I joined the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) exactly four years ago, December 5th, 2016, specifically because I wanted to move the Party left – universal single-payer, criminal justice reform, abolishing the electoral college, immigration reform, money out of politics, Green New Deal, and so on. I joined with many other progressive and leftists activists who joined in the wake of Trump’s win and the rising tide of unrest, the increasing economic devastation of the working class, the abuse and worse of Black, Brown, Trans, and other minority communities, and the continued control of our governments by the wealthy few.
Four years into the political revolution in Michigan, progressives and leftists have won many victories large and small. Here’s my report on the accomplishments and setbacks of the progressive insurgency in the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) over our first four years, and a discussion of what’s next. All offset quotes are language the progressive movement added to the 2020 MDP platform.
In late 2016 and early 2017, we organized an effort across the state to push resolutions at the County and Congressional District level and up through to the state Party, demanding greater fairness, inclusion, transparency, and democracy in the Party, and proposing detailed changes to the rules. Many of our resolutions were approved by County and Congressional District units of the Party from across the state. There were so many rules changes passed, some with detailed amendments, they couldn’t all be processed individually. Our allies on the Resolutions Committee proposed the Party undertake a comprehensive “line-by-line” review of the rules, which was approved by the full State Convention, the highest authority in the Michigan Democratic Party. I was on the State Party Rules Committee that worked on that line-by-line review. With a few progressives and allies on the Committee, we negotiated the largest package of rules reforms in state Party history, far surpassing the push in the 60s and 70s. All of the changes were in the direction of greater fairness, inclusion, transparency, and democracy.
But we didn’t get everything we came for. What we didn’t get we’re going back for in 2021.
At the February 2017 Convention, the establishment brazenly broke their own rules for conducting elections. One of the most egregious violations was in my own Congressional District 12. For State Central delegates the rules require proportional voting, a system that ensures a coalition with (for example) about 40% of the vote will win about 40% of the delegate positions available. Instead, they ran the election using a system that ensured the largest coalition would win all positions, blocking every progressive candidate from any position, despite proper protest raised at the time. As a result of the rule-breaking in CD5, CD12, and others, the progressive movement was denied between 10 and 20 delegate positions we clearly would have won if the elections were conducted according to the Party’s own rules.
I wrote four appeals (and assisted on a fifth) – all of which were rejected by the Appeals Committee based on prior precedent, without addressing their merits. On proportional voting, for example, the Appeals Committee response was the election system equivalent of 2 + 2 = 7. Stripped of the legalese and double-talk, their response amounted to: “proportional voting = non-proportional voting, because we said so 20 years ago.” When I asked where I could read these prior rulings being used as precedents, I was told, “They’re in our lawyer’s filing cabinet.” Despite repeated requests, I was never provided those rulings. The other responses similarly skipped addressing the merits and went right to, “We ruled that we don’t have to follow those rules years ago.” None of the cited rulings were ever provided. The Michigan Democratic Party had a set of rules only those in power were allowed to see – secret rules.
The line-by-line review of the rules addressed both these issues. The resulting package of rules reforms adopted in March 2018 removed prior rulings of the Appeals Committee as precedents, eliminating the establishment’s cache of secret rules. The rules reforms also made explicit that all new rulings of the Appeals Committee must be made accessible to all Party members – preventing the growth of a new cache of secret rules. At the February 2019 State Convention, the rules on proportional voting were enforced in every Congressional District for the first time in decades – including against the same powerful factions in the Party who had so brazenly broken the rules in 2017. The MDP Director of Party Affairs standing up for democracy and proportional representation against UAW and AFL-CIO leaders – powerful factions in the MDP – was a sight to behold in 2019 at the CD5 elections.
During the line-by-line review of the rules, a high-ranking establishment member went after a young progressive woman activist for speaking the truth about the extent of his influence in the Party and the Rules Committee. He got up, ran around the conference table to where the young woman was sitting, got right up in her face and screamed so loudly he was spitting on the woman sitting next to her. For several minutes. In the middle of a State Party Rules Committee meeting. Party leadership at the meeting praised this abusive behavior. As a result of this and several other incidents the progressive movement forced the Party to adopt and apply a code of conduct, which you can see here. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start.
In 2019, we fought off an establishment plan to ban audio and video recording at MDP meetings. This was an establishment attempt to prevent low-income and working-class people from participating in the Party. Working-class and low-income people often can’t make it to meetings. Their work schedules don’t allow it. Most Party meetings across the state are announced only a few days or at most two weeks beforehand. Many working-class people typically need to give their boss two week’s notice to get time off, and their boss is under no obligation to give them the day they request. Even if they can get the day off, low-income workers often don’t have the luxury of taking time off work – they’re living paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford to take the time off without endangering their ability to eat and pay rent. Often, they don’t have adequate transportation, and if they do, they often don’t have gas money. In effect, the recording ban was an attempt by the establishment to add more barriers to participation, especially high barriers for working-class and low-income people. The establishment wanted their own party to use the very suppression techniques they revile Republicans for in civic elections – creating as many barriers to participation as possible. When Republicans do it, they call it voter suppression. And they’re right. Doesn’t matter if it’s Democrats or Republicans doing it, it’s voter suppression.
Fortunately, the establishment demonstrated that they don’t know their own rules. They screwed up the straightforward process for amending the rules so badly, the Appeals Committee had no choice but to overturn the ban when we appealed. They haven’t tried again yet, probably because covid makes them look even more ridiculous trying to ban recording zoom meetings – makes it even more obviously an attempt to suppress participation in the Party.
As part of the rules changes, we required candidates for high office in the Party to announce their candidacy 30 days in advance, so people have time to research and evaluate the candidates. Previously, no one but the establishment knew who was running until the day of the vote. We required State, Congressional District, County, and local party organizations to post their rules on the State Party website (we’re still working on compliance, but we’re getting there, if somewhat slowly). We required sign-language interpretation at State Conventions and key Party information to be available in braille. There were also many changes to the wording of the rules, which improved clarity and readability. Mark Miller, then Chair of the CD6 Democratic Party and a long-time well-respected Party member, now clerk of Kalamazoo Township, was kind enough to write up his thoughts on the rules changes and allowed us to publish them here on Michigan Progressive. My thanks again to Mark. Here’s his article covering the changes to the main rules, and another covering the rules for voting and elections, they’re both detailed and informative.
We’ve also had several losses on the rules front. We’ve fought to prevent the establishment stealing votes on State Central and discriminating against new members, to prevent gerrymandering in Party elections (the establishment uses secret maps, making it even more egregious), to ensure timely notice of meetings and elections, to stop the establishment packing the State Central Committee, and other anti-democratic policies and practices. We’re going back for these and more in 2021.
What is an establishment? An establishment exists when the rules are abused, bent, or broken to make it easier for those already in power to remain in power. Incumbents always have some advantage that arises from name recognition, their record in office, and so on. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about packing State Central, gerrymandering Party elections, erecting unnecessary barriers to low-income and working-class participation, and so on. The rules give elected Party officials the power to make choices about how to do things, how to interpret rules, how to set up and run elections, and so on. An establishment uses that power to abuse, bend, and break the rules to give themselves powers they did not and cannot win in a fair and democratic election. If they get the chance, they’ll even re-write the rules to the advantage of those already in power. For example, this was very obviously done with the rules for proxy voting in the MDP State Central Committee, as I detailed here. The unfair and undemocratic rules – always to the benefit of those already in power – are the unmistakable tracks of an establishment cemented in power.
I want to emphasize something. The vast majority of people in the Party – establishment and otherwise – don’t know the rules. As demonstrated above, not even the establishment knows the very simple and straightforward procedure for amending the rules. This includes at least four or five people with law degrees, some with active legal practices. My point is, they are capable of understanding the rules, they just don’t bother to read or follow them. They’re doing things the way they’ve always been done, as handed down over the years and decades. Most of the people who originally bent and broke the rules are long gone. Most of the people continuing to bend and break the rules don’t know they’re doing anything wrong. They aren’t bad people, they’ve been given bad information. They’ve had no reason to question the procedures as handed down because no one has made a big enough issue of it until now. The vast majority of the establishment are good honest people who work hard and put in long hours – my hat’s off to them for all the work they do, if not their process of doing it. They often don’t see the need to spend time reading rules when they “already know” how to do everything “the way we’ve always done it.”
However, there are a few people who understand exactly what’s going on, and they occupy some key positions in the Party, such as Chair of the Appeals Committee – the Committee charged with enforcing Party rules. The Chair of the Appeals Committee, Tim Hughes, is a long-time state Party operative with deep ties to the Granholm administration and the UAW. He was Granholm’s legislative director for many years. Here’s a recording of Tim explaining that he knows the Labor and Education caucuses both break the rules “frequently” by using a method of voter intimidation called the unit rule. The unit rule was banned in the Democratic Party from the DNC down to the smallest local club after the 1968 DNC convention because it contributed significantly to that debacle. It remains banned to this day. In the recording, Tim claims the Progressive caucus does the same, but he’s lying. I’m the parliamentarian for the Progressive caucus. I know for a fact we don’t run votes like that now, and I’ve checked with past officers to confirm we’ve never run votes like that in the past. He’s just trying to make a whataboutism argument so the Labor and Education caucuses don’t look so bad. He’s trying to cover his ass, which means he knows he’s wrong and is stretching for any justification he can find for the establishment position – the position that advantages those already in power.
The unit rule effectively issues an ultimatum to the minority: “vote with the majority – or else.” It is a rule specifically designed to crush dissent, and it is especially effective in the MDP because the rules also forbid secret ballots. Everyone from the president of the union down to the shop foreman and your work buddies know how you voted – with the majority or not. Union leadership certainly takes notes about who voted which way – I’ve seen them writing down names at the State Convention. Here’s how Tim explains it in the recording: the Labor and Education caucuses “frequently have votes where they say if you want to be part of this caucus then you’re bound by the outcome of the caucus.” “Bound by the outcome of the caucus” means bound to vote with the majority and “if you want to be a part of this caucus” is the or else. Tim goes on to say he “doesn’t think it’s the Party’s business to tell caucuses how to run their votes.” Caucuses of the Party are explicitly subject to State Party rules. It is most certainly the Party’s business how the caucuses run their votes, and the Committee Tim chairs is charged with enforcing the rules. Party members are relying on Tim and the Committee he chairs to enforce Party rules fairly. Tim doesn’t believe in enforcing Party rules against his allies in the establishment, particularly if enforcing the rules means he and his allies would lose the advantages they can’t win fairly at the ballot box, but just take by abusing their power. In 2019, I informed the incoming State Party Chair of Tim’s attitude towards enforcing the rules. She re-appointed him as Chair of the Appeals Committee anyway.
Unions are awesome. Unions need to take a major leading role in the movement to build a better world, one that works for working people and the most vulnerable, not just owners and the most privileged. However awesome they are, unions are not entitled to break Party rules, especially not the rules against voter intimidation – especially against their own members. This is one of many things progressives intend to change once we have the majority on the State Central Committee. No more voter intimidation.
Recruiting and Elections
The same month the State Central Committee approved the largest package of rules reforms in state Party history, we had another major victory. The Party endorsed Dana Nessel for Attorney General. I ran Dana’s campaign for the Party endorsement, where we blew out the establishment by a 20 point popular vote landslide and a 10 point landslide in the Party equivalent of the electoral college. I led a recruitment effort that brought over 3,300 entirely new members into the Party and brought back many lapsed members to help push Dana to a landslide victory. (Full disclosure: Dana Nessel is my cousin.) At a typical MDP convention before the progressive movement, you could expect about 2,500 people. When progressives organized for the February 2017 convention we brought attendance up to 4,700. At the 2018 endorsement convention, we brought attendance up to 6,700 in the middle of the worst ice storm Michigan had seen in decades. When progressives organize and support each other, we win.
In 2019, we forced the Party to make free memberships available online. Any resident of Michigan 16 years of age or older has the right to join the Michigan Democratic Party as a full member with full voting privileges. Before we forced the establishment to make free memberships available online, it was impossible to join online unless you were at least 18 years old (still required by their payment processor), with a credit card, and money to give the Party. If you wanted a free membership, you had to search for the membership form, find it, print it, fill it out, and deliver it to MDP headquarters in Lansing. The clear message was, people with money and credit cards are welcome in the Party, people who don’t have money or credit – not so welcome. Now, if you’re 16 years of age or older, you can pull up a web page and join for free in a couple minutes, no credit card required. If you want to join a group working on reforming the MDP, try misolidarity.org (more on this below).
However, to this day people with money can pay for a two-year membership and not have to renew as often – an option not available for free members. Memberships shouldn’t expire. Membership should be permanent until and unless you choose to withdraw from the Party. The only reason to force people to renew memberships every year is to erect another barrier to low-income and working-class participation in the Party, and to give the Party an excuse to send another fundraising email – “it’s time to renew!” They’re not shy about sending those emails with or without renewal. Therefore, the only remaining purpose of this rule is to disenfranchise people and suppress participation – particularly among low-income and working people. If you forget to renew, they deny you the right to vote for 30 days – a rather harsh punishment for forgetting to file paperwork that serves no purpose other than to force you to file paperwork, which is to say it works great if your purpose is to disenfranchise people. It’s just extra red tape the establishment makes you fight through for no good reason.
The 2020 Party Platform
While the National Party establishment blocked efforts to put universal single-payer healthcare in their platform, Michigan progressives put it in our State Party platform, despite our sitting Democratic governor and both sitting Democratic Senators opposing. We added progressive priorities to the platform such as a completely new section on immigration, $2,000 universal basic income, abolishing the electoral college, gerrymandering, and re-apportioning the House and Senate to ensure every voter has an equal vote regardless of the state they live in. As far as the Senate is concerned, everyone in Michigan is no more than 1/17th of a person – we each have just 1/17th the Senate power the Constitution gives to each person in Wyoming, for example. It should surprise no one that a document which explicitly values some people as just 3/5ths of a person, implicitly assigns fractional value to other people as well. We also added free education pre-K through university. A ban on state and local tax abatement/incentives for businesses, which only end up shifting the tax burden more and more onto local residents while rarely if ever providing the jobs or other benefits they’re sold as ensuring (see the Foxcon debacle in Wisconsin for example). We added a provision to hold executives and shareholders criminally liable for wage theft as the ultimate beneficiaries of the crime, a graduated state income tax, mandating paid family leave, community land banks, and we strengthened language throughout the document to be more class conscious. We’ll be back for more in 2022.
2021 and Beyond
The progressive movement has won more victories than any MDP insurgency ever, by a wide margin.
The next phase of the progressive insurgency in the MDP requires your participation. We need progressives, leftists, Greens, DSA folks, independents, and anyone who favors a progressive agenda to join the Michigan Democratic Party and help us vote the establishment out. Because of the work we’ve already done, this won’t take a lot of your time. We need 5 minutes of your time right now, and a few hours one day a year. That’s it. If you want to participate more, awesome, get more involved. We need everyone in the movement to pitch in at least a few minutes now, and a few hours once a year.
I know many of you have a deep antipathy or worse for the Democratic Party, but hear me out. The Michigan Democratic Party is weak. When we started in 2016, there were around 10,000 members of the MDP. Our recruiting drove membership up to about 20,000 at the peak after our last organizing push in 2018. Current membership is back down to around 10,000. The Party wasn’t able to hold on to activists – particularly energized activists – because the Party isn’t organized to empower or support activists. It’s organized to empower big donors and those serving big donors. Activists are seen as a threat to establishment power, and the establishment uses that power to abuse, bend, and break the rules. Despite these barriers, we’ve won many significant victories, and are continuing to win more. If we can turn out enough people to the February 20th, 2021 State Convention, we can take a majority on the State Central Committee – the governing body of the Party. We can shut down the corruption and rule-breaking in the Party.
Joining the Democratic Party doesn’t make you a Democrat unless you want to be a Democrat, anymore than having an Amazon membership makes you an Amazon. It’s a passcard to more control over your government. For example, nominations for Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, State Supreme Court, State Board of Education, and other offices are not held publicly in Michigan. Only party members get to vote on the candidate they want for these offices. The Democrat most famous for outright corruption once said “I don’t care who gets to do the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” If you’re not a voting member of the Party, the establishment gets to do the nominating – just like Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall. Unless you’re a voting member of the Party, the establishment wins most offices before your ballot even gets printed. Because they do the nominating.
Progressives and leftists have a big advantage in Michigan not enjoyed by the people of most other states. Any resident of Michigan 16 years of age or older has a right to join the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) for free and have an equal vote. In many states, only a handful of people have any voice in the state party at all. In Michigan, if we can get progressives and leftists to join the MDP in large numbers, and turn out to vote in Party elections, we can reorient the state Party and push for progressive priorities from positions of power within the Party. We can change the Party rules to be fair, inclusive, transparent, and democratic. We can reorganize the resources of the Party, and transform it from a top-down dispenser of resources organized by neoliberal establishment priorities, into a bottom-up open-source infrastructure of services and support to candidates and grassroots campaigns, organized by the needs of the people and the candidates they support.
The 2021 State Convention will be held on February 20th. The Convention will be held virtually, so you can vote from the comfort of your own home – an option that progressives are pushing to make a permanent feature of the MDP, pandemic or no pandemic.
You can join the Party directly with a donation here, for free here, or you can join the Party through MI Solidarity. MI Solidarity provides a service where you can sign up for the Party while avoiding the daily emails and donation asks. They send you alerts for important votes, elections, or actions in the Party. They also have a digest service that provides a monthly summary of MDP activities with an emphasis on progressive priorities. They’re building a web hub of additional services to make participating in the MDP as smooth and easy as possible. Check out their About Us page. You can join them here.
No matter how you join, join.
Come help us build the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.
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We win this fight together, or not at all.