Special Project: A Vote That Tests Who Has Power Within The Democratic Party

As Democrats From Across Michigan Come Together Sunday, Eyes Will Be On 2 Candidates, Thousands Of Party Members And A Complex Voting System That Will Decide A Winner


Michigan Campaign Finance Network

(Note: This story was part of a special project with Bridge Magazine that examined which groups have power within Michigan’s two major state parties.)


Jonathan Kinloch’s phone has been busy lately, busier than normal even for the days before the Michigan Democratic Party convention on Sunday.

Kinloch, of Detroit, has been involved in Democratic politics since middle school in the early 1980s. He’s been chair of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party since 2015. So people take note when he declares, “This is going to be a convention for the history books.”

Democrats across Michigan will meet inside Detroit’s Cobo Center on Sunday. Their official duty will be to endorse party candidates for attorney general, secretary of state and Michigan Supreme Court. However, political insiders say the event could also be a bellwether for a possible power shift within a changing Democratic Party.

And those who can pack in the delegates for endorsement votes stand to reap a huge advantage under the party’s quirky convention rules.

Chris Savage, chairman of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party who also runs the progressive blog site Eclectablog, said the question of who has the most power is “as unknown as it’s ever been.” The groups that organize the best and build the broadest coalitions will find success, he said.

“The people who turn people out are the ones that win,” Savage said.

Since 2010, most Michigan Democratic conventions have been low on drama. A small number of labor groups whose members show up at the events have wielded major influence on decisions, leaving some feeling like the conventions have been “scripted,” as one party insider who declined to be name described past conventions.

But Sunday could be different. With the vote just days away, party activists say they still don’t know how a heated race for attorney general will play out. Progressives energized by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and newly active Democrats inspired by opposition to policies of President Donald Trump are expected to flood the convention, posing a potential challenge to some of the labor groups that have led the party.


The Rules Of The Game

Turnout matters within the Democratic Party because the rules make it matter.

The party has a process that gives power to the people willing to show up at the convention. (In comparison, Republicans use a system based around precinct delegates who are elected in the statewide primary and then vote on who to send to the state convention.)

Anyone who became a member of the Michigan Democratic Party by March 16 — a "grassroots" membership is listed online at $10 — has the ability to vote in the endorsement convention on Sunday if the person shows up at the Cobo Center.

So when a competitive convention race occurs, much of the competition is about getting party members to the convention hall. This can benefit groups like the United Auto Workers and the Michigan Education Association, which have large numbers of dedicated members across the state they can help turn out for the convention.

All eyes Sunday are on the race for the attorney general endorsement featuring Patrick Miles, of Grand Rapids, the former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan; Dana Nessel, of Plymouth, a lawyer who worked on the landmark case that legalized gay marriage, and William Noakes, of Detroit, a veteran attorney and former Meijer executive.

Miles has the establishment support of the powerful UAW, which had the fourth largest Michigan PAC in fundraising during the 2015-16 election cycle. He’s also received endorsements from the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin.

Nessel has the backing of Michigan Education Association (MEA), another critically important party interest group. The MEA had the 12th largest PAC in Michigan last election cycle. (Iron Workers Local 25 and the Cannabis Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party also support her.)

Nessel has found favor among progressive Democrats energized by Sanders’ 2016 campaign for president. Many are getting involved in state party politics for the first time, adding a wrinkle for Sunday’s convention.

Miles’s campaign has sent targeted mailers to Democrats across the state touting his credentials and linking to a page about supporting him at the convention. Nessel’s supporters have sent mailers as well and circulated information promoting the “Nessel Express,” aimed at busing people from places like Holland and Grand Rapids to Detroit for Sunday’s convention.

One of the buses will leave the Sam’s Club parking lot in Holland at 5 a.m., according to a notice posted online.

The Democratic Party’s proportional voting system rewards candidates who can bring in supporters from regions all around the state.

Somewhat similar to the electoral college used to decide presidential races, each county within a congressional district has a certain number of votes based on the support the unit provided for the Democratic presidential candidate in the previous election. But unlike most states in the electoral college, the party doesn’t allocate the votes from a specific county on a winner-take-all basis. They are distributed in a way that reflects the vote among those in attendance from that county within a particular congressional district.

So the people who do show up from a given county get to essentially decide how to divvy up that county’s allocated votes.

According to a party document, Wayne County has the most overall votes, about 1,034, because the county, which includes Detroit, provided the most votes for Clinton in 2016. Those votes are spread across groups in four different congressional districts.

Oakland County, spread across three congressional districts, has the second most overall votes at about 686. Macomb County, spread across two congressional districts, has the third most at about 353.

Together, the three counties have about 45 percent of the total vote, so it would benefit a candidate to have heavy support in southeast Michigan.

Because the convention takes place in Detroit, there will likely be many convention attendees from southeast Michigan. Oddly, that means attendees who travel long distances could have more individual influence because they would have greater say in their county’s vote.

For instance, Marquette County, seven hours from Detroit, has about 32 votes. If, say, Nessel can bus in 25 progressive supporters from Marquette, while Miles brings in three supporters, Nessel would capture nearly all that county’s votes.

Many within the party contend the setup benefits union groups, which have members across the state and can help entice their members to show up.

Kelly Collison, chair of the party’s Progressive Caucus, said the system makes it difficult for people who live far away, are low-income, or have disabilities to participate.

Some progressives suggest changing the voting system to allow for satellite sites around the state where people could travel shorter distances and still take part in the convention, Collison said. But those conversations have not advanced, she said.


Who Has The Power?

The rules could be a bit complicated for newcomers on Sunday. But as Kinloch noted, the institutional forces within the party understand those rules “full well.”

The United Auto Workers has been one of the institutional forces within the party for a long time. The group officially endorsed Miles for attorney general last week.

In the past, when there have been competitive convention races, the UAW has been the key group to watch.

In 2013, the UAW backed challenger Lon Johnson to lead the Michigan Democratic Party against then-chairman Mark Brewer. Brewer ended up withdrawing from the race just before the convention vote.

Adrian Hemond, a long-time Democratic consultant who is partner and CEO in the consulting firm Grassroots Midwest, said support from organized labor still matters on the convention floor. The UAW is the traditional powerhouse, he said, but he added the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, has been catching up the last few cycles.

While other groups are influential, Hemond said, “It’s damn near impossible to win a convention fight if you don’t have one or the other on your side.”

In 2010, there was another competitive race for the attorney general endorsement, which divided key Democratic groups. That year, David Leyton, the Genesee County prosecutor, had the backing of the UAW against attorney Richard Bernstein, who had support from the MEA and trial attorneys within the party.

Leyton won a very close race to get the party endorsement. He went on to lose to Republican Bill Schuette in the general election.

Some party insiders compare the 2018 race to 2010. But Joe DiSano, who runs the consulting firm DiSano Strategies, said the two races may actually not be that similar.

DiSano said he didn’t think Bernstein had a lead going into the 2010 convention. This year, he said, Nessel had a “significant lead,” according to his sense of the race, at least until Thursday when the UAW announced its endorsement of Miles.

“The real question is if it holds,” DiSano said of Nessel’s lead.

Scott Urbanowski, of Kentwood, administrative co-chair of the Democratic Party’s Justice Caucus, said many have forgotten how close the 2010 race was between Leyton and Bernstein. Even without UAW support, Bernstein still received around 48 percent of the vote, Urbanowski recalled.

In 2018, there’s the added factor that Sunday’s convention could see record attendance, which could limit the impact of a single interest group.

Just after the 2016 election, more than 5,000 people turned out for the party’s spring convention in February 2017, according to the party. Of those, 4,126 were credentialed delegates.

Urbanowski said he’s expecting a Sunday crowd bigger than what he’s seen before in more than a decade of activism in the Democratic Party.

“Whoever runs the people People Mover (the light rail system in downtown Detroit) is going to make a big profit on April 15,” he said.

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