Published April 2018, Hour Detroit and hourdetroit.com.
Voters are seeing more female candidates on the ballot than ever before
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL BISSELL / MLIVE
Thousands gathered at the Michigan State Capitol in January for Power to the Polls, an event with speeches on feminism, transgender rights, immigration reform, and more. Before the gathering wrapped, a congregation of women running for office gathered near the bottom of the Capitol steps. Together, they raised American flags as the crowd cheered and “We Will Rock You” played overhead.
The event marked the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March, which attracted more than 1 million protesters following President Trump’s inauguration. Since that initial display of progressive values, the #MeToo Movement, Time’s Up blackout at the Golden Globes, and the sentencing of Larry Nassar have captured the country’s attention.
Moments like these, as well as a majority Republican government, have inspired more Democratic women to run for office in U.S. states, including Michigan — where, as of last year, women only held 37 seats in the state legislature, with 18 of those belonging to Democratic women.
“We’re seeing daily assaults on our rights and freedoms from the right, and it’s Democratic women who are best suited to safeguard them,” says, A’shanti Gholar, political director of Emerge America, a progressive women’s organization with a Michigan chapter.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT KILLIPS / LANSING STATE JOURNAL
Despite the national conversation’s focus on women from the left, however, it’s not just female Democrats who are running. Conservative women are advocating for their political beliefs, which often focus on border security, pro-life legislation, and tax cuts.
“Conservative leadership, principles, and perspectives focus on the core of society — God, family, nation, community, prosperity, and the like,” says Linda Lee Tarver, president of Republican Women’s Federation of Michigan. “While Republican women are not chanting in the streets, calling themselves nasty women, or wearing p***y hats, we are uniquely qualified to run for office being well informed, highly motivated, experienced, proven, and in agreement to ‘Make America Great Again.’”
Michigan has had its share of notable women politicians, from Jennifer Granholm’s election as its first female governor and Candice Miller’s long record of public service to Gretchen Whitmer’s emergence as a Democratic gubernatorial front-runner.
Hour Detroit asked several local female politicians about what issues they’re passionate about. The answers, naturally, varied. But despite their party affiliation, each candidate agreed on the need for change — and they’re ready to make that happen.
Running for: U.S. House, 11th Congressional District of Michigan
Kristine Bonds may be known, in part, for her recognizable last name — her father, Bill Bonds, was a longtime anchor for WXYZ-TV in Detroit. But in the years to come, it’s possible that she may be associated with what is a central part of her campaign. Bonds’ stepson died from an opiod overdose, and she’s on a mission to stop the drug epidemic in Oakland County and across the country.
“Having lost a young man just a week shy of his 21st birthday due to an opioid overdose was beyond life changing,” says Bonds, who hopes to fill the seat in Congress that will be left vacant by Republican David Trott later this year. “I don’t want anyone to ever experience the sense of loneliness and pure sadness.”
Bonds wants to implement tools for prevention and education about addiction, such as holding forums where parents and students can hear real-life stories from those affected by the drugs and take an oath to abstain from opioids. She’s also passionate about making Michigan the driverless car capital of the world, and, like most in the Republican party, issues surrounding pro-life, military, business, and Second Amendment rights are crucial to her platform.
In the last decade, Bonds has been responsible for more than 35 tech-related companies, but she has no prior political experience. However, as an “outsider,” she believes that “draining the swamp” is valuable.
“We’ve got to continually look ahead,” Bonds says. “If that means that more women on the left side have come out, great. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s indicative of the outcome [of the election].”
Running for: Michigan Senate, District 6
Despite serving two terms already as the State Representative for Michigan’s 12th House District, Erika Geiss is ready to take on a new political role. She knows, from experience, that the job is about more than just doing work in Lansing. According to her, it’s about serving the community, too.
“I fight for the people of my district because I’ve never stopped being one of them,” says Geiss, the granddaughter of Panamanian immigrants who would focus her big-picture goals on education, economics, and health.
Geiss moved to Michigan in 2003, and lives in Taylor with her husband and children. Aside from being the vice president of her youngest’s Parent Teacher Organization, she’s a member of three House committees, including Commerce and Trade, Michigan Competitiveness, and Workforce and Talent Development. She also owns an editing business, has taught college classes, and served on local art, planning, and substance abuse prevention committees.
She says that seeing so many women running for office this year shows promise for female representation in government, but it’s not the only way to make a difference.
“There are many ways to be involved in politics — from staying informed and engaged in issues to grassroots organizing all the way to being in office,” Geiss says. “I believe that as women, we need to be engaged and involved in politics, since the issues that are debated, the policies and bills drafted, and [the] legislation enacted affects our lives significantly.”
Running for: U.S. House, 11th Congressional District of Michigan
Conservative values, like great schools, a strong job market, and opportunities for future generations, go hand-in-hand with women’s values, according to Lena Epstein.
“One tends to be conservative when they have something to conserve — and by that I don’t mean material wealth,” says Epstein, who, like Bonds, is running to fill David Trott’s seat. “I mean the things that are truly important in this life — faith, family, and a free society.”
The Harvard graduate is a third-generation owner and general manager of Vesco Oil Corporation. She’s a fiscal conservative and considers her time as the co-chair of the Donald Trump Michigan Presidential Campaign in 2016 to have been valuable in showing her what is important to Americans.
“There is a deep resentment among the working people of this country towards elected officials, who keep telling constituents that elected officials in Washington know better while it becomes more and more evident that those in Washington are only looking out for their own self-interest,” she says.
Epstein’s platform focuses on reigning in government spending, repealing Obamacare, and supporting the U.S.-Israel relationship. Her family is motivating her throughout the campaign, and she wants her newborn daughter to know that she can successfully pursue whatever her calling may be.
“I want my daughter to understand that she can run a company, a family, a political campaign — or all three!” she says. “When there are no ceilings, the sky is the limit.”
Running for: Michigan Attorney General
When Dana Nessel decided to make her most popular campaign ad, a video which includes her saying, “I won’t walk around in a half-open bathrobe,” the intent was to use “bold language” and “humor” to highlight a serious issue.
“I knew there were millions of women who know exactly what it’s like to be harassed at work,” says Nessel, whose commercial was in response to headlines of sexual harassment and assault from men in positions of power. “I wanted to make a promise directly to them, that I would not abuse my power; in fact, that I would do the opposite and work to protect them from that harassment.”
Protecting people in her community has been a cornerstone of her 25-year legal career. She got her start in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, and later started her own firm, focused on representing indigent defendants and minorities in civil rights cases. In 2012, she served as an attorney on DeBoer v. Snyder, a case that challenged bans on adoption and marriage for same-sex couples in Michigan. This case, in part, paved the way for same-sex marriage in the U.S., which was legalized three years later.
“My experience as an out gay woman is certainly different from a woman of color, a trans woman, a young woman from rural Michigan, and so on,” says Nessel, whose platform touches on marijuana, civil rights, and protecting the environment, the senior community, and consumers. “If we want to represent all the people of Michigan — and I certainly do — then we need to have a government that is as diverse as the people they represent.”
Running for: U.S. House, 11th Congressional District of Michigan
More than 40 years ago, Fayrouz Saad’s parents came to the United States in search of the American Dream, and started a small business in Detroit’s Eastern Market.
“I learned from them the value of hard work and what it means to be American,” says Saad, who lives in Northville. “If Trump was president when my parents immigrated here, they may not have been accepted into this country.”
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 2004, Saad joined the John Kerry presidential campaign as a field organizer. She then went on to work for Michigan State Representative Gino Polidorio. In 2015, Saad became the first director of Detroit’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
Saad has actively been involved in politics and community efforts throughout her career, and is inspired to see the number of women who are now stepping up to run for office, both at the national and local level.
“It is a sign that representation matters and we need to change the face of leadership in this country,” says Saad, who, if elected, could be the first Muslim woman to hold a position in Congress. “We need women — of all backgrounds — engaged at all levels of government. We need a government that understands the needs, challenges, and perspectives of all.”
Immigration issues, naturally, are a focal part of her platform. But Saad is also passionate about Medicare for All, improving infrastructure, growing the economy, and public schools.
“We need more people who are ready to go to Washington to fight for these issues,” she says. “I am ready to do that.”
Running for: U.S. House, 9th Congressional District of Michigan
Candius Stearns is reluctant to put any candidate into a category, whether they’re male, female, liberal, or conservative.
“We are working in an era of unprecedented partisanship, and our government is suffering for it,” she says. “We have to stop assuming ideas belong to ‘us’ or ‘them’ and start reaching together for solutions.”
As far as issues she’d like to create solutions for, she counts the health care system and lack of skilled trade workers in Michigan’s 9th District as two of her biggest concerns. Her platform touches on finding an alternative to the Affordable Care Act and supporting apprenticeship and technical trade programs, as well as providing relief to small business owners and middle-class income families, lowering government spending, and securing borders.
Stearns started her own benefit agency in 1999, a sister company to this agency in 2007, and a travel business in 2016. She’s also held positions at the Metro Detroit Association of Health Underwriters and the Macomb County GOP. She’s certain that this experience in business has helped her become a pragmatic leader.
“My kids understand the rules, and they know they are being enforced the same way, every single time,” says Sterns, who lives in Sterling Heights with her husband and two sons. “If they do the right things, they are rewarded. When they don’t, they are punished. It’s good governance, pure and simple — and in our country, we’ve lost it. I am deeply passionate about bringing it back.”
Running for: U.S. House, 13th Congressional District of Michigan
The eldest of 14 children, Rashida Tlaib was raised by Palestinian immigrant parents and grew up in Detroit during tough times. She says this, along with the work she’s done as a public interest lawyer, has made her a “strong, hard-working woman.”
“I know the struggles of working-class families because I have them, too,” says Tlaib, who became the first Muslim woman to serve in the Michigan Legislature in 2008.
Since then, she’s started a Neighborhood Service Center, helped more than 50 residents become U.S. citizens, and helped “force” the Koch brothers to remove pollutants from Detroit’s riverfront. Now, Tlaib is running to fill the seat of former U.S. Representative John Conyers, who resigned in December following sexual harassment allegations.
If elected, Tlaib will focus on issues like a $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All, restoring environmental protections, and being an ally for immigrants and women. She’s proud to be one of the women running for office this year, and hopes that in doing so, it will inspire people from marginalized communities to also run for office.
“The election of Donald Trump was almost like a challenge to women everywhere to stand up to his gross misogyny, and what better way to take him on than by running for office and taking a seat at the table and elevating our voices?” she says. “[Women] think about issues through a different lens, because we’ve experienced things men haven’t and can’t really understand. We imagine the impact of a bill on our community, and we bring empathy to the table.”