The Michigan Democrat Who Could Solve Her Party’s Identity Crisis
INDIANAPOLIS — Three hours into the rubber chicken dinner, the waitstaff had cleared the dessert plates and the wine bottles on the tables had long been emptied. The audience was growing restless, having sat through an endless procession of speakers — the mayor of Indianapolis, the candidate for U.S. Senate, the candidate for 1st Congressional District, the candidate for state auditor, the candidate for state treasurer, the representative of a Democratic group called Hoosier Women Forward and the son of the former Marion County sheriff who received a posthumous lifetime achievement award.
Then, a little before 10 p.m., the last speaker of the night rose from a table near the front of the room and headed for the dais. Before she had spoken a word into the microphone, the crowd came alive, a roar of hooting and hollering that lasted a full 18 seconds.
“So, hi, I’m Michigan State Sen. Mallory McMorrow,” she said, as the applause began to subside, “and before we get going, I have to lay down some of my Indiana credits, because why else would I be here in the Hoosier state? I am a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. My dad is a Hoosier.
“But perhaps most notably,” she said, smiling, “I came in second in the Indiana Toll Road logo design competition. That’s right, Indiana. You came this close from seeing my handiwork every single time you have to pay a toll. Which looking back is probably good that I came in second place because you probably wouldn’t like me as much right now.”
And they don’t like her, they love her. Like James Carville, the evening’s keynote speaker who told me he was “smitten” by the 35-year-old McMorrow, they have adored her ever since she delivered “the speech,” the one in which she defended herself from a Republican state senator’s unfounded accusations that McMorrow had groomed and sexualized children. The one that has racked up 15 million views and counting on Twitter and ricocheted across Facebook. The one that earned her a congratulatory voicemail from President Joe Biden. The one that Hillary Clinton retweeted and Bette Midler, too. The one in which, as Carville admiringly said, “She just went to the well of the Senate and said, ‘Let me tell you who I am.’”
This crowd of faithful Democrats gathered for the annual Hoosier Hospitality Dinner love McMorrow not because she has driven five hours from her suburban Detroit district to sling red meat about evil Republicans, but because she has come on a Friday night to talk about them. She has come to talk about what it means to be a Democrat, on the receiving end of a seemingly relentless barrage in a never-ending culture war.
“If I know one thing, it’s that we are not defined by the lies that people say about us,” McMorrow said to more cheers. “I took my own identity back and defined myself specifically as a straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom who knows that hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen.”
McMorrow has emerged as an unlikely voice for a party in desperate need of one. In this speech, which was the first of what likely will be many she’ll give at state party dinners that draw politicians with national ambitions, McMorrow wasn’t fighting the culture wars but rather teaching others how to fight them.
She told the audience to talk to everyone. (“You might be the first Democrat people ever meet.”) She gave them tips on knocking on doors. (“Find something on peoples’ porches that you like and compliment it.” For her, it’s “ceramic ducks that people in Michigan put on their porches and they dress them up in different outfits depending on the season. I’m obsessed with them. We talk about that for 20 minutes. And then they ask for a yard sign.”) And she told them to avoid partisan scripts and talking points. (“Be you. Be authentic. Be real.”)
After her 18-minute speech, the audience stood and clapped. She returned to her table where her husband, Ray Wert, and the Democratic operative Lis Smith, her new volunteer communications adviser, were waiting for her. Ray placed his hand on the small of her back. “You crushed that,” Smith told her. Dozens and dozens of audience members made a beeline to her table near the front of the room to thank her and pose for photos. The reception line lasted well over half an hour.
Mallory McMorrow in Design Mode
McMorrow wrote parts of her viral speech in her head, on her MacBook and in a bedside notebook made by Shinola, the classic Detroit-headquartered designer and manufacturer. It was after 9 p.m. on a weeknight in April. She had put her one-and-a-half-year daughter, Noa, to bed a couple of hours before.
Design is important to McMorrow. At Notre Dame, she started as an advertising major but eventually found her way into the industrial design program. She won a national contest to design the 2018 version of the Mazda3 compact car. She took a course at Notre Dame called “The Meaning of Things,” where she learned about the emotional resonance physical products have on people and how to “tell a story around the things that you were doing.”
She wrote a paper about the history of the Tupperware party. “That is the first company to really tap into women organizing, and having gatherings in your home and creating community,” she told me.
As a politician, she is both the product and its designer, which explains a key choice she made about how to frame her speech. At first, she wrote with righteous anger. “A lot of it was just notes about the hypocrisy of the Republican party,” she told me. But then her design thinking — the engineer’s daughter part of her — took over. “After I got all of that out, I crossed a lot of it out because I wanted to get it out of Republican vs. Democrat.”
Still, she couldn’t restrain a certain YOLO-inspired boldness.
“I’ll be honest: Once this kind of attack was leveraged against me, part of me thought, ‘If I’m going to go down, I’m going to go down swinging.’ And I didn’t expect the reaction that we got, but I think there’s something to be said for that. I didn’t start my career in politics. I just wanted to do the right thing.”
Mallory McMorrow on the March
McMorrow was 30 by the time she entered politics, after a decadelong career in branding and advertising that included stints at the toymaker Mattel and as a creative director of Gawker, the slash-and-burn website. In January 2017, she attended the Women’s March in Detroit following the election of Donald Trump.
After the march, she and other women she met started writing postcards to Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s new education secretary from Michigan, expressing their dismay with the administration. Eventually, a friend asked her if she had ever considered running for office. She applied to the Michigan chapter of a group called Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run for office.
In May, she and her husband moved into a new house and got married the same month. In August, she announced her run for office in a Republican-controlled district. She flipped the district blue a year later in 2018 on her first attempt. As a state senator, she has introduced 40 bills. Not one has enjoyed a hearing.
Nevertheless, five years later, she is a nationally known quantity, which automatically invites questions about higher office. Would she want to replace the 72-year-old Sen. Debbie Stabenow if she retires? “That is a conversation I haven’t even thought about yet,” she told me. “I haven’t slept in a month and a half.”
For her next act, McMorrow wants to flip the Michigan Senate — a body controlled by Republicans since 1984, “which is longer than I’ve been alive,” she told me. That requires winning back at least four seats (or three with the reelection of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist). For that, McMorrow has been fundraising since her April speech. Her husband Ray, who is also her campaign treasurer, told me the figure is already well over a half a million dollars.
“If I get reelected and flip the Senate,” she said, “that’s my next five years.”
Mallory McMorrow on Lane Two
A little after 3 p.m. on the Friday she would speak to the Indiana Democrats, McMorrow and her still-minuscule entourage — Ray, and Smith, who famously helped raise the national profile of former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg — stopped by a bowling alley and bougie restaurant called Punch Bowl Social in Indianapolis.
McMorrow hasn’t had much normalcy in the last few months, and bowling was the closest thing she could think of doing that felt normal. The place reminded her of the Bowlero Lanes & Lounge back in Royal Oak, where she would bowl with her husband before the pandemic and their daughter arrived. She did a lot of bowling in college, and she joined a bowling league at her first job in Southern California. “I got a turkey once” — three strikes in a row. “It was very exciting.”
McMorrow ordered a blood orange beer from Four Day Ray, a local brewery, and water. We sat down on a couch at the end of the lane. In front of us were what looked like two small tree stumps designed to be tables. She was not impressed; too small and too far away from the couches to be useful, she said.
On this day, a few weeks before Roe would fall, McMorrow had abortion rights on her mind. Not long after her April speech McMorrow received a letter explaining to her that an anonymous donor had made a donation to Notre Dame Law School in her name to counter fellow alum, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
“It’s so disconnected from where a majority of people are,” McMorrow said of the ruling, then still in draft form. “Overnight, Michigan is going to be kind of the most extreme state.”
Why did it take a Michigan state senator to teach Democrats how to message the culture war? I asked her. “It is so wild, because look, I’m not a Democratic strategist,” she said.
Could it be her time at Gawker, I prompted her, or her design chops combined with having grown up in the social media age?
“I think just learning how to write and how to talk online really came from that background,” she said. “And if there’s a huge generational advantage, it’s because Facebook came out when I was in college. We’ve always existed online. A lot of my career is because I had a personality online. And there’s no separation between who I am as a person and my work life, and I think that’s attractive.”
Mallory McMorrow at the After-Party
“Let’s get you a beer,” Wert said.
It was after 11 p.m. and the reception line for photos with McMorrow had finally petered out. They walked a few blocks from the Indiana Convention Center to a nearby bar called Loughmiller’s. Indiana Young Democrats were hosting an after-party, and McMorrow was surrounded again the moment she walked in. As Wert ordered her a Blue Moon, the closest thing on the menu to her Michigan-preferred Bell’s Oberon, she posed for more photos.
Wert told me he is still learning how to be the spouse of a political superstar. He has joked with Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of the transportation secretary, about starting a political spouse support group. (When visiting New York City for the DNC’s LGBTQ gala, McMorrow had drinks with the Buttigiegses and Smith).
At my request, Wert whipped out his cellphone and played the voicemail Biden had left McMorrow. “Hello, Senator, this is Joe Biden—uh, President Biden. I called to tell you how proud I was of your speech,” the president said, before giving her his phone number, which Wert edited out.
For another hour, McMorrow greeted more young Democrats. She posed for more pictures.
Finally, at 12:47 a.m., McMorrow shook a few final hands. And then she and Ray disappeared into the night, headed back to their hotel.
Back in her district later that day, she had doors to knock, ceramic ducks to admire, lawn signs to give out — a whole new Democratic identity to design.
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