March 13 2013 12:00 AM

Michigan Dems converge on Detroit to strategize, elect chairman

Saturday, Feb. 23 — Thousands of Michigan Democrats have packed the Cobo Center in Detroit to discuss strategies going into the 2014 elections and to elect a party chairman.

Mark Brewer has been the party’s chairman since the mid 90s. He’s being challenged this year by Lon Johnson.

While the election for party chairman is obviously a big issue today, it’s not the only issue on the minds of Democrats. The party is heated over cuts to public education, Gov. Rick Snyder’s emergency financial manager law and the passage of right to work legislation.

At the Labor Caucus meeting in the main conference hall, House Democratic Leader Rep. Tim Greimel, spoke to an energized crowd of Democrats. He said while the hoopla surrounding the chair election was great, it was important not to lose focus on the bigger issues.

“We can’t take the focus off the real enemy — the Republicans in Lansing,” he said to a roar of applause from the crowd. “It’s time we fought back."

He said while the Democrats in the state House picked up five more seats this past election, they still are in the minority and need to get five more seats to gain the majority.

Lon Johnson also took to the stage to speak to the crowd.

“Today, we reclaim our party. Today, we renew our purpose. Today, we start to reclaim our state. This is Michigan!” shouted Lon Johnson to the Labor Caucus crowd. He talked about the winning record Dems have at the Congressional level. “We’ve got to start doing that on the state House level. When we fight, we win. When we lose, bad things happen.”

Rep. Sam Singh said he is backing Lon Johnson.

“I think there’s a lot of excitement here. Obviously, this is the first time in a long time where we’ve had a contested chair’s race. There are more people here than I’ve ever seen and I think that’s good for our party and it’s getting people energized.”

He said after the chairmanship is decided, it will be important for Democrats to plan ahead to take the majority in the House and get Gov. Snyder out of office.

Griffin Rivers is the first vice chair of the Ingham County Democrats, he said while the energy at the convention has been high so far. The real business will begin at 3 p.m. when the delegates vote for a new chairman, he said.

Update: 1:46 p.m.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said being surrounded by fellow Dems was invigorating.

“It’s always like a homecoming for me,” Bernero said. “I’ve seen a lot of friends from all over. My idealistic political juices get flowing again when I come to something like this.”

Bernero said he’s supporting Lon Johnson for party chair.

“I’ve worked with Mark Brewer over the years and I appreciate the hard work and dedication he’s had. I’m not saying throw Mark Brewer out. I think he’s served admirably but I just think it’s time for new leadership,” he said. “Lon Johnson is that person. He has a vision for the party and a vision for the state. We need that forward progressive agenda for the party and the state.”

Check back for more updates soon.

Update: 4:00 p.m.

Mark Brewer went before the crowd and said he withdrew from the race. Lon Johnson will be the next chairman of the MDP.

" I wish Lon Johnson all the best," Brewer said. "If he succeeds we all succeed."