Michigan Democratic exec won’t wait on presidential nominee next time

New Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes (AP Photo)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — New state Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes said the party will not repeat mistakes that possibly contributed to Donald Trump’s surprise victory in Michigan, pledging to build an organizing operation that will quickly benefit whomever is nominated to challenge the Republican president in 2020.

Barnes, who began leading the party this month after working as its chief operating officer for more than three years, said “we’re not waiting” on the eventual nominee — which she said happened in 2016, when Trump narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in a state that had long backed Democrats for president.

Democrats look to match what was a highly successful 2018 election. They flipped the governor, attorney general and secretary of state offices, two congressional districts and a Supreme Court seat while re-electing Sen. Debbie Stabenow to a fourth term. Defeating Trump will be the priority next year, along with defending first-term Sen. Gary Peters and taking control of the state House.

Barnes said she is working to raise enough money to open field offices this year rather than waiting, “so we are in these communities as early as possible having those conversations with voters prior to 2020. It’s going to be a long time until we have a presidential nominee.”

She also wants to continue Democratic gains in traditionally GOP-friendly areas such as Kent County, home to Grand Rapids, and said she is excited about a “huge” political shift in the suburban Detroit bellwether of Oakland County, where now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won by nearly 17 percentage points in November.

Democrats, she said, can make their case against Trump in various ways, including by calling attention to job cuts at General Motors after he promised to revive manufacturing in the Midwest.

Barnes, a 53-year-old Ann Arbor resident, became active in politics in college, when one of her professors at William & Mary asked for volunteers for his congressional campaign. He lost. “But I got the bug,” she said. “I tell people, ‘My mom’s still waiting for me to go to law school.’”

After working on local, state and national campaigns in her home state of Virginia, she served in President Bill Clinton’s media affairs office. She moved to Michigan when her husband took a job and, since 2004, she has done primarily political work — including with the state House Democratic caucus, where she started as a community organizer. She later directed President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in the state and has risen to become the first black woman to head the party. (An African-American man, Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, was briefly co-chairman 15 years ago.)

Barnes said being elected chair “means a lot,” especially because black women are “the backbone of this party. … To finally have someone who looks like us leading the party is a big deal.”

Michigan’s presidential primary is scheduled for March 2020, after 13 states hold primaries or caucuses — including Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina in February. Barnes said the Michigan primary should be “really early,” but it is probably too late to look at shifting the date much earlier and she does not want to “get crossways” with the Democratic National Committee. Given the expected size of the Democratic field, she said, Michigan will still an important factor.

“But I will say that going forward, as we start thinking about how we choose our presidential nominees, I think as a national party we should be looking at the order of these primaries and seriously consider moving us and perhaps some other states up earlier,” she said, contending that Michigan should come before the four early voting states.

“Michigan is a little sort of mini USA. We’ve got the demographics to actually speak to the nation in a way that some other states do not,” Barnes said.

She said Michigan should again be the site of a Democratic primary debate like it was in 2016, when Clinton and Bernie Sanders met in Flint following the water crisis.

“The DNC knows they need to pay more attention to the Midwest states than perhaps we did in 2016,” she said.

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