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How “Biden Republicans” Took Control of the Suburbs

In 1998, when Dave Woodward was elected to State House at the age of 22, one of the things that immediately separated him from other young win-win politics obsessives was his patience. He saw a trend: Bill Clinton won Oakland County in 1996, the first Democrat to win in decades. If they could just convince these people to vote Democratic lower on the ballot, that could change everything.

Growing up in Oakland in the ’80s and’ 90s, Dave knew the county’s reputation as a place for the rich and well-connected. He also knew that it bore little resemblance to the lives of many people in the county, including himself. “In Oakland County, in particular, prosperity, in many ways, is all around you,” he says. “Opulence is all around you.”

Born and raised in Royal Oak, one of the middle-class suburbs of the county’s southern outskirts, his family was neither wealthy nor well connected. Her father worked in retail at Sears for 25 years, a working class who put food on the table but weren’t the kind of money that created feather comfort. Woodward’s interest in politics began in high school, but when it came time for college it had to be practical: at Wayne State he embarked on a career as an actuary. But being an actuary didn’t excite him, not like politics. In 1998, Woodward ran for the vacant seat left vacant by his hometown state representative, a Democrat. Woodward didn’t have a lot of money or connections and Royal Oak was still a battleground with a lot of moderate Republicans – and the year was otherwise miserable for Michigan Democrats – but he won nonetheless, with nearly 55% of the vote.

He arrived in Lansing, 22, and unbelievably boy, as the youngest member of the minority party. And even though he dabbled in voter services and basic issues like clean water and consumer protection, he quickly discovered that being a minority places limits on what you can accomplish in your life. working alone. Yet he believed in the rah-rah attitude of his more experienced fellow lawmakers who vowed to take over the House in 2000.

“And right after that didn’t happen, me and a bunch of people sat down and said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to plan this,'” Woodward recalls.

On paper, they sketched out a 10-year plan to build the Democratic Party in Oakland County. At the time, the county party was more of a loose confederation of local groups and elected campaigns than anything that looked like a cohesive organization.

“We had to build everything from scratch,” says Woodward.

He started by identifying local breeds where they had a chance to win. Initially, the model for this calculation was crude. “It was like, where was the less than 10% loss margin? Let’s start there, ”Woodward laughs.

“I’ll be honest, there have been people who got mad at me because we didn’t help everyone in the same way,” he says. “But it was about winning! It’s about winning elections and then winning majorities so that we can actually govern. … The goal, for me, is not only to participate in an election for the sake of an election; it’s what you do with the power once you have it.

To begin with, it meant discovery voters. Woodward knew Democrats existed in Oakland – Bill Clinton won there in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000, which, in retrospect, were the first signs of a national shift in the political preferences of college graduates – but he also knew that these voters tended not to vote in reduced ballot races or split their tickets.

“Everything is so high-tech now, modeling and all that stuff,” says Woodward. “It was old school: I needed to find us 5,000 more Democrats. So we go door to door and we ask, “Are you a Democrat?” We found them. And we’ve built a database and made sure we put energy and resources into making sure that everyone that we identified one and a half years before the election ends up voting. … It’s not rocket science. It was like, ‘This person should vote with us, but it just isn’t.

In November 2002, Woodward won his third term at State House, his last, thanks to term limits. At 26, the conversation naturally turned to what he wanted to do next. In Oakland, Democrats made gains, but the hole was deep: Republicans had a 19-6 qualifying majority on the county board.

Woodward had attended one of those 19-6 county board meetings and recalls speaking with Dave Coulter, a Ferndale Democrat elected to the board in 2002 afterwards.

“This was my first elected term, so I was a little taken aback at how little you can really do in such a small minority,” Coulter explains. He had worked to build collegial and productive relationships with the Republicans on the commission – and with Patterson himself, for that matter. But that wasn’t enough to actually manifest the change he wanted to see.

Woodward offered to help. “I’m like ‘OK, it’s clear we need more elected Democrats,” Woodward laughs. “He’s like, ‘Do you think ?!'”

In the process of recruiting candidates, the roles turned against Woodward: Dave, you’re on a limited time. Why don’t you run

It was not entirely desirable for a rising star to leave the legislature to pursue lower office, running into a seat where he would face a Republican incumbent Patterson was grooming to be the next chairman of the board. In addition, he would still be in the minority. But that was where his job was: to transform Oakland Blue.

In November 2004, Woodward upset the Republican incumbent. Several of his recruits also won. The Republican majority fell from 19-6 to 15-10. Now was the time to step on the accelerator. Woodward and Coulter came up with a new plan.

“For the next six years, I was [on the board], we kind of divided the responsibilities, ”says Coulter. “He supervised the ‘political’ side of things [for the Democrats], and I sort of oversaw the “caucus management” and “negotiating with [Patterson]side of things. And it worked for us. … I was trying to bring up issues and policies, and then Dave was trying to translate them into votes.

They chose issues designed to contrast with Patterson’s Republicans, like transit, clean water, urban redevelopment, and ensure that middle-class areas are not overlooked for the benefit of richer communities.

“It was a combination of raising issues that emerged… and then getting credible candidates,” Coulter explains.

“It’s not fair a winning formula; these are things voters want, ”says Woodward.

Patterson saw the Democrats make gains and it disturbed him. But he understood the cause sooner than most in his party. “I have always said that the far right wing of the [GOP] did a very effective job of driving moderate women out of the party, ”he told the Free press in 2004.

But what Patterson might not have expected was that Woodward had his eyes on something the Republicans had taken for granted as their control: the redistribution.


IIt was an oddity of Michigan law: the state legislature controlled the process of decennial redistribution of federal and state legislative maps. New county commission lines, however, were decided by a five-person panel: the county Democratic and Republican party chairmen, the county clerk, the treasurer, and the attorney.

After the 2006 election, the Republican majority on the board was only 13-12. Whoever controlled the district lines after the 2010 census would likely determine the majority. All county-wide positions would be in place in 2008 – a presidential year, which meant a high turnout for Democrats – and one of those offices, the former Patterson County District Attorney position, was a open seat. In November, Barack Obama won Oakland with 56.5% of the vote. Patterson won a fifth term as county executive with 58 percent of the vote. Republicans occupied the office of the clerk, but Democrats occupied the positions of treasurer and attorney, which meant they would control the county redistribution for the first time in generations. Woodward would get his majority. Everything was going as planned.

But there was one thing Woodward hadn’t foreseen: Patterson’s influence in the state capital.

At Patterson’s request, the GOP state legislature rewrote the county redistribution rules to remove control from the five-member bipartisan panel and hand it over to the GOP-controlled county council. And lest there be any doubt about Why what was happening, the new law was drafted in such a way that it applied only in Oakland County, only in counties with over a million people (there are two: Wayne and Oakland) that were not operating under their own charter (just Oakland).

“The streams have come [to Lansing] and said, ‘Hey, make that exception for Oakland County,’ ”one of Michigan’s top Republican strategists who got involved in the episode told me. “He wanted the advice. When he was a director, it was more like they weren’t an independently elected board; even if they have been, Brooks led them. He gave them their agenda. … They did what Brooks wanted. He ruled this county like a king. He wanted a conform Advice. This mattered more to him than [them being] Republicans, quite frankly.

Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed the bill in December 2011.

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