in Michigan - Romney's native state - Johnson said voters "are on our side. They share are values. We need to get out of our own way, bring the people in and go win and fight. ... The default position is ours."

Some frustrated Democrats said the party is too reliant on traditional organized labor, is not raising enough money and is not taking advantage of standard bearer Obama's success in reaching new voters. Those in Brewer's camp countered that no one cares more about the Democratic cause or works harder than he does, and he should not be the fall guy because Republicans controlled the redistricting process in both 2001 and 2011.

Both Johnson and Schostak were elected for two-year terms.



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