Eastpointe mayor, county commissioner vie for Macomb's 11th District Senate seat

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Eastpointe's first Black mayor and a longtime Macomb County commissioner will go head-to-head in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary in a newly redrawn Michigan Senate district that could play a role in which party controls the Legislature.

The race between County Commissioner Veronica Klinefelt and Monique Owens, who is in her first term as Eastpointe mayor, for Macomb's 11th District in the state Senate is an example of what's at stake in next month's primary. The 11th District stretches from Seven Mile in Detroit all the way to Macomb Township in northern Macomb County.

"The Republicans have controlled the state Senate for 40 years," said Klinefelt, 58, a former Eastpointe school board member and councilwoman. "This seat is crucial to flipping the Senate. And given the power of state Legislatures regardless of who's governor, it's really important to have at least one of the two houses be blue to protect some of the rights that we've come to expect and come to view as just basic rights."

Eastpointe Mayor Monique Owens, left, is running against Macomb County Commissioner Veronica Klinefelt in the Democratic primary for the state Senate's 11th District.

One of those rights is abortion, especially in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court last month overturning Roe v. Wade. A 1931 abortion ban kicked in in Michigan, though enforcement of that law is on hold after a Court of Claims judge issued an injunction in May. 

Both Klinefelt and Owens say they support reproductive rights — Klinefelt lists it as one of her top priorities if elected — but Owens is more nuanced in her position.

Owens, a mother of twin daughters, supports a woman's right to choose but said she also wants more investment in mental health and counseling. 

"And we need to go harsher on criminals when we talk about rape and incest," said Owens, 38, a former police officer and Wayne County Sheriff's Deputy. "...I just think we need to not always focus on the abortion part. I'm really for women having the option to choose but let us help them see other avenues so they don't have to pursue that option."

Redistricting has reshaped state House and Senate districts across Macomb County as it has counties statewide. Whoever wins the Democratic primary in the 11th, which has a diverse mix of voters with 66% White and 20% Black, will likely face state Sen. Mike MacDonald, R-Macomb Township. He's running unopposed in the Republican primary.

Michael Radtke, a Democratic political consultant, said the redistricting commission may have intended to create districts to elect more diverse voices in Macomb, including a Chaldean-opportunity district in Sterling Heights in the 57th district for the state House, but they haven't gotten the candidates.

"They were so invested in whatever fantasy they had, they drew bad districts," said Radtke.

In the 11th Senate District, Klinefelt, who has four adult children and one grandchild, has been a Macomb County commissioner for 10 years. The former "army brat" whose father and husband were in the military said she was spurred to run for the Senate earlier spring when it seemed likely that Roe v. Wade would be overturned and after listening to the high court argue other cases. She worried about what other rights may come under attack, such as access to birth control.

"I just decided if I'm going to make a difference, a real difference, now's the time to do it," she said.

Klinefelt said her decades of experience as a councilwoman, school board member and county commissioner gives her a broader perspective than many lawmakers. She wants to see more control for local units of government and better support for working families such as affordable child care.

"Serving as a school board member and on city council, I went through the struggle of being able to retain teachers and (during the 2008 economic downturn) dealing with 'How do I keep firefighters, how do I keep police officers?' It's a struggle," Klinefelt said. "And when the local governments struggle, the communities struggle as a whole."

Klinefelt said proposed state laws have a very direct impact on services to residents, but many state lawmakers have never served at the local level.

"That's a perspective that's really important and we need more folks in Lansing that have been through that experience," she said.

She also wants more regular investment in infrastructure and better voting access. She worries that proposals to enact voter ID laws could disenfranchise thousands of voters.

Owens, meanwhile, who originally filed to run as a Republican, said she decided to run for the state Senate, even though she hasn't finished her first term yet because she believes she can do more at the state level. She made history when she was elected Eastpointe's first Black mayor in 2018, though her term hasn't been without hiccups. 

"As a mayor, you do a lot for your community and I've learned so much as far as legislation, getting out to help other people have a better quality of life," said Owens, who is enrolled in a training program for local at Harvard University this summer. "But it limits me to only the city of Eastpointe. I want to do it on a bigger scale to make sure people have a better quality of life throughout the state of Michigan."

Protecting the environment is a top priority if she's elected as is affordable housing. Growing up with a single parent in Detroit, Owens said she knows first-hand the challenges that come with housing uncertainty.

"It's hard for a child to focus in school when they (kids) come home they don't know what they're going to eat for dinner, or if the lights will be cut off, or if they don't have somewhere to live," said Owens, who has a nonprofit dedicated to help people facing homelessness.

Owens, who believes that politics "chose her," believes what sets her apart is her open-mindedness, especially because she isn't a career politician.

"When you're not having the background of politics, the one-sided mind, that frees you up," Owens said. "..."When you come in with just listening, and not always having your biases, people want people like that."