'Pink wave' of Michigan women seeks to change the face of power
The “pink wave” of women aspiring to political office nationwide is building in Michigan, where a surge in female candidates, mostly Democrats, are running for state and federal seats.
Nineteen women are running for the U.S. House in Michigan, up more than 215 percent from the six women on the 2016 primary ballot. Half are political newcomers — several in districts never represented by a woman.
Two hundred Michigan women are running for the state House and Senate, up 61 percent from the 124 candidates who ran four years ago. They make up a third of the 601 candidates on the Aug. 7 primary ballot.
Women are also candidates for statewide office, including governor, attorney general and secretary of state.
“Many women have just come to the conclusion that enough is enough, and it’s our time to have a seat at the table,” said first-time candidate Kimberly Hill Knott of Detroit, who is one of five women in the Democratic primary to replace resigned U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr.
While just over half of the population is female, women make up about a fifth of Congress and 25 percent of the Michigan Legislature.
Women hold two seats in Michigan’s 14-member U.S. House delegation, and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, is among 20 women in the 100-member Senate.
"We are seizing the moment, regardless of the challenges or the odds that we may have," Knott added.
Women remain greatly outnumbered by men running for office in Michigan and nationwide.
Women represent roughly 30 percent of those who have filed for Congress in Michigan — a figure on par with the national average this year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which tracks female candidates.
Why they are running
The crush of Democratic candidates is motivated in part by Republican President Donald Trump and the policies of the GOP-controlled Congress.
Three of the 19 women running for the U.S. House in Michigan are Republicans, making Candius Stearns “even more of an unicorn,” she joked.
“Conservative women in the past haven’t actually stepped up to run,” said Stearns of Sterling Heights, who hopes to succeed retiring longtime Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak.
“I said, 'If not me, who?' A lot of the women in my policy circle said, ‘Absolutely.’ We need a voice in D.C.”
A majority of Michigan's 200 female state candidates are also Democrats. The minority party in Lansing has 127 female candidates running in the state’s 148 legislative primaries, up from 85 in 2014.
State Rep. Kristy Pagan of Canton Township, who is chairing the House Democrats' 2018 campaign operations, said she thinks more female candidates are stepping up “because they feel they’re not truly being represented by their current elected officials.”
Lansing remains a male-dominated culture. Pagan, a second-term lawmaker who sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee, said she is regularly “catcalled” coming and going from the Capitol, including four times in one day this month.
“That’s an everyday occurrence that myself and many of my women colleagues face, and I think it’s completely unacceptable,” Pagan said during a recent taping of the "Off The Record" show on WKAR-TV.
Such behavior reinforces the need to “have more women in public office and more women at the decision-making table in leadership so that we can actually have equality when it comes to serving in our state government,” she said.
Gidget Groendyk of Rockford, formerly Scott Langford, is vying to become Michigan’s first transgender lawmaker. But Groendyk faces tough odds in a crowded Democratic primary to take on incumbent Republican state Sen. Pete MacGregor of Rockford.
Simply running as a transgender candidate is “a pretty big deal,” Groendyk said. She said she has had “no problem” with local voters “and is very persistent — that’s who I am. I won’t stop until I win.”
Surviving the primary
The potential wave of female candidates could change dynamics in Lansing and Washington, but first they have to survive the primary season. Several face uphill battles in crowded primaries or competitive districts where they'll meet incumbent lawmakers in fall match-ups.
Nationally, more than 400 women have filed to run for the U.S. House, breaking the record of 298 who filed in 2012, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
The center's Kelly Dittmar is optimistic about the women running but says they remain underrepresented among all congressional candidates.
"Progress for women has been incredibly slow. We will not see political parity and all the gains we want to see in any single election year, including this one," said Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers University at Camden.
"But this year can move us forward in not only seeing a gain for women in political power, but also in making the case for women’s participation and power in politics in the long term."
Campaigns and civic groups say women are volunteering more and donating more since 2016 — mostly to the benefit of Democrats, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
"Our fastest growing category of volunteer is Republican women over 50 in Oakland County," said Democrat Elissa Slotkin of Holly, a first-time candidate for Congress aiming to challenge GOP Rep. Mike Bishop of Rochester.
Her campaign has a large number of female precinct campaigns and volunteers, who often bring along their young daughters, she said.
"Certainly, the most common thing I hear is how frustrated people are with the lack of civility, and that hopefully more women in Congress would help with that problem," Slotkin added.
Fayrouz Saad, a Northville Democrat, said one reason she is running is to "change the face of leadership in this country," because Congress is not representative of the people.
"It's not only the #MeToo movement, but the everyday policy issues that are affecting our lives," Saad said.
"Around this time last year, 12 men got into a room and decided what health care should look like for the entire country and came out with a bill that wasn't inclusive of women or reproductive rights."
She is among four women — two Democrats and two Republicans — competing in a field of a dozen candidates to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Dave Trott of Birmingham in Michigan's 11th Congressional District.
Newfound interest in political office by Democratic women started the day after Trump won the 2016 election, said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, which recruits female candidates who back abortion rights.
“I put it on not just a pure reaction to Donald Trump, but these are women who expected to see Hillary Clinton as their president and wanted to see her," Schriock said. "I think the one-two punch of him winning and her losing really ignited a passion in a lot of women.”
Michigan is a target for the Democratic group, which is focused on assisting women in legislative races and has endorsed Gretchen Whitmer for governor and Jocelyn Benson for secretary of state.
GOP's female surge
Republican women have seen an increase in candidates this year, though smaller than the Democratic surge.
Three GOP women are running for U.S. House in Michigan, after none ran in 2016. Nationally, more than 100 Republican women are running for the U.S. House and 20 for the Senate.
As it seeks to retain its majority in Lansing, the Michigan GOP has 73 women running for legislative office — up from 39 in 2014 — as seats open up due to term limits.
Republican women are motivated by principles and policy — not anger or identity politics like the Democrats, said Missy Shorey, executive director of Maggie's List, which endorses and trains conservative female candidates.
"They’re unhinged. They’ve come out because of Donald Trump. Because they literally loathe our president," Shorey said of the Democratic women.
"What they don’t understand is millions of women elected our president."
Maggie's List has endorsed GOP businesswoman Lena Epstein in the 11th District. Epstein co-chaired Trump's Michigan campaign in 2016.
"On election night in November, there's going to be some very sad Democratic women because they are running unqualified women, and they are running on anger. I’m not saying that from partisan point of view, but as a marketer," Shorey said.
Amanda Van Essen Wirth, co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, also disputes the narrative that female voters could bolster a “blue wave” for Democrats.
One-third of all small business owners are women, and GOP policies should appeal to a growing number of female voters, she said.
“I think Democrats often treat women as single-issue voters, and I think they’ve hijacked ‘women’s health’ to mean abortion rights,” said Van Essen Wirth, a lawyer who ran for the state House in 2012.
Women currently hold six of 50 governorships. But 47 women are running in gubernatorial races across the country, surpassing the record set in 1994 when 34 women ran.
Whitmer of East Lansing is among them and the only woman from a major party this year running for Michigan governor. The former Senate minority leader is seeking to become the second woman to win the post.
If she wins the primary, Whitmer could join three other women at the top of the Democratic ticket: Stabenow, attorney general candidate Dana Nessel and Benson, who both won the party's early endorsement.
For Republicans, Mary Treder Lang is running for secretary of state and state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker for attorney general.
“I’ve had so many people tell me we can’t have too many women here or too many women there. I don’t buy into it,” Whitmer said. “Don’t hire me because I’m a woman. Hire me because I’m the one to get the job done.”