House race to provide Michigan's first millennial representative

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Haley Stevens, a Democrat running for Congress in the 11th District, shakes hands with workers during a shift change at the FCA Sterling Heights Assembly Plant in Sterling Heights on Oct 2, 2018.

A tight congressional race in Detroit's suburbs guarantees that Michigan adds another woman to its delegation next year — and its first representative of the millennial generation.

Two first-time candidates, Democrat Haley Stevens, 35, and Republican Lena Epstein, 37,  are facing off in the 11th District to determine a successor for retiring U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham. 

The contest has been dubbed the "Trump vs. Obama" match-up because Epstein, a businesswoman, co-chaired President Donald Trump's Michigan campaign, and Stevens was an appointee of President Barack Obama — most notably as chief of staff of the auto rescue task force.

Nonpartisan groups such as the Cook Political Report and Five Thirty Eight had rated the race a toss-up in a district Trump won by 4 percentage points, though Cook last week tipped its score to slightly favor Stevens.

Epstein could face an uphill fight as Republicans work to overcome Trump's unpopularity in well-educated suburban districts, analysts say. And Michigan's 11th District, which covers parts of Wayne and Oakland counties, is the state's most well-educated.  

11th District Republican Congressional candidate Lena Epstein, left, shows Republican Lieutenant Governor candidate Lisa Posthumus Lyons (Bill Schuette's running mate) around her campaign headquarters in Commerce Township before the women gave a pep talk to campaign volunteers, Oct. 6, 2018.

"When we think about the fantastic economic numbers we’re hearing month after month — that is something that usually favors the party in power. But Trump is overshadowing all of that," said David Dulio, who chairs the political science department at Oakland University. 

"The reports about these suburban districts deciding control of the House are on the money. This is one of them."

The race has been slow to heat up this fall with both Stevens and Epstein running ads to introduce themselves to voters, rather than bash their opponent.

Outside groups are stepping up attacks, however, including American First Action, a super political action committee affiliated with Trump. It has committed $850,000 to the district, running a spot tying Stevens to Hillary Clinton and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm as a "new generation of liberal."

House Majority PAC, which has ties to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, just put $544,000 behind a new ad. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is also spending into the six figures, targeting "Millionaire Lena Epstein" for supporting the House GOP health care plan. 

Both newcomers struggle with name identification, according to a recent New York Times poll that found more than half of the 465 voters surveyed didn't know Stevens or Epstein. 

The survey put Stevens in a "modest" lead with 45 percent to Epstein's 38 percent, with 17 percent undecided. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. 

"Let's assume that's right. That's a lot of undecideds," Dulio said. "Even though this has been a strange campaign to this point, Epstein still has a chance." 

'Rein in' Trump 

Stevens of Rochester Hills raised $1 million and Epstein $1.6 million during the primary season, with Epstein self-funding  much of her total.

Stevens has campaigned on strengthening manufacturing, a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, a public insurance option in the Affordable Care Act and "standing up to Trump." She wants to end the gender pay gap and supports paid family leave.

Stevens calls Trump's planned wall along the Southern border "a big tax." She doesn't endorse eliminating the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency known as ICE, though she says it requires more oversight. 

"We need to rein in some of the activities and certainly overhaul some aspects of that agency," Stevens said.

"I'm a person who was working at a federal agency that the tea party asked to be abolished, and I think people are sometimes too quick to make those types of assessments and judgments." 

She is wary of Trump's study of proposed auto tariffs, worried they'd harm the industry. 

"I'm concerned about some of the remarks by analysts showing an industry contraction. Consumer prices are going to go up," she said.

"I'm having conversations with suppliers that are eerily similar to those I had seven or eight years ago as it pertains to tight margins and costs and fears about having to lay people off," she added.

Stevens takes a wait-and-see approach on possible impeachment hearings for Trump, saying that conversation depends on the outcome of special counsel Robert Mueller's inquiry. 

"We need to see the Mueller investigation through," Stevens said. "I believe we need to put the country first and certainly treat anything along those lines very seriously." 

Democratic organizer 

Stevens grew up in Rochester Hills, graduating from Seaholm High School in Birmingham and American University in Washington, D.C., where she also attended graduate school. 

She worked for the state Democratic Party organizing volunteers during the 2006 elections in Grand Rapids, later working on Clinton and Obama's 2008 presidential campaigns. 

As Michigan's economy was bottoming out in 2008, "I just became overwhelmed with this thought that if I was going to serve in Obama’s administration I've got to do something for back home," she said. 

Stevens sent her resume to Steve Rattner and was hired onto the auto task force that ultimately oversaw the financial bailout and bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors from 2009-11.

Stevens' portfolio included everything from handling outreach to suppliers, dealers and unions, to managing political affairs, to overseeing mundane office operations, said Ron Bloom, who served as deputy to Rattner. 

"She's very practical and has just a great way about her to deal with a whole variety of very different kinds of people and make them feel like they were being listened to — and not just feel like it but genuinely interested," Bloom said. 

Stevens later worked at an advanced manufacturing lab in Chicago, where she headed a job training program and created an online certification program for digital manufacturing.

Part of the project allowed students to experience new technologies, while informing educators about the curriculum needed to train the next-generation workforce, said Cheryl Thompson, formerly of Ford Motor Co., who met Stevens at the lab in 2016.   

They discovered their shared passion for workforce development and for boosting women in manufacturing. 

"I do see an uprising," said Thompson, now with American Axle & Manufacturing.

"I see more women standing up raising their hands within automotive and manufacturing, just like within the political sector." 

Campaigning as outsider 

Epstein of Bloomfield Township has campaigned in the mold of Trump as a political outsider with business acumen who backs the president's America First agenda. 

"Generally, I do not like tariffs, but a lot of these other countries are not playing by the same economic rules we are," she said.

"I'm very optimistic that the new trade deal in North America will be a better deal for southeast Michigan and lead to more and better jobs."

Epstein has described herself as a constitutional conservative and "red meat Republican," who opposes abortion and belongs to the National Rifle Association.

She said during the primary she'd like to join the Freedom Caucus — the most conservative House Republicans — but sidestepped the question when asked about it last week. 

"I just want to update with you and share with you, there are many tremendous caucuses. There are bipartisan caucuses, and I want to be working across the aisle," she said. 

Epstein supports a border wall and opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. At a primary debate this year, she said, "I do not support refugee resettlement." 

"Immigration policy in this country will require meticulous care and responsibility, and I will proceed with caution," Epstein said last week.

"I'm from a family of immigrants," she added. "We have a beautiful path to citizenship in America, and I'm excited to welcome immigrants from around the world to the United States, but they must do so legally." 

In response to attack ads about the GOP health care plan, Epstein said she believes everyone should have access to affordable health care, including seniors and people with preexisting conditions.  

Wanting to give back 

Epstein was raised in Bloomfield Hills in a family of Jewish Democrats. She graduated from Detroit Country Day School and Harvard University and later the University of Michigan with a master's in business administration. 

At 22, she joined the family business, Vesco Oil, a distributor of automotive and industrial lubricants in Southfield.

Epstein co-owns Vesco with her mother and older sister, making it one of state's largest women-owned enterprises. The company grew from 100 employees to over 250 in the last 15 years. 

"Even back when I started working with the family, when Lena was in her mid-20s, she said, 'I think I might want more than the family business,'" said Paul J. Bernhard, a transition-planning consultant who has mentored Epstein. 

"She's always been interested in giving back." 

Epstein has said she looked into Washington politics during the economic downturn, when a third of Vesco's clients closed. She determined Congress needed more business people who have created jobs to legislate better.

She got involved in local politics  and became an early advocate for Trump, whose campaign took notice.

"There was a mistaken belief in the 'typical' Trump supporter, and when we were looking for co-chairs we wanted a representation of the people we were seeing," said Scott Hagerstrom, Michigan state director for the 2016 campaign. 

"Lena was a younger woman in business, a millennial, who was excited about what a Trump presidency would mean for bringing jobs to Michigan. She brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm."  

Today, Epstein and her family, husband Eric Medwed and daughter Emma, live just outside the 11th District. They put their home in Bloomfield Township up for sale this summer, she said, with the intention of moving inside the boundary.

Members of Congress are required to live in the state but not the district they represent.