For two decades, Lavora Barnes has been the person Democrats call when they have a problem.
Can’t get people to go door-to-door during a campaign? Have a candidate who veers wildly off-message? Can’t figure out how to target voters in a new district?
“She gets everything done,” says Amy Chapman, a longtime Democratic strategist who worked alongside Barnes when she was Michigan director of President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. “ … She’s just really good, really smart. She doesn’t take any shit. She gets people to ‘yes,’ but she does it in a nice way, so you don’t feel lectured.”
Barnes, 53, has been the Michigan Democratic Party’s (MDP) chief operating officer for almost four years in what Chair Brandon Dillon calls a “true partnership.” With Dillon announcing this month that he won’t seek a third term in 2019, Barnes has thrown her hat into the ring to run the party. And he’s firmly behind her.
“I can’t express in words how supportive I am of Lavora,” said Dillon, a former Grand Rapids state representative. “If there was a choice for one of us staying and one of us going … this is definitely the right decision. She can do this without me. I don’t think I could do this without her.”
Barnes, who started her career in Virginia politics and served in the White House Office of Media Affairs during the Bill Clinton administration, has been a fixture in Michigan politics since 2004. In 2015, she briefly ran for MDP chair before she and Dillon forged their political union.
She also got a big vote of confidence from Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, which instantly made Barnes the frontrunner in 2019.
“Lavora was a critical partner in this last cycle,” Whitmer said in an interview with the Advance this month. “She is so smart and works so hard and I think is an inspirational leader. … There is no one better prepared to take it on than she.”
It would have been natural to stay behind the scenes next year, but Barnes explained why she decided to take the plunge and run.
“We women tend to sit back and let others take the lead,” she noted. “But in 2018, we stepped up and you saw what a difference it made.”
Indeed, in an interesting parallel with the female-dominated 2018 Michigan Dem ticket, three of the four candidates who are formally running for chair are women — Barnes, Oakland County Commissioner Nancy Quarles and Northville Democratic Club President Lisa DiRado. Three also are African-American: Barnes, Quarles and longtime activist Greg Bowens.
Michigan has had only one African-American Democratic party chair, Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, an attorney who served as co-chair with longtime Chair Mark Brewer and went on to be corporation counsel of the city of Detroit under Mayor Mike Duggan.
The only female Michigan Democratic Party chair was Libby Maynard, a former lieutenant governor nominee who served from 1979 to 1983.
Over the years, Barnes has traveled to many Democratic party events and conferences and always saw plenty of African-American women in the room. They were diehard activists and organizers. Some were state party vice-chairs. But there are just two African-American female state Democratic Party chairs in the entire country: Louisiana state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson and Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who was just elected in Maryland.*
“I was shocked to learn that,” Barnes said. “Black women are doing so much work … but they’re not leading state parties.”
Garlin Gilchrist II will become the first African-American lieutenant governor in Michigan history when he’s sworn in on Jan. 1. He said that representation in party leadership matters, as do “bold policies.”
“Both the 2016 and 2018 elections were evidence of the critical role Black voters play in Democratic success or failure in Michigan and across the U.S.,” said Gilchrist. “It is absolutely in the Democratic Party’s best interest to have leaders and elected officials be reflective of this community. However, we need more than representation; we need bold policies and programs that will increase trust and participation among many underrepresented communities — including Black people, young people, Latinos and immigrants.”
Lavora Barnes was born in North Carolina and moved to Virginia, where she was bitten by the political bug in college. But during her stint with the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, she was told by several Old Dominion residents that she “wasn’t a true Southerner.
“‘You talk fast,’ they told me,” Barnes recalled.
She had worked in the Virginia Legislature after graduating in 1987 with a degree in government from the College of William and Mary, the first public college in the state to admit women. Barnes became one of only two staffers at the ‘92 Clinton campaign office in Virginia, a state which has taken a hard blue turn in recent years (“I did that,” Barnes jokes).
After Clinton won, she went on to serve in the administration until her daughter was born in 1994.
“I couldn’t figure out how to do both,” Barnes said candidly.
In 2001, she moved to Michigan for a job for her husband, Michael Whitehead, an educator with Ann Arbor Public Schools. Two of their children are now in college and their youngest is in high school.
“I’m still adjusting to the cold and driving in the winter,” she laughed, “but we love it here.”
Barnes began working in Michigan politics in 2004 as a community organizer for Michigan House Democrats. Three years later, she was promoted to communications director for the caucus. She served until 2011, enduring two “painful” government shutdowns during the recession-plagued divided government of the Gov. Jennifer Granholm era.
The Obama campaign tapped Barnes in 2012 to helm the Michigan re-election effort after she worked in communications for Blue Cross/Blue Shield for a year. Chapman describes Barnes as “easy to work with and a pleasure to work with — two things you normally wouldn’t get at one time.”
Barnes said she and Chapman “tried to run as much of a Michigan-style campaign as we could,” so that Democrats up and down the ticket had support. That was Barnes’ approach for the 2018 cycle, as well, after a devastating 2016 in which now-President Donald Trump narrowly won the state.
After Obama clinched re-election in ’12, Barnes served for two years as deputy Oakland County clerk and register of deeds under Clerk Lisa Brown. The two had worked together when Brown was a state House member — who made national news that year for being banned from the floor after saying “vagina” during a debate on abortion legislation.
Whitmer, who was Senate minority leader at the time, worked with Brown to organize a reading of “The Vagina Monologues” on the Michigan Capitol lawn in protest.
Barnes didn’t work closely with Whitmer during her time in the Legislature, but she said she is gratified by the governor-elect’s endorsement for MDP chair.
“I would never even think of doing it without her support,” Barnes said. “If she had another person in mind to chair the party, I would absolutely step aside. The party is very much her party now and it is on us to help move her agenda.”
There’s been some criticism, particularly on social media, that Whitmer should have sat out the race. But Dillon rejects that notion.
“She is the titular head of the party and she has every right to weigh in,” he said. “… When Lavora is elected, she will be the most qualified person ever to head up the party.”
Barnes said one of her top priorities is bringing “new voices” into the party fold, and she believes that’s already happened in many ways. As an African-American woman, she noted that she understands “what it’s like to feel like an outsider,” but adds that it’s not an “us vs. them” dynamic.
“If you look around at state Central Committee meetings, there are many, many new faces there,” she said. “… We know that 2020 is going to be different than 2018. This is no time for divisiveness, arguing and fighting.”
Lessons from 2016
Two years ago, it was an agonizing time to be a Democrat in Michigan.
Not only had Trump pulled out a stunning upset in the state, but Dems failed to make any gains in the state House or Congress. They knew they were locked in for eight straight years of Republicans controlling all three branches of government.
So Barnes got to work. The MDP started building its grassroots infrastructure after “we made the mistake in 2016 of expecting the presidential campaign to build that kind of organization,” she said. Democrats began talking about local issues and having conversations in all Michigan counties, known as Project 83.
The motto was to “win everywhere; fight everywhere,” Barnes said. And that’s the approach she wants the party to take in the run-up to 2020.
“We’re not going to stop having conversations. We’re not going to make that same mistake again. We’re going to keep working,” she said.
Barnes is ready to take on fundraising and be the public face of the party as chair. Democrats’ top 2020 priorities will be to support their presidential nominee, make sure U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) wins re-election, and build on their victories this year by flipping more seats in the state House.
There was a lot of talk in ‘16 that Michigan was becoming a red state. But Democrats swept all the top races on Nov. 6, with Whitmer triumphing in the governor’s race, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) winning re-election, Jocelyn Benson cruising to victory as secretary of state and Dana Nessel becoming the next attorney general.
“We’re still purple, but we’re purple that’s turning blue,” Barnes said. “But we can’t just assume Michigan is blue. That’s a mistake we’ve made in the past. We need to tell people why it’s important to vote Democratic.”
Barnes has the party’s day-to-day operations down to a science and “basically runs the show,” Dillon said. The pair had known each other since Dillon ran for the state House in 2010 and Barnes was communications director. After Lon Johnson stepped down as MDP chair in 2015 to run for Congress, they forged their partnership.
Dillon noted that one reason why they opted against a formal co-chair setup was that the Brewer-Hollowell arrangement left many people dissatisfied and they didn’t want to dredge up unhappy memories.
“Our partnership worked really, really well,” Dillon said. “… We were both really focused on trying to win and we stayed out of each other’s way. But we made all the big decisions jointly.”
Dillon describes Barnes as “cool under pressure” with a “super-charged wit.”
“She’s probably the hardest-working person I’ve seen in politics,” he said. “She’s always one step ahead of everyone else.”
Chapman said she’s glad that Barnes has decided to run for chair in 2019 because “anyone would want her skill set” at the state and national level.
“She’s used to getting the big stuff done,” Chapman summed up her friend. “She’s not used to talking about it.”