Incoming Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks pledges to listen, learn from all lawmakers

‘We have to work together and get beyond the politics of it,’ says first woman to hold post

By: - December 14, 2022 4:23 am

Sen. Winnie Brinks at Democrat Hillary Scholten announcing her campaign for the 3rd Congressional District, June 8, 2019 | Nick Manes

Updated, 10:49 a.m., 12/14/22

Sen. Winnie Brinks, the incoming Michigan Senate majority leader and first woman to hold the post, intends to bring a different style to the job when the 102nd legislative session begins in January — a willingness to listen and learn from all of her colleagues.  

“You’ve seen a lot of leaders who think that they know everything,” said Brinks (D-Grand Rapids). “I do not come into this that way. I feel like this is the biggest education of my entire life.”

The Calvin College graduate will likely draw strong contrasts with white men who have served in the role like GOP stalwarts former Gov. John Engler and Mike Shirkey, the outgoing majority leader, who during his farewell speech, as the Advance reported, voiced “outlandish conspiracies, biblically ominous predictions of the future, critiques of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and an attention-grabbing story about testing the Binsfeld Office Building’s toilet water temperature with his hand.”

Brinks is the first woman to represent Michigan’s second largest city in the Legislature’s upper chamber since Eva McCall Hamilton was elected in 1920. McCall Hamilton also was the first woman to serve in the state Legislature. 

Next year will be the first time since 1984 that Democrats have controlled the upper chamber and they will enjoy a 20-18 advantage over Republicans.

Aric Nesbitt
Sen. Aric Nesbitt talks about auto insurance reform passing, May 7, 2019 | Michael Gerstein

“I offer my congratulations to Majority Leader-elect Brinks and her leadership team, and I look forward to continuing the tradition of majority and minority leaders in the Senate finding common ground where possible,” said incoming Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton).

Nesbitt in a statement released last month. “But Republicans also take seriously our obligation to stand firm against any proposal from the majority that runs afoul of the will of the people we serve.”

A call and email to Nesbitt for this story were not returned.

Brinks said that diversity is a strength with her caucus.

“With 12 women and eight men, the Senate Democrats make up a dynamic, diverse caucus that is ready to work with Governor Whitmer to make the Great Lakes State a place where people can thrive and I’m excited to lead this talented team of legislators,’’ she said.

The leadership team includes Sen.-elect Sam Singh (D-East Lansing), who is Indian American, and will serve as majority floor leader. Sen.-elect Darrin Camilleri (D-Trenton), who is Maltese American and Latino, will serve as assistant majority leader. Stephanie Chang, who is Asian American and from Detroit, will serve as policy and steering chair.

“It’s a great opportunity for the Senate Democrats. With someone who has the experience and leadership skills that Winnie Brinks brings to the table is going to be really helpful as we try to navigate a number of issues [over the next term],” said Singh.  

Brinks’ road to Lansing leadership

The daughter of dairy farmers and Dutch immigrants, Brinks grew up in Washington state.

“My parents were post-World War II immigrants from the Netherlands,” she said. “They came to the United States when they were teenagers. They came here for new opportunities.”

Her parents moved to Michigan briefly as her father took Calvin College course work during the late 1950s or early ‘60s, according to Brinks. 

Brinks’ mother raised five children and ran the Washington state family’s farm after the death of her father. She grew up as a Republican in a “fearless independent” household with her father being active in local GOP politics. He died when she was a child and her family benefited from Social Security compensation resulting from his death and federal compensation for her disabled brother.   

“One of the reasons that I’m a Democrat is that I believe that the government has a role when things don’t go the way that they should,” said Brinks about her family challenges and her ideological conversation.  

In January 1984, the month Michigan Senate Republicans took over the chamber, Brinks was 16 and working on the family farm in Washington state. 

“I would start my day at about 6:30 [a.m.] … going outside and feeding calves before school. … Ee had dozens of calves and I was hauling five gallon buckets of hot milk.”

Before her election to the Michigan House of Representatives in 2012, Brinks was a caseworker at The Source, a Grand Rapids job-training nonprofit. 

There, she helped businesses and nonprofits improve workplaces to grow and retain employees. She also previously served as the executive director of a community-based corrections agency and as a school paraprofessional.

Brinks began her legislative career after a drama-filled election. 

Rep. Roy Schmidt was a Grand Rapids Democrat who switched parties in consultation with then-Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) and unsuccessfully tried to put a fake Democrat on the ballot, as MLive reported at the time. Brinks won the Democratic nomination as a write-in candidate and went on to defeat Schmidt in the general election.

After being reelected to the House twice, Brinks flipped an open Senate seat in 2018, defeating Rep. Chris Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids). This year, she fended off a challenge from Rep. Tommy Brann (R-Wyoming).

During her tenure in Lansing, Brinks has prioritized protecting drinking water from PFAS contamination, creating jobs, strengthening education policy and funding, as well as helping Michigan veterans. 

Incoming Michigan Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), the first woman to lead the majority in either chamber of the Michigan Legislature, speaks to lobbyists and guests in the Michigan Capitol on Dec. 7, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Senate Democratic agenda

In terms of the slim Democratic majority, the caucus’ agenda, and working with Republicans, Brinks is optimistic.

“We believe strongly that we can [work with Republicans],” said Brinks. “There are going to be certain people who will not work with us, who I think are mostly outliers on the political spectrum for some kind of personal agenda. For the most part, I hope that there are people on the Republican side of the aisle who are willing to understand we all have a job to do for our entire state and we have to work together and get beyond the politics of it.”

In terms of balancing the interests of the eastern and western side of the state, Brinks said her philosophy is to “consider the entire needs of the state.”

“From Houghton to Detroit, from Traverse City to the Thumb and Grand Rapids and everywhere in between, it’s all important. With a narrow majority, we need to talk to everybody and need to get significant buy-in, so to speak, for an agenda that puts Michigan first.” 


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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.