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Bridge Michigan
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New Michigan Senate Leader Winnie Brinks: Let’s end ‘toxic time in politics’

winnie brinks
Winnie Brinks, right, will be the first female Senate majority leader in Michigan history. (Courtesy photo via Senate Democrats)
  • Winnie Brinks to be Michigan’s first female Senate majority leader
  • Democrat first won election in 2012 as a write-in candidate
  • Brinks calls gun reform legislation a top policy priority

LANSING — It's been quite a decade for Winnie Brinks, who entered politics 10 years ago as a reluctant write-in candidate and is now poised to become the first female Senate majority leader in Michigan history.

Brinks, chosen by her colleagues to lead the Senate next year as Democrats take the reins in Lansing, told Bridge Michigan she wasn't even sure she wanted to run for public office when local politicos approached her in 2012.

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Democrats were scrambling to find a candidate after incumbent state Rep. Roy Schmidt switched parties on filing deadline day in a Republican-orchestrated scheme that backfired in scandal and a grand jury investigation.

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Brinks eventually agreed to run a write-in campaign while juggling her career with a west Michigan nonprofit that works to improve employer and employee relationships. 

After "trying to teach people how to write in my name and fill in a bubble," Brinks won the Democratic primary. Then she beat Schmidt in the general election, topping the newly declared Republican in a GOP-leaning district.

Republicans "really came after me in 2014 to try and defeat me," Brinks recalled in a phone interview with Bridge. "It was one of the most expensive races that year. But by that time, I was pretty determined — and I knew how to win."

Brinks won re-election again last month as Democrats won big, flipping both the House and Senate as voters re-elected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to a second term. Brinks will be the party’s first Senate majority leader in 40 years and the first woman from either major party to ever hold the title.

Brinks will team with House Speaker Joe Tate, the first Black person to hold that position. And she made more history while assembling her Senate leadership team: Sen.-elect Sarah Anthony will be the first Black woman to lead the Senate Appropriations Committee; Senate President Pro Tempore Jeremy Moss will be the highest ranking openly gay official in Michigan legislative history.

"It's great for everybody in our state to see themselves reflected in the highest offices in our state," Brinks told Bridge, saying that choosing her leadership team was "not hard at all" given her colleagues’ "proven track record" in Lansing. 

"It's just been incredible to watch our caucus come together, to put this team together and to see all of those firsts. It's just very gratifying."

Brinks, 54, grew up on a family dairy farm in Washington state, moved to Michigan for college, got a job in the Grand Rapids area and ended up staying, working in both education and nonprofit sectors before joining the Legislature. 

The child of Dutch immigrants, Brinks attended what is now Calvin University and said she remains active in the Christian Reformed Church. 

Asked about her leadership style, Brinks said she’s “big on collaboration and consensus.” While Democrats will have a two-seat majority, Brinks told Bridge she likes to hear “differing points of view” and thinks it is important to be able to “make a point without making an enemy.”

"The challenge will be that we, in order to do the most good for the people of our state, want to be in the majority for many terms, not just one," Brinks said. "And so we'll be having a lot of conversation about being very thoughtful and thorough about the policy that we move."

That said, Brinks isn’t shying away from potential partisan legislation, including possible repeal of the state’s Right-to-Work law. Sponsored by Republicans and signed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, the law prohibits job contracts that require union dues or fees as a condition of employment. It was hurt union membership statewide.

“It would be unrealistic to think that we're not going to be talking about Right-to-Work,” Brinks acknowledged. “If you know anything about Michigan and Democratic politics for the last 10 years, you know that's true. So that doesn't surprise anyone. But again, I want to be thoughtful and deliberative about this. And that's how you're going to see us start.”

Brinks told Bridge that gun reform legislation is "on the top of our list for policy priorities," including Whitmer-backed safe storage and red-flag legislation that allows judges to confiscate weapons of those who are deemed a danger to themselves or others.

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Brinks also wants to pursue "targeted" tax relief, including expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for lower-income workers and repeal of the so-called pension tax. Whitmer proposed both tax code changes last year and has said she hopes to sign each into law within the first six months of her second term.

"We have had an incredibly toxic time in politics for the last four years or so," Brinks said. "There's a lot of fatigue, for me personally, but also from many, many of our colleagues and people in our communities about how negative things have been."

"There's really good public servants on both sides of the aisle who would like to see us get back to focusing on things that put the people first, rather than on all of the political fights. So I would like to figure out who of those people are willing to say, 'We're here to serve,' and to work closely with them. And that's going to take some time. We need to get to know each other, we need to establish some trust. And that in the end will make us more effective."

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