Exclusive: 32 Questions with Michigan Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) awaits the start of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's State of the State address on Jan. 25 at the state Capitol in Lansing. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

By Kyle Kaminski

October 11, 2023

This week, history was made in Michigan. Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) had her official portrait unveiled at the Michigan State Capitol. And it’s the first time a portrait of a woman has graced a wall that’s otherwise filled with men. 

MICHIGAN—Sen. Winnie Brinks sat down with The ‘Gander to discuss the significance of her newly unveiled portrait and what it means for her to be the first woman to lead the state Senate. 

Here’s the full interview:

And here’s a full transcript:

Today is the International Day of the Girl. It’s a day all about advocating for the full spectrum of girls’ rights and opportunities. You’ve also picked today to unveil your official portrait here at the State Capitol. It’s a historic moment for the state of Michigan because you’re the first woman senate majority leader in state history.

What are you thinking about today as your portrait goes up?

Boy, I’m thinking about how unlikely it is that I would’ve gotten here … how unlikely it is to be in this position, to come as far as I have. When I was a little kid, I would never have imagined that I would be in this position and even as an adult, I was not planning to run for office. 

For me to think about what’s possible in terms of where I came from and where I am now is sobering because I feel like it’s a lot of responsibility. It’s just my fervent hope that it can be an inspiration to other kids who might not see a path forward to being able to do something meaningful or to be in a position of power.

What has stood in the way of other women getting to this position?

There’s a lot of things. I think the expectation that girls and women were not part of the political arena for so many decades certainly contributed to making it really difficult for women to rise through the ranks—even if they were able to achieve election to public office. 

As we’ve seen more and more women run for office, win, and take their place, and show their competence, and make their contribution through public service in the halls of the Capitol, it became really obvious that the time was right for a woman in this office.

As the first woman to be elected to this office, you must’ve faced challenges that many men never even think about. What are some that stand out in your memory and what did you do about them?

In 2012, when I first decided to run, when I was recruited to run, there was a local Republican who said: “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of her. She’s a nice lady, but she can’t win.” And I just remember thinking: “I don’t think they say that about men.” Since when is being nice a problem, right? 

It just made me all the more resolved to work hard to prove myself—and to prove to everyone else—that you can do this job regardless of what people think of you, if you set your mind to it, if you’re honest, and if you’re hardworking. 

What’s the most meaningful advice that you’ve ever received?

It’s not just professional advice, I think this is really life advice: Do the best you can with what you’ve got. That will set you up well for whatever is next—even if you don’t know what that is. 

Whether it’s influence, whether it’s connections, or whether it’s service, whether it’s a commitment to mission: Do what you can with the resources that you have. 

What advice would you give to girls and women who are aspiring to enter political or leadership roles that have been dominated by men?

The thing that will set you up for success now is doing what you can—really, really well. Even if it’s a low-level job, you never know what kinds of opportunities will come your way when people notice your dedication, your care and concern for people, your preparedness. 

Do your homework. Be ready for those meetings. Be ready for the job at hand. 

Opportunities that you can’t even imagine will come your way.

For Michiganders, this is the first time they’ve seen a woman in charge of our state senate. So, I thought it would be fun to hear about some of your own firsts in life. What was your first car?

A 1973 Cutlass Supreme.

What was the first concert you went to?

I can’t remember exactly.

But a concert that I went to recently that may be my all-time favorite is James Taylor.

What did you first want to be when you were a kid?

I wanted to be a stewardess. I had been on airplane rides to Southern California to see my grandparents and my cousins, and I thought those stewardesses were so glamorous and that job looked like so much fun. They got to go on an airplane every day. I know they call ’em flight attendants now, but back in the day, that was my first thought about a future career.

What was your first paying job?

I had to get up before school and feed calves on our dairy farm where I grew up. My pay was that I had the opportunity to raise a steer and sell it for profit when it became a certain weight. I realized that’s an unconventional first job for many people in this building, but it was my first.

You grew up in Washington state. When was your first time in Michigan and what stands out in your memory about that visit?

My first time in Michigan was when I drove across the country with some other students to attend college here, sight unseen. And my first thought was: “Boy, is it flat here.”

What about your first time in the Upper Peninsula?

It was just so beautiful. That was my first impression. Just incredible beauty. Lake Superior is amazing. It’s still not my favorite Lake. Lake Michigan is my favorite, but just incredible beauty.

Do you remember the first bill that you introduced?

Yes. It was a bill about reports on mammograms, including information that would help women better understand their risk of breast cancer and to know how to follow that up with asking the right questions and seeking the right treatment that would help them detect cancer early.

Did it end up passing?

It did end up passing, but not with my name on it. A Republican had also introduced it and since they were in charge, they passed his bill instead of mine. … It was a true team effort in the end. It was a great exercise for me in learning how to work effectively in the minority to get meaningful legislation passed. 

What’s the energy in Lansing like compared to your first term?

This is our first year with a [Democratic] trifecta in 40 years. And there’s a sense of optimism. There’s a sense of enthusiasm. People are dedicated to the mission, they’re working hard. There’s an earnestness here and an urgency to achieving good policy that I think we haven’t seen in a lot of years. I feel like there was a sort of complacency, of business as usual, not being as mission-driven on constituent concerns, when I first got here. And that has really changed in my experience here over the last decade.

What do you view as the most important strides that we’ve made toward helping Michigan’s girls this year?

We have, of course, overturned the criminalization of seeking abortion care in the state of Michigan. And I think that cannot be understated in terms of its importance. It is one of those things … that has such an impact on people’s health and professional and social well-being. It’s just an incredibly important thing that we were able to do early this year. 

There’s still more work to do on that. There’s more work to do on economic opportunities, ensuring that women get equal pay for equal work. We’re still working on it, but I think our advances in access to healthcare are probably No. 1 this year.

It’s time for a lightning round. 

When you’re not passing laws, what are you doing to relax?

I walk. I garden. I read for fun—not just memos and policy things. I spend time with friends and, of course, with my husband. If I’m lucky, my three daughters are around. They’re all adults now, so when they are all in the same place, it’s a pretty special occasion.

What’s your favorite tradition or annual event in Michigan?

Going to the Hollyhock Lane Parade on the Fourth of July. It’s the longest-running parade in the nation, I believe. It even went on during times of war, when many parades stopped. It’s a true community event with involvement from all ages. It’s always incredibly well attended, and I love to be there as a politician to be able to march in the parade. But it’s always a fun event to attend as well.

Describe the perfect fall day in Michigan. What are you doing?

If I’m lucky, I get a chance to go out and walk and see some of those beautiful trees turning color. If I’ve got time to go up to the North Country Trail and do a little piece of that, that’s just an incredible experience. It really feeds the soul.

What does a slow weekend look like for the Senate Majority Leader?

There aren’t very many of those. A slow weekend would be a reduced number of events for me. Our community events don’t stop on the weekends. In fact, many times there are more of those. If I have a day where I don’t have to set an alarm, that’s always a great start.

Any secret talents or hobbies that most people don’t know about?

I don’t know that I have very many secret hobbies or talents, but I do have a collection of fish bottle openers. Does that count as a hobby?

Any all-time favorite movies or television series?

I really loved Ted Lasso. It was just a great break from some of the stresses of normal life. … It was all about effective teamwork and that has huge relevance for what I do.

What’s your go-to comfort food after a long day of politics?

Anything my husband cooks.

If you could have dinner with any historical figure, who would it be?

Eva McCall Hamilton. She was the first woman ever to serve in the state Legislature. She was a senator elected from Grand Rapids, so she and I have that in common. She was the first before me to serve from Grand Rapids, so I’m only the second from Grand Rapids.

It took 100 years before we were able to elect the second woman from our area. I’m both proud to be the second, and I’m dismayed that it took that long. I often wonder what she would’ve thought about the state of things in Michigan now with women in the governor’s office, secretary of state, the AG’s office, the US Senate, and now in the Senate majority leader’s office.

Her portrait is on my wall here in my office, but it’s also on the wall of the chamber. When I walk into the chamber, I give her a little knowing glance and I feel like we’re a little bit of a team. We’re separated by decades, but we’ve both broken barriers and I feel a real kinship with her.

Back to the job: What do you want to say to younger adults who may be considering running for office? 

Get some experience that you think is relevant for doing the work that you do. 

That could be in any area of life. We tend to think there’s a sort of typical resume that sets you up for success in politics. And I think with our Legislature and the diversity that we are now seeing, we are really becoming more cognizant and more appreciative of the diversity that is here and understanding that no matter what your past is, you could be a good legislator. 

I would like people to consider this as a job—even if they have to take a pay cut—if they feel they have something to offer. It’s an incredibly meaningful way to spend a part of your career. And in order to be prepared for that, you just have to do the best you can with the job that you have and you can see what doors open up to you in the line of public service.

If you could go back, is there any advice that you would give your younger self before going into politics?

Ask lots of questions, but also don’t ask too many questions because there’s some things that are better not to know until you experience them for yourself. There’s so much that you will learn, and if you know everything, you might not accept the challenge.

You have three children. How has being a parent influenced your leadership style and your political perspective?

Being a parent, at its core, is really about caring about someone else more than you do yourself.

And I think having a perspective that you are participating in something bigger than your own interest, bigger than your own world, is incredible. It provides an incredible insight into what it’s like to lead an organization that really is about the good of the whole state.

Outside of voting and politics, what’s something you’d challenge more Michiganders to do right now that can help their communities?

Take care of yourself, and if you can, take care of someone else. Get outside. We have lost touch with so many things that are just really important to center ourselves. It’s such a challenge to treat other people with respect and with grace if we can’t center ourselves on what’s really important in life. That would be my suggestion. Show each other a little bit of grace. Let’s treat each other with respect. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt, and I think we’ll be a better state.

So in the spirit of the International Day of the Girl, we wanted to give an opportunity for some of the younger women in our audience to submit some questions of their own. 

This one is from 7-year-old Hannah, from your neck of the woods in Grand Rapids. She asks: Do you ever get nervous before you have to make a big speech? And what advice do you have for getting over it?

Yes, I absolutely get nervous before I have to give a big speech—still. 

It’s getting easier. Practice really helps. And as you do more and more public speaking, you’ll get more and more comfortable. I think the biggest thing that helped me is realizing that it’s not about me talking, it’s about the message I’m delivering. The words and the message and the content are what’s most important. Center that and remove yourself as the center of it. Don’t worry about what people are thinking about you. Worry about delivering the message effectively.

Five-year-old Leah in Ann Arbor wants to know:

Have you ever met the president? 

I haven’t met this president or the last one, but I have met Jimmy Carter. 

He came to Grand Rapids. I can’t remember the year, but I had the opportunity to meet with him and he was just a delight to talk to. He insisted that I go in front of him in a lunch line. He was a selfless and generous person to have a conversation with, and I think we’ve seen that his entire life in his dedication to service and putting other people first. He has been a good model for me.

Nine-year-old Jade in Harper Woods wants to get straight to business: What’s something the Senate can do this year to help kids like me?

One thing that we did is we passed the best education budget that has ever been passed in the history of our state. And it included lots of great things. But one thing I want to point out is the no-cost meals—breakfast and lunch for every kid in Michigan schools. It’s just so important as a foundation for learning and for health and for good social interaction. Far too many kids in our state were not getting the food and nutrition that they really needed to be successful.

Eight-year-old Chloe in Lansing asked: Is there any way to make school days shorter and to make the weekends longer?

It’s a great concept. I’m not exactly sure what the solution is that doesn’t cause other problems. I have a great deal of empathy for her question. I hear where she’s coming from and if she has any great ideas on how to make it happen, I would love to hear from her.

And finally, a deep question from 7-year-old Grace in Escanaba: If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

One thing that we’re really struggling with as a country and even throughout the world is making sure that everybody has a safe home to live in. If I could snap my fingers and everybody would have a home—just shelter or a place to spend their time with the people that they love when they’re not at school and work—that would be an incredible legacy to leave behind.

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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