Single mom goes from food stamps to Michigan Senate

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — This time last year, Betty Jean Alexander was retrieving divorce records as a clerical specialist in the Wayne County Clerk’s office. A single mother with two daughters, she made $16 an hour, qualified for food stamps and took the bus to work.

Now, after a shocking primary election win last fall, the 53-year-old Detroiter is a state senator, one of 16 Democrats in the 38-member upper chamber. Alexander will help control the state’s checkbook and craft policy while personally earning a $71,685-a-year salary — but she still needs to catch a ride to the Michigan Capitol.

“A lot of people in the Legislature, they’ve never really had to struggle, at least not as much as a lot of everyday people do,” Alexander told The Detroit News after her first week on the job.  Her personal experiences, similar to those of many in her district, will inform her legislative decisions, she said.

Alexander is not the only freshman senator who has never held political office at any level, but she is perhaps the most unlikely lawmaker in her class. The Detroit resident defeated incumbent state Sen. David Knezek of Dearborn Heights in the August primary without spending a dime.

New State Sen. Betty Jean Alexander, of Detroit's 5th district, is sworn in by Chief Justice Stephen Markman during opening ceremonies for the 100th Legislature in Lansing on January 9.

“A lot of people didn’t see it coming, but that was part of the strategy,” said Alexander, whose stealth campaign was organized by Lamar Lemmons, a former legislator, Detroit school board president and longtime family friend.

Lemmons, who is now her chief of staff in Lansing, recruited Alexander to run for the Senate and organized a volunteer phone bank operation that featured black women calling black female voters to tell them about her candidacy. Alexander did not personally campaign but recorded a voice message to play on the calls.

Facing a white incumbent in a diverse district that includes part of Detroit and several surrounding Wayne County suburbs, the primary focus on black women paid off. Alexander pulled off a historic upset, topping Knezek by 3,120 votes, or roughly 9 percentage points. Many local officials did not even know who she was.

“If we spent money on lawn signs, he could have come back and put up 20 lawn signs to our 10,” Alexander said, referencing Knezek’s significant fundraising edge. “So we had to keep it a little bit on the down low. If he had campaigned more, he would have definitely won.”

Alexander was again outspent in the general election — she reported $4,485 in expenditures through the end of November — but cruised to a 59-percentage-point win over Republican DeShawn Wilkins in the heavily Democratic 5th Senate district.

She was more active on the campaign trail in the general election but stayed on at her clerk's office job. She said her own financial struggles, which include a 2003 guilty plea for check fraud in New Mexico, help her understand her constituents.

“There are a lot of people that are just like me, that were struggling, and I know exactly how they feel,” Alexander said. “I’m just like them.”

Crash course

Those personal challenges inform Alexander’s early policy goals in the state Senate, where she hopes to push reforms to expand access to clean drinking water, increase public education funding and lower Michigan auto insurance rates, which regularly rank among the highest in the nation.

“Right now, you have to decide if you’re going to catch the bus because you can’t pay insurance,” she said. “Especially if you have a car note, because insurance is basically (the cost of) another car note.”

Lamar Lemmons stands with state Sen. Betty Jean Alexander, D-Detroit, on the floor of the Senate.

Senate leadership last week named Alexander the Democratic vice chair on the Republican-led Local Government Committee. She will also sit on finance and families policy committees.

She's leaning on Lemmons for his policy chops as she learns the ropes in Lansing, but she continues to fight general election campaign claims she will be his “puppet” in the state Legislature.

“I’m my own person, and I make my own decisions,” she said. “I just have people around me who can give me good advice, and it’s up to me to take it.”

Lemmons, who served in the Michigan House from 1999 through 2002 and 2005 through 2006, had long sought his own seat in the state Senate. He ran again last fall, finishing fifth in the 2nd District primary.

“We wear many hats in this job,” Lemmons said about being Alexander’s chief of staff. “I’ll be everything from a policy analyst to all the positions of a legislative aide.”

He also has another unofficial role: Chauffeur.

“Even now, I take her to work every day, because her car wouldn’t make it,” Lemmons said.

Lemmons is an occasionally divisive figure in Detroit politics who has feuded with some local officials. His role in Alexander’s winning campaign frustrated some area leaders who had praised Knezek’s work and active participation in the Democratic Party.

“I think Sen. Alexander will do a great job and be right-as-rain as long as Lamar Lemmons doesn’t drag her into a hornet’s nest,” said Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party. “I expect great things from her.”

Lemmons will earn $60,000 a year in his role as chief of staff, as will another seasoned veteran, Dennis Denno, who will served as a legislative aide to Alexander, according to records released by the Senate Business Office.

Kinloch said Knezek had been “one of the most engaging members” of the region’s Democratic delegation. He had never heard of Alexander before her primary win but has talked to her since and is optimistic about her prospects as a state legislator.

“It just shows that anyone who has an interest in making a difference in their community can step up and serve,” Kinloch said. “I think that this is definitely a beacon that signifies, yes, incumbency matters, but at the end of the day, it’s not the most important thing.”

Learning curve

Like all freshman lawmakers, Alexander recently completed an “orientation” and participated in a training seminar at Michigan State University, where legislative veterans explained "things like the budget, policy, legislative process, civility and things like that,” she said.

Other lawmakers, past and present, have also offered her advice and encouragement, including new Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Knezek, who she said gave her his personal phone number and told her to reach out any time.

Knezek hosted a meet-and-greet for Alexander in Dearborn Heights in late October, but they have not been in regular communication since.

“I wish nothing but success for my state senator, and I wish her the best,” said Knezek, who is now working as a legislative director for new Attorney General Dana Nessel. “If there’s anything that I or my office can do, we stand ready to assist at any time.”

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, a Detroit Democrat who served in the House last session and now serves as minority floor leader in the upper chamber, said she did not know who Alexander was when she won the primary. But Chang reached out to her within a week and grabbed coffee with her shortly thereafter. 

"I think that she is eager to learn and eager to get guidance from her colleagues," Chang said. "Every now and then, she’ll have a question for me, and I think that's good. That means she wants to be able to know who to do things the way she needs to do things. She has not hesitated to reach out at all with different questions."

State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a Democrat who chairs the Detroit Caucus and worked closely with Knezek in the Legislature, said she’s gotten to know Alexander some since the primary.

“She is someone who’s a working mom that certainly has a well-intentioned, good-hearted approach to addressing some of the challenges that she sees in the community,” Gay-Dagnogo said.

While Alexander lacks political experience, “she has life experience,” Gay-Dagnogo added. “She knows what it’s like to have transportation challenges because of the high cost of insurance. She knows the challenges of being a working mom and having to care for her children.”

Gay-Dagnogo, who last fall said she was “pissed at Lamar Lemmons and his games” in the primary election, now expects him to be a valuable resource for Alexander in the Senate.

“He has extensive institutional memory on a number of policies that impact our schools, cities and state,” she said, noting Lemmons previously worked for her as a policy analyst. “I know he’ll be a wealth of knowledge.”