In 1998, when Dave Woodward was elected to the state House at age 22, one of the things that immediately separated him from other young win-it-now political obsessives was his patience. He saw a trend: Bill Clinton had won Oakland County in 1996, the first Democrat to carry it in decades. If they could just convince those people to vote Democratic lower on the ballot, that could change everything.
Having grown up in Oakland during the ’80s and ’90s, Dave knew the county’s reputation as a place for the wealthy and well-connected. He also knew that it bore little resemblance to the lives of many people in the county—himself included. “In Oakland County, particularly, prosperity—in so many ways—is all around you,” he says. “The opulence is all around you.”
Born and raised in Royal Oak, one of the middle-class, inner-ring suburbs in the south end of the county, his family was neither wealthy nor well-connected. His dad worked retail at Sears for 25 years—a working-class living that put food on the table but wasn’t the kind of money that created feather-bed comfort. Woodward’s interest in politics started in high school, but when it came time for college, he needed to be practical: At Wayne State, he set himself up for a career as an actuary. But being an actuary didn’t excite him—not like politics. In 1998, Woodward ran for the open seat being vacated by his hometown state representative, a Democrat. Woodward didn’t have a whole lot of money or connections and Royal Oak was still a battleground with lots of moderate Republicans—and the year was otherwise miserable for Michigan Democrats—but he won anyway, with nearly 55 percent of the vote.
He arrived in Lansing, 22 and impossibly boyish-looking, as the youngest member of the minority party. And though he threw himself into constituent services and bread-and-butter issues like clean water and consumer protection, he quickly found that minority status imposed limits on what you could achieve through hard work alone. Still, he believed the rah-rah attitude of his more experienced fellow legislators who vowed to take back the House in 2000.
“And right after that didn’t happen, I and a group of people sat down to say, ‘All right, we’ve got to map this out,’” remembers Woodward.
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 a loose confederation of local groups and elected officials’ campaigns than anything resembling a coherent organization.
“We had to build everything from scratch,” says Woodward.
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