Scholten says she’s found a ‘strong sisterhood in Congress’

As the first woman to represent Grand Rapids in the U.S. House, the Democrat focuses on abortion access, combating child labor

By: - April 2, 2023 4:13 am

Michigan Democratic Rep. Hillary Scholten addresses supporters after winning the open seat in Michigan’s new 3rd Congressional District on November 9, 2022 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. By defeating her Republican opponent John Gibbs, Scholten becomes the first Democrat to represent the Grand Rapids area since the 1970s. | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

As U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-Grand Rapids) witnessed vote after vote for House speaker during her first days in office, she thought more than once: “Put a couple of working moms in charge, and we’ll solve this in half the time.” 

Eventually, U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) became speaker in January — after the most rounds of voting for a speaker since before the Civil War — but that idea of women leading a transformation in an increasingly diverse Congress that historically has been overwhelmingly dominated by men has persisted for Scholten. 

“There is a strong sisterhood in the Congress,” said Scholten, a former social worker and immigration attorney who defeated far-right Republican John Gibbs in November to become the first woman to ever represent Grand Rapids in the U.S. House and the first Democrat from the area since 1977. 

“We know what we have had to endure to get here, and those who have come before us know what we’re about to endure.”

Almost 13,000 people have served in the U.S. House of Representatives since it first convened in 1789. Of those, 382 have been women. Women set records in the current 118th Congress — 153 women are serving in total, with 128 women in the House. Ninety-four of the women in the House are Democrats; 34 are Republicans.

U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten at the U.S. Capitol. | Photo courtesy of Scholten’s office

“Less than 400 people who have served in the People’s House have been women — even fewer have been mothers and far fewer have been women of color,” Scholten, who has two sons ages 10 and 13, told the Advance in a sit-down interview at a Grand Rapids coffee shop last month. “There’s a strong bond. We share a knowing look; we help each other with managing it all.”

Now, in the most diverse Congress the country has ever known, the increasing numbers of women lawmakers are taking the lead on shaping policy and legislation, said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), the chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus.

“We’re 94 Democratic women strong — that’s almost half the Democratic caucus,” Frankel told the Advance. “We can see that translating in every issue.”

The rapidly rising number of women in the House “really does make a difference, especially as we fight for access to reproductive freedom” following the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the right to abortion in June, Frankel said.

“The abortion issue is at the top of the list,” Frankel said of the Democratic Women’s Caucus priorities. “What’s going on in this country is horrifying.”

Among the Democratic women leading Congress, Frankel called Scholten a “real standout in this freshman class” who has taken the lead on issues like gun reform and combating child labor.

“She’s a shining star,” continued Frankel, who noted that Scholten has been named a ranking member to the Subcommittee on Contracting and Infrastructure within the U.S. House Committee on Small Business and vice ranking member on the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on the Coast Guard.

“She’s moved up pretty quickly in her short term,” Frankel said, adding that, “she’s got an energy and it’s like, ‘I’m a mom, and I’m here to fight for the families of this country.’”

Scholten’s November win followed her 2020 bid against Peter Meijer, a Grand Rapids Republican who won that election but lost his 2022 primary in the wake of Gibbs’ attacks on Meijer backing the impeachment of former President Donald Trump over the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection. Gibbs — a former Trump administration employee who had railed against women’s suffrage before garnering 42% of the vote in November’s election and is now the Ottawa County administrator — continues to push the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Scholten’s recently redrawn 3rd Congressional District spans portions of Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties and includes the West Michigan cities of Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Grand Haven. 

Also among the Democratic women serving in Congress are two other Michigan lawmakers who have flipped seats from red to blue in recent years: U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing), who’s now running to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), and U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills). Slotkin, the first Democrat to represent the 8th District — who now serves the 7th following redistricting — in Michigan since 2001, and Stevens, the first woman to represent the 11th District, helped the Democrats retake control of the U.S. House in 2018 by winning Southeast Michigan seats in areas that had backed President Donald Trump in 2016 and were long considered Republican territory.

U.S.. Rep. Haley Stevens | Andrew Roth

Stevens, who during the 2006 midterm election worked in West Michigan for the Michigan Democratic Party, said it’s been especially meaningful for her to see Scholten win in an area she has seen undergo profound political change since she was there.

“It was when I was in grad school when I took the time to work out there, and it was very personally rewarding to see a candidate as talented and as exceptional as Hillary Scholten do what she did,” Stevens said. “She’s really leading; she’s a great, great shining light.”

“… I’ve gotten to know her family very well,” Stevens continued. “She brings such fresh perspective and energy to the job.”

Scholten and other Michigan’s Democratic lawmakers emphasized those who helped to shatter the glass ceiling before them and pave the way for greater representation of women in Congress. Stevens pointed out that U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) was the first woman of color to represent Oakland County; she did not seek a fifth term in the 2022 election.

“We know that we wouldn’t be in these seats without the women who came to open up doors before us, and we know the importance of continuing to do the same for the generations of women to come after us,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor) told the Advance. “We work together, but more importantly we have strong friendships and support each other inside Congress and out.”

For Scholten, it is these connections that both hold deep meaning for her personally and also help to pave the way for an increasingly diverse Congress.

“I think that’s one of the beauties of having more women in Congress — not only is it a priority to set this brand new office up for success and show what a strong woman-led office looks like, but also to leave the door wide open for other women who may want to do this in the future,” Scholten said.

‘You could face a bullet at a community event’

Opening that door — and keeping it open — is not easy. Making history may be exhilarating, but it is also exhausting, and often frightening, navigating what Scholten described as the “toxic hostility towards women, particularly in our political sphere.” 

One person Scholten has turned to while living this new public life, which includes threats from far-right individuals, is Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. As Michigan’s second female governor, Whitmer has faced right-wing militia members plotting to kidnap and kill her, as well as an onslaught of death threats, verbal abuse, and armed constituents enraged over her pandemic health policies storming the state Capitol in what has been called the blueprint for the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

“I’ve talked with the governor about this, actually quite a bit,” Scholten said of violence against women in politics. “Her take on it is always like, ‘We just can’t back down. The minute we start backing down from this, they’ve won and we’ve ceded that round.’ I couldn’t agree more.

“It sounds crazy to say the cost of serving our community and running for office shouldn’t be that you have to make your peace with the fact that you could face a bullet at a community event or a town hall, but, given the reality of where we are as a society right now, it’s something that you have to come to terms with,” the congresswoman continued. 

As she faces that danger, Scholten said having the backing from other women in government, like Whitmer, has proven crucial. 

Whitmer said in a statement for the Advance that it is “empowering to see so many women representing and fighting for Michigan families in Congress, including Rep. Scholten.

“As governor, I’ve worked hard to make Michigan a state where every woman can thrive, including expanding affordable childcare, making record investments in education and lowering costs for working families,” Whitmer continued. “I am excited to partner with Rep. Scholten to keep delivering for our state.”

It is scary. We’ve had members — I’m not going to say who to not add to the agitation — who are on around-the-clock security. One woman member had to move her house. Others have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep themselves alive.

– Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), the chair of the Democratic Women's Caucus

Still, even with this support among women in office, it can be a deeply frightening time to be a woman in government, a long list of lawmakers have said.

“It is scary,” Frankel said. “We’ve had members — I’m not going to say who to not add to the agitation — who are on around-the-clock security. One woman member had to move her house. Others have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep themselves alive.”

Harassment against politicians and their families began to soar under the Trump administration and the trend has continued, leaving elected officials from Whitmer to former U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) facing a barrage of threats from individuals who explicitly say they are going to kill them. 

Upton, for example, received death threats after being one of 13 House Republicans to vote for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021, which sent money to Michigan and other states for road repairs, the Great Lakes, and replacing aging lead pipes. The threats against Upton came immediately after a Republican colleague of his, far-right U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), called the Republicans who voted for the bill “traitors” in a tweet and posted those members’ phone numbers online.

This seemingly never-ending wave of abuse has left elected officials psychologically shaken, as Whitmer described in a victim impact statement she gave prior to the sentencing of three militia members convicted in the plot to kidnap and kill the governor.

“I’m asked all the time what being the target of this conspiracy has done to me and my family,” Whitmer said in the impact statement. “I want my family to know that their mom, their wife, their daughter, their sister is tough and stands up for what she believes in. But I cannot tell them honestly that I am unfazed. I now scan crowds for threats. I think carefully about the last thing I say to people when we part. I worry about the safety of everyone near me when I’m in public.”

Scholten also has said her life — and her family members’ lives — have changed significantly following her election. 

“It’s not like I have to walk around with an armed escort all the time, but we certainly had to make security upgrades to our home, security when we travel, security in D.C. — it’s just a different way of life for us as a family,” Scholten said. 

Members of the National Guard prepare to distribute weapons outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 14, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Security has been increased throughout Washington following the breach of the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, and leading up to the Presidential Inauguration. | Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

‘The first pro-choice vote in West Michigan history’

While facing deep concerns over safety, Grand Rapids’ newest representative said the risks are worth it, especially when Scholten casts votes for legislation never before backed before by West Michigan Congressional members.

“I took the first pro-choice vote in West Michigan history in my first two months in Congress,” Scholten said of her votes against two anti-abortion measures that House Republicans pushed through in January. “I get people stopping me still, telling me how much that meant to them.”

Since taking office in January, Scholten has co-sponsored 30 bills, including legislation addressing gun reform [H.R. 1478, H.R. 1145, H.R. 698, H.R. 660, H.R. 625, and H.R. 396], health care worker retention [H.R. 1215], food deserts [H.R. 1230], ensuring that pregnant people can cross state borders to access abortion [H.R. 782], and workers’ right to organize [H.R. 20]. 

On Wednesday, she introduced legislation with a Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), that would increase fines for those who violate child labor laws.

The majority of the legislation she has co-sponsored has a lead Democratic sponsor, though Scholten has also backed Republican-led bills, including legislation that would expand disability and retirement benefits for veterans [H.R. 1282] and restore exemptions for family farms and small businesses under the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) [H.R. 1250]. 

I took the first pro-choice vote in West Michigan history in my first two months in Congress. I get people stopping me still, telling me how much that meant to them.

– U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-Grand Rapids)

It’s these bipartisan efforts that Scholten said she didn’t feel particularly hopeful about when she began her tenure in the House. However, amid an ever-widening partisan divide in Congress, Scholten said Democrats and Republicans are working together on legislation — although not when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights or abortion access, among other issues.

“I would say I’m surprised by how easy it has been to work across the aisle,” Scholten said. “I think that the stories that sell, the stories that rise to the top, are the ones about extremist behavior. And that certainly exists. I mean, I was literally sitting two rows down from Marjorie Taylor Greene at the State of the Union, right behind [Florida Rep.] Matt Gaetz and [Colorado Rep.] Lauren Boebert as they engaged in loud protests over the president’s [Joe Biden] speech.

“There’s that kind of disruption that happens, but, by and large, what doesn’t get covered is the people that are there to work, that are there to put their differences aside and are there to serve their communities,” Scholten continued. “I have been surprised and really encouraged by the number of people that we’ve been able to find and partner with on issues.”

One of those Republicans she said she’s found common ground with is U.S. Rep. John James (R-Farmington Hills), another freshman lawmaker from Michigan.

John James at the Detroit Regional Chamber conference, Feb. 28, 2019 |Ken Coleman

“His office is literally right next to mine,” she said of James. “We walk to and from votes together. We have a very similar sense of humor. 

“…We may not ever agree on choice or LGBTQ rights, but we can resolve water problems,” Scholten continued. “..We can agree on funding for the Selfridge Air Base here in Michigan. And I think that we should not let differences that divide us stop us from working on the things that we know are best for our constituents and the country. On the more divisive social issues of the day, from my perspective there’s just no question Democrats are winning on those issues. The vast majority of Americans support gay marriage; the vast majority of Americans support letting women make their own reproductive health care choices.”

James was not available for comment, but his spokesperson Abby Mitch said she is “happy to point out” that James has worked with Scholten on a handful of Michigan-focused efforts, including a resolution honoring Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township and a resolution opposing Canada’s plan to build a permanent nuclear waste storage site in the Great Lakes basin.

‘Not raised a Democrat’

Working with people across the political aisle holds personal meaning for Scholten — who noted that she “was not raised a Democrat” and “came to my conclusions later in life, through my own work as a social worker and public interest attorney.” 

Scholten’s career has included working as an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department under former President Barack Obama’s administration and as an attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, which has offices in Grand Rapids, Ypsilanti and Kalamazoo.

“I realized the policies that I believed in to improve our society matched much more strongly with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party’s agenda,” said Scholten, who noted that West Michigan — a longtime Republican stronghold that’s home to such right-wing political power brokers as the DeVos family — has also become increasingly progressive when it comes to politics. 

“There’s also a shift in the Republican Party away from what it used to be — a party of limited, effective government, a party of fiscal responsibility — to now being a party that’s largely driven by extremist messaging,” Scholten said. 

Growing up, Scholten believed it was the Republican Party that “believed in freedom.” Now, Scholten said, she sees the GOP “taking away freedoms and civil liberties from individuals and wants a narrower and narrower vision of what America should be and who it’s for. And that just does not resonate with a lot of people here in West Michigan.”

J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political analysis newsletter run by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said there’s a political shift taking place in Scholten’s district, in part because “West Michigan is one of the fastest growing areas in the state.”

Since the 1990s, Coleman said West Michigan was often represented by this “line of kind of maverick-y Republicans,” like Meijer — one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump — and former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (L-Cascade Twp.), a vociferous critic of Trump who announced he was retiring following GOP backlash to his vote to impeach Trump in 2019.

With the arrival of “more Trump-y Republicans, like you saw with John Gibbs,” in West Michigan, “you had a lot of managerial Republicans in this district” that were uncomfortable with the shift, Coleman said.

“These are people with white-collar jobs who would be more comfortable with Mitt Romney,” he added. 

While Coleman said he believes Meijer would have done far better than Gibbs in the race against Scholten, he doesn’t see the Michigan Republican Party changing course and supporting more centrist candidates in the future — especially in light of the party backing Kristina Karamo, a far-right Republican who lost her bid for Secretary of State in November, as the Michigan GOP’s new chair.

“What I’ve noticed broadly is the Michigan Republicans becoming more of a Trump-y party,” Coleman said. “Their new leadership, that’s the direction they’re going to keep going in.”

West Michigan’s political shift has taken place fairly quickly, Coleman said, noting that when Stabenow — the first woman from Michigan to serve in the Senate — was first elected to the Senate in 2000, she lost Kent County by 25 points. She didn’t carry the county, which is home to Grand Rapids, until 2018. 

“To me, that’s a good signal of where the area’s going,” Coleman said. “Last year, Kent County voted for all three statewide Democrats [Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson].” 

Scholten outperformed the base Democratic vote, and it was a clear case of Republicans nominating the worst candidate for the general election.

– Matt Grossmann, political science professor at Michigan State University

Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University, noted the political shift in the 3rd Congressional District occurred after a 2018 constitutional amendment led to partisan legislators — namely the Republicans who had long held power in Michigan — no longer controlling the decennial redistricting process. 

Instead, a panel composed of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents drew the new state and congressional districts that were used for the first time in the November election.

“The district was drawn to be more competitive, and it achieved that,” Grossmann said. 

“I think beyond that, Scholten outperformed the base Democratic vote, and it was a clear case of Republicans nominating the worst candidate for the general election,” Grossmann added.

That trend of Scholten’s district leaning left is likely to continue into the 2024 race, Coleman said. He noted that the Center for Politics labeled the 3rd Congressional District as “likely Democrat.”

“It’s not a safe seat, but it’s not a seat we view as one of the more competitive seats,” Coleman said. “Personally, I think with the trends in Grand Rapids, I think the Republicans have a better chance of picking up Slotkin’s seat or knocking off someone like [U.S. Rep.] Dan Kildee (D-Flint) than winning the 3rd seat.” 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) said earlier this month that it expects Scholten and Kildee (D-Flint) to face a difficult 2024 election and announced the two lawmakers are part of their “Frontline” program, which provides legislators potentially at risk of losing their seat with additional funding and messaging support.

“Hillary Scholten’s commitment to fighting for West Michiganders and ability to run a strong, galvanizing campaign led to her historic victory in 2022 and it will again in 2024,” DCCC spokesperson Tommy Garcia told the Advance. “People in MI-03 want leaders who will tackle actual problems — they don’t want Republican rubber stamps who will ban abortion, air political grievances, and coddle far-right extremism. House Republicans show no sign of abandoning their MAGA extremism cards, and Democrats are continuing to put people over politics. West Michiganders will again have a clear choice in 2024.”

So far, no Republican has announced their entrance into the 2024 race for the 3rd Congressional District, but the Scholten campaign has sent fundraising emails saying that failed gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, who lives in the 3rd Congressional District’s Norton Shores, could be an opponent. Dixon did not respond to a request for comment.

“Our current most dangerous potential opponent is failed 2022 Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon,” read a March 20 email from the Scholten campaign. “Dixon has implied that she would run to flip MI-03 red next year, and more concerningly, her Twitter attacks on Hillary have become more frequent and aggressive.”

U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten at Stovetop Coffee Roasters in Grand Rapids on March 20, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

‘Those are my kids’

Another Republican Scholten is teaming up with is Mace (R-S.C.); the two lawmakers introduced legislation, H.R. 2388, on Wednesday that would significantly raise the civil monetary penalties on violators of child labor laws.

The legislation, details about which were announced during a Wednesday press conference, comes on the heels of a New York Times exposé on migrant child labor in the United States, including in West Michigan. After Scholten read the piece — which opens with an anecdote about a 15-year-old girl bagging cereal after midnight in Grand Rapids’ Hearthside Food Solutions plant — she immediately turned to President Joe Biden’s administration and fellow Congressional members to address what she called on the House floor “an appalling state of affairs.”

“I responded to that issue with the urgency that you would expect from the first mother in [representing] the district,” Scholten said. “Those are my kids. Some of those children were the same ages as my kids.” 

After urging from Scholten to do so, the Biden administration announced an interagency task force that brings together the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services to address the exploitation of migrant children. That task force will increase the vetting of sponsors — those who an unaccompanied minor lives with after entering the United States.

“Let’s get these agencies to work together and proactively protect these children,” Scholten said. 

The congresswoman is also turning her focus to the federal immigration policies she knows well after years of working in the Justice Department and for civil rights groups like the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. 

Susan J. Demas

As someone who left the Justice Department in 2017 largely because of the way the Trump administration was handling immigration — including separating thousands of parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border — she has felt increasingly frustrated with the Biden administration’s immigration policies that have not significantly deviated from Trump’s. About 1,000 migrant children remain separated from their parents, and the Biden administration has continued to separate children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

According to reporting from the New York Times in March, the Biden administration is “considering reviving the practice of detaining migrant families who cross the border illegally.” That’s the same policy that Biden officially ended upon taking office in the name of finding a more humane immigration system.

“I just don’t understand the apathy from my fellow members of Congress, and seemingly from the administration, that says, ‘Well, we haven’t been able to do it before, so we’re not going to be able to do it now,’” Scholten said of comprehensive immigration reform. 

“I mean, this is a crisis,” Scholten said of the country’s immigration system. “It’s a crisis on an economic level, on a humanitarian level, on a national security level. It has to be addressed.”


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.