Like many bright young things who make their way to the nation’s capital, Andy Meisner didn’t plan to stay more than a few years. Michigan, after all, was his home — the place he planned to settle and, ultimately, build his political future.
But while Meisner paid his dues on Capitol Hill, working first as an aide to Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) and then to Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), he had no intention of losing touch with the home-state political scene.
“What I really noticed was the absence of any very easily accessible opportunity … to strategize about what was going on in Michigan,” he recalls thinking as he surveyed the Washington political landscape. “There wasn’t really an organization that was meeting what I perceived as that need.”
In response, Meisner, along with fellow Wolverine State politicos David Kramer and Fred Miller, formed the Michigan Democratic Action Network, an independent political action committee that in the four and a half years since its formal inception has raised some $60,000 for Michigan Democratic state candidates and compiled a mailing list of about 1,000 individuals. Moreover, thanks to a focus on developing the next generation of Michigan political talent, its members are beginning to make inroads in the state Legislature.
“I don’t know of any other state that has this,” said Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), a longtime supporter of the group.
Instead of aiming to be “the little fish in the big sea” by targeting federal races, MDAN’s founders decided early on to focus its energies on the state Legislature. Lansing, after all, was where the 2000 battle over reapportionment would occur; whichever party controlled the Legislature would decide who bore the brunt of any redistricting fallout.
The model was simple: marshal the predominantly untapped financial and manpower resources of 20- and 30-somethings living in Washington and Michigan to effect political change at the state level.
“We kinda recognized there were a ton of Michigan Democrats living in D.C., and they really didn’t have a vehicle to get involved in what was going on back home,” Meisner said.
Likewise, the choice in Michigan was limited to “bingo with retirees or forking over four or five hundred dollars to go to a [fancy] dinner,” co-founder Kramer remembered.
The group has no paid staff and no mandatory dues — preferring to define members as those who participate — and the bulk of MDAN’s funds come through an annual house party held in Washington, as well as through the dozen or so other social events convened each year by its Michigan and D.C. chapters. (Recent events have included state trivia at a Hawk ‘n’ Dove happy hour and bowling with state legislators in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak.) In addition, members of the board of directors pledge to raise or donate $500 per cycle, or $250 per year.
As a state PAC, MDAN is limited to giving $5,000 per cycle to state House candidates, $10,000 per cycle to state Senate contenders, and $34,000 to those running for statewide office, such as governor or attorney general. Federal finance laws allow such PACs to give $5,000 per cycle to a federal candidate, although MDAN officials have said they have no intention of expanding beyond the state level.
Candidates caught in “tough but winnable elections” are MDAN’s preferred political demographic, said executive committee member and former Hill staffer Jonathan Beeton, adding that the group conducts research about which candidates could benefit most from small injections of cash.
“A lot of these campaigns run on $20,000 or $30,000,” Beeton said, referring to the average state House or Senate race. “A $1,000 check coming in in the last few weeks … means they can go to their printer and print up some more signs.”
“Our highest-level event is $50, and the average is between $10 and $15,” added Christina Hardesty, a legislative assistant to Levin who serves on MDAN’s executive committee. “When we talk about donating $1,500 to a race — that’s a huge amount of money at that level.”
The fledgling PAC convened its inaugural house party in the summer of 1999, bringing in more than $7,000. All in all, in its first cycle of existence, MDAN gave about $30,000 — in $1,000 to $4,000 increments — to nine Michigan state House candidates. And while the group saw its goal of taking back the Legislature fall short in 2000, four of the candidates it backed were successful.
“We don’t just bet on winners, we take some risks,” said Treasurer Bob Burns.
In 2002, MDAN broadened the scope of potential recipients of its largess, more than doubling the number of candidates it supported by disbursing some $25,000 in smaller amounts to 22 candidates, including state Sen. Mark Schauer, the new Democratic Floor Leader. Also for the first time, MDAN gave $1,000 to the gubernatorial campaign of now-Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D).
“It was a strategic decision to make the governor aware of our organization,” said Beeton, emphasizing that a debate continues within the group over whether it should permanently expand to nonfederal statewide candidates.
Although its recent July house party fell short of expectations, bringing in pledges of just $4,500, MDAN is also aiming to break into the ranks of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s Top 150 PACs this cycle, Burns said.
“I think we are on track to raise that,” he said, adding that the group was exploring “newer sources of money” such as donations from other PACs and corporate donors.
“We try to go after the uncollected resources whether they be human or financial,” he said.
In order to galvanize MDAN’s human arsenal, the PAC also provides travel stipends so Washington-based members can return home to work on state campaigns.
MDANer David Goldenberg, a legislative assistant to Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), returned to Michigan last fall to work on the state Senate campaign of Democratic candidate Andy Neumann, one of the closest state Senate races of the 2002 cycle.
Although Neumann would narrowly lose to Republican opponent Tony Stamos, Goldenberg maintains that MDAN’s ability to dispatch volunteers to tight races provides a much-needed resource to Democratic candidates.
“A lot of us who are involved in the organization, we have campaign experience,” Goldenberg said. “It’s invaluable when you can bring somebody into a campaign in the last two weeks who understands things.”
What sets MDAN apart from other PACs, those familiar with the Michigan political scene said, is its unique combination of fundraising for state candidates coupled with its emphasis on nurturing the next generation of state political talent, both at home and in Washington. (The short-lived Lone Star Democratic Network, which dissolved in 2001, was based in part on the MDAN model, though it never focused on developing up-and-coming Texas political talent to the extent MDAN has in Michigan.)
Meisner, who last fall became the inaugural MDANer to win a seat in the state House, representing Detroit’s inner-ring suburbs, credits his involvement with the group as having sharpened his political skills.
“The networking that we’ve done and the political planning and operation — I think that was an essential piece of getting me to run for office,” said Meisner, who left Washington in early 2001 to be closer to his ailing father and to attend law school at the University of Detroit.
In addition to Meisner, state Rep. Steve Bieda (D) is also an MDAN board member. Treasurer Burns, who lost a special election Democratic primary for state Senate in 2001, now serves as Meisner’s chief of staff. Board members Fred Miller, a former aide to then-Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.), and onetime Kildee staffer Jim Ananich are both seeking state House seats in the 2004 cycle. And MDAN co-founder and Detroit attorney David Kramer, who was recently named young Democrat of the year at Michigan’s annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner and serves as a state Democratic Party officer, hasn’t ruled out a possible future run for office.
“As time goes by you’ll see more and more people … who take that step,” Miller said, referring to the decision to run for elected office in the Wolverine State.
“Among them you find people who will be part of a farm team,” Kildee said.
While MDAN was established independently of the state Democratic Party, its fundraising and outreach programs complement the state party’s efforts, according to both MDAN and party officials.
“It’s become sort of a training ground for [future] candidates,” said Michigan Democratic Party Executive Chairman Mark Brewer, who added that the group has been doing “great work” for the party.
This spring, MDAN launched a candidate training event in conjunction with the Detroit AFL-CIO, which featured speakers, such as Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), discussing various aspects of running for office. Part two of this initiative, held at the end of July, focused on fundraising and election law compliance issues.
Looking to the future, an aggressive program of grassroots outreach and candidate development appears in the works. To expand the Michigan Democratic farm team, MDAN is putting together a mentorship program, matching candidates for local and state office with elected officials. And this October, MDAN will partner with the College Democrats of Michigan to host a youth conference and fundraiser in Lansing, which Granholm is tentatively scheduled to attend.
“What we’ve tried to do is just provide a little spark to try to remind people that you always got to find, explore different ways of getting people involved,” Meisner said. “People in general are just so apathetic, we’ve got to go out of our way to get them involved.”