Gilda Jacobs, trailblazing legislative leader, talks loss during COVID and attacks on democracy

By: - February 7, 2022 4:29 am

Gilda Jacobs rides in a car promoting her Huntington Woods City Commission campaign | Gilda Jacobs photo

After spending four decades in public office, including leadership roles as a Democrat in the Michigan Legislature, Gilda Jacobs’ second act was helming one of the best-known economic justice groups in the state. 

Building on her longstanding relationships, she was always there to make the case to lawmakers that Michigan can’t move forward without equity in tax policy, health care, education and more. Her tenure at the Michigan League for Public Policy came to an end in December, when Jacobs, 72, stepped down as president and CEO and was succeeded by Monique Stanton.

Gilda Z. Jacobs

“When I first took the job, I didn’t really think I’d be here for 11 years, to be really honest with you, and I fell in love with the job,” Jacobs told the Advance during an interview last month. “It was my dream job, as it turned out.”

After breaking the glass ceiling in local government posts, Jacobs served 12 years in the Legislature from 1999 to 2010 — four years in the House and eight in the Senate — where she forged a strong relationship with Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s second female governor in history.

“I count myself one of the many people fortunate to be friends with, learn from, and laugh with Gilda Jacobs,” Whitmer told the Advance. “Her pure dedication to others, her wisdom in solving problems, and her kindness make her an incredibly powerful leader and special friend. There’s a reason she was inducted into Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame a few years ago — she broke barriers, did the work, and delivered for the people. I love Gilda.”

Jacobs has retired during a tumultuous time for democracy. During the interview that took place after the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — which Jacobs called “repulsive” and “frightening” — she said “it really makes me want to work even harder on trying to make sure that our democracy is not eroded.”

She talked more with the Advance about her post-retirement plans on that front, term limits, her faith and racial justice. And Jacobs, who has lost both her daughter and husband in recent years, also shared her thoughts about loss in the age of COVID-19.

“You know, losing somebody during COVID is very, very difficult,” she said. “So, just in terms of my husband’s death, [it was] very hard to get closure.” 

Gilda Jacobs and her daughter, Jessica Steinhart | Gilda Jacobs photo

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: Why did you decide to retire from the League at the end of last year, after more than a decade there?

Jacobs: So that was actually a planned retirement. … You know, I had a lot of things going on. It had nothing to do with COVID. And my husband [John Jacobs] got sick. He passed away about a year-and-a-half ago, but none of that honestly impacted my decision. I really felt it was time for new blood. You know, at the League, I felt I had done even more than I thought I would be doing. When I first took the job, I didn’t really think I’d be here for 11 years, to be really honest with you, and I fell in love with the job.

It was my dream job, as it turned out. That being said, I think that I’ve always thought … that leadership changes are important for lots of different reasons and for organizations.

It was kind of time for me to spend more time with my family. My daughter moved back from New York about three years ago. Is it three years ago or almost four years? The time escapes me when my husband got sick, so two of my three grandchildren are here and I just wanted to something different, so that’s why I made the decision.

Michigan Advance: What was your experience like as the first woman elected to the Huntington Woods City Commission back in the 1980s?

Jacobs: That’s so funny that you ask. The Bentley Historical Library at [the University of Michigan, her alma mater], for whatever reason, Susan, they want the Jacobs collection.

I didn’t really know what my career was going to be like. There was a bunch of stuff that I didn’t save. So, I went into the archives at Huntington Woods Library about 10 days ago to look all of this stuff up.

It’s so interesting because, when I moved to Huntington Woods and started to raise a family here, it was a community that was much like it is today where you had young people moving that grew up in the area, or maybe you grew up in Huntington Woods, coming back to be in the kind of a neighborhood that they liked and wanted to raise their kids. 

… I really felt that this old boy’s network was operating in the city and that we really needed to do things a little differently and really be more attuned to the fact that young families were moving in. So just so that you know the history of how that even happened, I actually ran for the [Oakland] County Commission. I think it was 1980, and it was a Republican seat, and I lost to the then-mayor of Huntington Woods who parenthetically just passed away, as a matter of fact, Jack Olsen, who was a very strong Republican in the area. Jack then was going off the City Commission because he was the mayor and there was a vacancy. In that race, in that County Commission race, I beat Jack. I had more votes in Huntington Woods than he did when he was the mayor.

 

So the then new mayor of Huntington Woods really felt that I had such a strong showing from the neighborhood that they decided to appoint me to fill that vacancy for two years because I submitted my name to do that, and then I ran for three, four-year terms after that, so I was on the commission for 14 years, pretty long time. … I was the first woman. I was a mom, and I really recognized that things were changing.

One of the things that we started when I was on the commission was latchkey. We had working moms. This was not even part of where some of the commissioners were coming from. Some of them thought women ought to be home with their kids. [They thought] the city shouldn’t be involved in figuring out how to help them go to work. There were a lot of changes of values and philosophies that were changing at the time.

It was pretty neat to be a part of doing that. You know, we started babysitting co-ops so that parents and moms, in particular, could not only have more people to socialize with and other moms to connect with and to help out if they had meetings or work or what have you, so it was a pretty cool time to be on the commission.

Interestingly enough, we were just starting to see more women, especially in local politics, get involved [in local government.] … So there were some really cool things that were kind of happening at that time, and it was exciting to be part of a kind of a movement, if you will.

Michigan Advance: Do you think that people in politics today are aware how recently it was for women to break the glass ceiling in local offices or in Capitol leadership?

Jacobs: No, I don’t think that at all. … So, I was the first woman floor leader [in the Michigan House], which it’s really the first woman in a major leadership role. [Republican] Bev Hammerstrom was right behind me. It was just that we voted before they did. So I get the recognition, but she also should be recognized because that was a big deal. It was a really big deal.

Michigan Advance: You wrote a column for us after your friend and former colleague, Gretchen Whitmer, was inaugurated as governor in 2019. When you served with her in the legislature, did you think she would be governor someday?

Jacobs: Gosh, honestly, it never crossed my mind, but what I did recognize in her was just amazing leadership ability. I loved the fact that she was just such a real person. She was raising two kids as a single mom [during her time in the Legislature]. … Her mom was sick, and she did all of that very much with grace, but I really loved the fact that she was such a good policy wonk and had a great sense of humor, as well, which is a very good mixture in this world. So, again, I didn’t necessarily think she would be governor, but I knew she had amazing leadership qualities and she stood out as a leader in our caucus.

Michigan Senate Democrats | Gilda Jacobs photo

Michigan Advance: What would you say the most important human service initiatives Whitmer has accomplished as governor so far?

Jacobs: Oh, gosh. I think a lot of different things. She made it clear from the outset that she was interested in people who were struggling economically. She made it an important part of when she talked about when she was running. You don’t see very many candidates doing that, and then she set up the Poverty Task Force.

Obviously, you’ve got to work with the Legislature and so many of the things, the recommendations on there, she was able to address through job training, trying to get more money into the schools to close the disparity gaps when COVID hit, setting up these task forces to make sure that we could close the health disparities around COVID. Those are huge, huge kinds of policy changes that happened and are continuing, honestly, right now.

We saw when Robert Gordon was head of Health and Human Services, they were able to do through a policy change, it didn’t change the law, but changing the asset test on food assistance, which was a huge issue for me personally, as well as for the League. So I think that she has been very attuned to trying to create a better economic climate for everybody but, in particular, for Black and Brown residents in our state, and her focus on economic development, it helps everybody.

Michigan Advance: So you’re a former Democratic lawmaker who had to work with a Republican legislature for your entire tenure at the League —

Jacobs: My whole life.

Michigan Advance: Your whole life. How challenging was that?

Jacobs: It was so challenging, but you know what? What I found the key for me was really creating relationships, which is very hard to do right now. [Republican] Bruce Patterson … was [House] floor leader, and I was the minority floor leader. We really had so much respect for each other. We had a really wonderful relationship.

… One of the things that I did, because I know how important relationships are in Lansing or were in Lansing, when I was in the Senate, I joined the prayer breakfast group. … I am not a prayer breakfast person. … I have guiding principles, but it’s not like I’m a very religious person, necessarily. I decided that it was important for me to go to these breakfasts to get to know very conservative legislators that attended these breakfasts because it was the kind of thing, what is said and goes on in those meetings are kind of private.

People don’t go and talk about other people’s stories or the things that they hear, but it gave me this wonderful opportunity to get to know some of the Senate conservative Republicans in leadership in a very personal way. When you know somebody personally, when they know your story, they’re kinder and they’re just more open to having conversations with you about whatever your issues may be.

I joined the hunters caucus or whatever, not that I hunted, but I was really pretty good with the rifle for the turkey shoot targets made up, and everybody used to laugh. I don’t have a problem with sports people using weapons; [it’s] people that kill people using weapons. So, it’s those kinds of things that I worked really hard at, and it just paid off because we got to know each other as people.

Michigan Advance: Were you able to continue that in your role at the League or was that more challenging?

Jacobs: No, honestly, I really was able to leverage a lot of those relationships, as well, and things were changing, obviously because of term limits, certain relationships with people who had been there when you were around, but there were people in the [former Gov. Rick Snyder] administration that I was able to work with. The League, we had a very healthy relationship with the Snyder administration.

… Even when I was in the Legislature, you don’t have to get your name on a bill. [You can work] on making amendments before bills even got to the floor. If I was able to talk to the sponsor of a bill, if they were Republican, there’s lots of ways you can be impactful. During Republican administrations … we could care less about getting the attribution as long as we knew we could make the changes.

Michigan Advance: Yeah. I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t know about the push and pull of how legislation gets passed. It’s something I’ve talked with [Gov. Gretchen Whitmer] about a lot because, obviously, she had very few bills passed because Republicans considered her to be a threat, but she certainly did a lot of the work on a whole lot of the bills.

Jacobs: Yeah.

Sen. Gilda Jacobs at a bill signing with Gov. Jennifer Granholm | Gilda Jacobs photo

Michigan Advance: I know that you’ve been a contributor to the Detroit Jewish News and you were active in the community. How has your faith impacted your view of public service?

Jacobs: So actually, it impacts it a lot. There’s this philosophy, this value, if you will, of tikkun olam. … It’s repairing the world. I was very active in youth groups as a young Jewish teen. I really felt a lot of social responsibility, and I really did want to make an impact and try to change the world, so that really helped me kind of do the kinds of things that I did in my life, even starting out as a special ed teacher.

I really wanted to change the world at the time, student by student, and later on through politics, I realized public policy was really the key so that you could help even more people and have a greater impact for a longer period of time. So for me, it was sort of both, and being able to help individuals, but really being able to be a game changer through policy change.

Michigan Advance: Do you think that antisemitism is on the rise?

Jacobs: I just had this conversation with somebody — antisemitism on the rise in Michigan, in the country, across the world? I mean, that’s kind of broad. You know, I think the rise of fascism around the world contributes to the antisemitism that we’ve seen in other countries. I think, unfortunately, there is a group of people that are always going to not like others and hate.

I think that our current political environment allows people or feels that they are allowed to be very public about their feelings. So, to me, if you look at history, antisemitism and blaming Jews is something that happened when there were very stressful economic times.

I don’t know. When you see the rise of Trumpism, but I mean, things are not in our country like they were in Europe before World War II. So I think there will always be antisemitism. I think there’ll always be the hate of people, that people want to blame other people for their problems, but there’s just a lot of hate in general. It’s a hate of anybody who’s different than you, and you can lump Jews in there.

Again, I don’t know if it’s on the rise, but I think people feel empowered to be public or to say things in public like, “We will not be replaced” [at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.].

… That was very scary to hear that. I just think in general that, as a Jewish person, you can never be complacent and think that all that stuff has gone away.

Michigan Advance: During your time leading the League, the organization advocated more for racial justice and immigration issues than the past. How did that change come about?

Jacobs: Immigration … [is] such an important issue for our state and our country, so we are very flexible at the League to be able to pivot and take a look at issues that were important because the overriding issue of economic security for everybody at social and economic justice is our mission. So, that was easy.

But in terms of the racial equity work that we were doing, this has been a path that we have been on for many, many years. You know, we recognize that Black and Brown members of our community, of Michigan, were the ones that were hurt the most by structural racism in our state. We realized that we needed to use that lens on all of our work so that we could highlight and bring to the surface for folks what was actually going on and point out how we needed to do things differently.

So while it became more front and center, it was really a path that we had been on for quite a while, And we were doing work with our staff, doing work with our board, doing work with how we presented our data, So we were really and still are trying to approach it from a multi-pronged way.

Michigan League for Public Policy CEO Gilda Jacobs speaks at the Raise the Age bill singing, Oct. 31, 2019 | Laina G. Stebbins

Michigan Advance: If you could pick one bill that the Legislature passes this term, what would that be?

Jacobs: Man, I sure would like them to change term limits, and I don’t think that it’s on the table right now. … You’ve been around a long time. You understand that this loss of institutional knowledge, people are going in now to the Legislature for what I think are not all the best reasons. I think that the expectation that people have when we created term limits has not happened, and you have big money and lobbyists that had even more control. And COVID, I think, even made things even more unbalanced because people weren’t even able to get together. 

Michigan Advance: What were your thoughts in watching the one-year anniversary coverage of the [Jan. 6, 2021] insurrection?

Jacobs: It was so painful to watch the snippets again, the videos of the destruction and the violence against, not just our Capital, but people and the police and the security folks. It just was so repulsive to me. So, it really makes me want to work even harder on trying to make sure that our democracy is not eroded, and it scares me. It’s really, really frightening.

The fact that, again, not to be partisan, and I understand it was somewhat of a political dog-and-pony show that was going on with all of the speeches from the floor, but that not one Republican got up to say, “I’m sorry for the loss of lives.” I mean, it’s terrible. Families lost their husbands and their fathers and their siblings in this insurrection. It’s terrible.

Michigan Advance: You lost your daughter, Rachel, in 2015 [in a train crash], and you lost your husband recently. Lansing had a big loss with Kelly Rossman-McKinney last year, and COVID has meant that people are dealing with loss on a greater scale than we ever imagined. How have you coped and what do you think we need to understand about grief today?

Jacobs: Oh, gosh. What a good question. You know, losing somebody during COVID is very, very difficult. So, just in terms of my husband’s death, [it was] very hard to get closure. I mean, so he died in July of 2020, so we were able to actually have a very teeny, tiny, invitation-only funeral because it was outside, so we could have 20 people. We didn’t have a shiva at the house after for several days, which is a way to help you grieve and have closure. Very difficult. I feel somewhat a big kind of in a time warp because of COVID and then John’s death.

In terms of Rachel’s death, oh my gosh. Susan, you know I’m a policy person, so I was approaching … I mean, the grieving still goes on every day. I mean, it’s always there. It’s always part of my mind and my heart, but the way I was trying to deal with that when it happened was from a policy point of view. It was like, I was so angry with the engineer who was operating the train, but I was most angry and most upset with Amtrak.

It was allowed to continue to run trains without this safety equipment that would have stopped that train had it been installed. So, that’s where I was working with [U.S. Sen.] Gary Peters’ office, in particular, to hold Amtrak accountable and to speed up the time that they would make sure that all of their trains had this equipment installed because that was why that train went off the tracks, because they didn’t have that equipment.

Gilda Jacobs and the MLPP staff | Gilda Jacobs photo

Michigan Advance: What are some of the things that you are looking to do in retirement?

Jacobs: So, a couple of things. One, I asked the Promote the Vote board, which I’ve been representing the League at for a number of years, to let me stay on … and want to get more involved in the democracy, the voter suppression issues that they’re going to be dealing with.

I joined the board of the Jewish Fund, which is a fund that gives out grants to health-related projects, not just in the Jewish community, but in Southeast Michigan and in Detroit. I love what they do. I love their philosophy. So, I’m doing that. There’s this kind of bipartisan [group], the Consensus Project, of … former moderate legislators and policy wonks.

…There’s this board as part of a Jewish hospice that sort of raises funds for the program that my husband got services from, so I’m just kind of helping them out with some fundraising kinds of things. I signed up to take a class, so I don’t know. I’m just figuring that out and then I’ll just be doing some traveling for the next few months for some friends.

Michigan Advance: This doesn’t quite sound like a retirement.

Jacobs: Well, I’ve been working my whole life and I can’t play golf in the winter, so really, honestly, it’s just enough. Like I said, I don’t want to do anything that feels like work. I’ve said no to a few things that people have approached me with. … I’m in a book club. I have to find time to read. I’m knitting an afghan for my grandson and in my third year, and I only have eight inches. So, maybe I’ll get there before he goes off to college. He’s 8, so I have a long time. 

Disclosure: Jacobs has been a regular contributor to the Advance’s opinion page and was not paid.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more. She previously served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 90 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 5,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 80 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two kids along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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