Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden’s willingness to speak frankly and honestly about uncomfortable issues has earned her cheers from both sides of the aisle.
SOUTHFIELD, Mich.—Before being elected to the Michigan Legislature, Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden (D-Southfield) was a lawyer. She got her law degree from the University of Detroit Mercy. And she can “cut a rug,” she told The ‘Gander. She looks forward to the pandemic being in the rearview mirror for many reasons, one being a desire to show her dance moves off again.
“I used to dance competitively when I was younger, and I still love to dance,” she said. “I usually don’t dance on the House floor or in a professional setting.”
Bolden’s professional career didn’t lead her to high-profile court cases or to the dance floor. She passed on a potentially lucrative career in private practice to represent the people of her community.
“I continuously become frustrated with the limits of how I impacted the legal field,” Bolden said in a 2018 campaign interview of her decision to leave her criminal defense career behind to pursue a legislative career. “I’ve seen a lot of things I’d like to change [in my career as an attorney], so I need to have a seat at the table—at the legislature forefront—of these issues.”
And in the Legislature she has made a dent. She has already sponsored, supported, or co-sponsored hundreds of pieces of legislation. As of now, Bolden had two bills (HB 4132 and HB 5117) signed into law. The former addresses elderly and medically-fragile incarcerated individuals while the latter expands the parameters of the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act.
The personal narrative of her life has played out on the floor of the Legislature and motivated her interest in areas of government, her boldness even garnering praise from across the aisle.
The Perspective of a Black Woman
Bolden doesn’t shy away from who she is as a person, and often gives voice to unvoiced experiences, even when it makes some members of the Legislature’s Republican majority uncomfortable.
She has continued to advocate for criminal justice reform throughout her time in Lansing, and even attended the March on Washington in 2020 as Americans mourned the death of George Floyd. She’s lucky, she knows, as Southfield largely supports criminal justice reform proposals and movements like Black Lives Matter. And demonstrations supporting police reforms tend to draw unlikely attendees.
“Our chief of police in Southfield has always been in attendance and sometimes leading the parades,” Bolden said. “We really take that in our community as a positive. As a matter of fact, if you go downtown—what I consider downtown Southfield—now we have flags that say Black Lives Matter.”
She’s been working on legislative means to address the inequities in policing, but as she put it the Legislature wasn’t able to get those proposals across the finish line in 2020.
Bolden also brings her voice as a woman to the Legislature floor. She addresses head on in floor speeches facts related to women’s bodies. She has told her stories of using Planned Parenthood services when she couldn’t afford treatment elsewhere. She’s talked about painful menstrual cramps.
And that direct boldness has actually been appreciated by some of her Republican colleagues.
“A lot of women suffer in silence,” Bolden told The ‘Gander. “When I shared those experiences on the House floor, I actually had some of my conservative colleagues come up to me and say ‘thank you for saying that’ … I’m happy to lend my voice to issues because I know that it helps someone.”
Fighting to Improve Elder Care
Bolden’s parents had largely positive interactions with the systems designed to keep older Michiganders healthy and safe. But she’s keenly aware that her family’s experience is not universal. Michigan has around 32,000 people whose affairs are managed by court-appointed guardianship, which is a remarkably less regulated industry.
“With such a large senior population in my district, I know that it’s just bound to be an issue,” Bolden told The ‘Gander. “My parents are in the senior category, and I want to make sure that everyone is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve as they age.”
Michigan’s Attorney General Dana Nessel established a special task force to take on scams, abuse, neglect and embezzlement targeting seniors, which as recently as November charged a woman in Scottville with multiple counts of embezzling money from seniors.
Michigan, in no small part thanks to that task force, ranks fairly high in terms of the protection of older people. Despite this, abuse and neglect are everyday occurrences in Michigan and around the country. Elderly Michiganders tend to be especially trusting, Nessel explained, making them especially vulnerable.
Add to that the deep sense of isolation older Michiganders feel during the current coronavirus pandemic, and the need for more attention to aging Michiganders remains pressing.
Turning the Legislature Blue
Bolden admits that she falls on the progressive end of the spectrum, and as former vice-chair of Michigan’s Progressive Women’s Caucus that isn’t a surprise. But she tries to not think of issues as progressive and conservative, but as human issues everyone struggles with.
That said, she knows without turning the Legislature blue, making change on those priorities and human issues is significantly harder, she said.
“I think it’s really important that we lift our voice to these issues,” she told The ‘Gander. “It’s also very important that those with progressive views are in positions of power. That means flipping the Michigan House from red to blue.”
That was snapped into sharp focus April 30, when in an event that served as a grim foreshadowing of the attack on Capitol Hill, armed gunmen stormed Michigan’s capitol and stood over the Senate while they pounded on doors demanding to be let in to watch the House proceedings. One of those gunmen went on to planning the assassination of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“We have seen a number of instances where misinformation has led to violence,” she explained. “Enough is enough.”