LANSING, Mich. (AP) — For the first time in a decade, the longtime leader of Michigan Democrats is at risk of losing his job after union leaders and the party's best-known lawmakers decided a new chairman is needed to help wrest back control of state government from Republicans.
All seven members of the state's Democratic congressional delegation on Tuesday endorsed challenger Lon Johnson over incumbent Mark Brewer, who is believed to be the longest-serving state Democratic Party chairman in the country. Delegates will vote at the party's state convention on Feb. 23 in Detroit.
Though President Barack Obama and Sen. Debbie Stabenow easily won re-election in Michigan in 2012, Democrats did not win control of the state House or Supreme Court, or pick up any U.S. House seats. Voters also rejected a proposal to lock collective bargaining rights into the state constitution, which Republicans pointed to while subsequently passing a right-to-work law after the November election.
"We have a lot of work to do together to change this dynamic and win at the state and local levels," Stabenow, Sen. Carl Levin, Rep. John Dingell and other congressional Democrats wrote in an open letter to Michigan Democrats. "We believe that the combination of challenges and opportunities that dramatically confront Michigan Democrats today have called on us as elected Democrats to urge a new and inclusive chapter in MDP leadership."
The 41-year-old Johnson lives in Kalkaska, where he lost a state House race last year. He has worked in Democratic politics for more than 20 years, with stops at the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Dingell's 2002 campaign. His wife, Julianna Smoot, is a top Democratic fundraiser who was Obama's deputy campaign manager in 2012.
In a phone interview, Johnson said Tuesday that Democrats won the last six presidential and U.S. Senate races in Michigan but lost the last four secretary of state elections and three attorney general contests.
"We only held the House for four years and never in the Senate. We can do better," he said. "We need new strategies, new tactics. We need the people of the party to be included and feel included and help put together winning strategies."
Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, served as governor from 2003 through 2010 during Brewer's long stretch as party leader.
The United Auto Workers is helping lead the effort to oust Brewer, 57, who lives in Macomb County's Clinton Township. That has led to eye-raising because the powerful union was instrumental in the decision to put the doomed collective bargaining measure on the ballot.
Another influential union, the Michigan Education Association, on Tuesday reaffirmed its support for Brewer — as did 40 county Democratic chairs.
Brewer has come under criticism in the past for moves such as helping push Michigan's 2008 presidential primaries ahead of allowable dates, causing many Democrats, including Obama, to pull their names from the ballot. Despite grumbles within the party, Brewer's electoral successes have helped keep him in place.
"I plan to run on my record and the accomplishments we've made together," he said.
He said a hurdle for Democrats is congressional and legislative districts drawn by majority Republicans after the Census. More Democrats voted for state House candidates than Republicans statewide, yet the GOP has a 59-51 edge in the chamber. The state Senate was not up for election in 2012, but Republicans have a commanding 26-11 edge there.
"It's a problem we have as a party that we've got to address as a party," said Brewer, who called for redistricting changes.
Brewer was first elected party chairman in 1995. From 2003 to 2005, he served as the party's executive chairman in a power-sharing arrangement with Melvin "Butch" Hollowell. Granholm, after winning office, wanted Hollowell to be chairman but many of the unions active in the party wanted to keep Brewer.
The compromise lasted two years until Hollowell left and Brewer became sole chairman again.
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