Winnie Brinks was working as a nonprofit caseworker and volunteering with the East Grand Rapids parent-teacher organization when she got an unexpected call in 2012.
A local Democratic leader with whom she served on the PTO’s legislative committee, wanted her to switch from asking the Legislature for more school funding to serving in it. The party was scrambling after a Democratic incumbent at the last minute filed to run as a Republican to better his chances in a newly redrawn House district.
“I first said, ‘No. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never run a campaign. I’m not sure I can raise money,’” Brinks told Crain’s. “They said, ‘We'll help you.’ We went through this process, took a few weeks before all the sort of voices in the room coalesced around me. Then we had to run a write-in campaign. And the rest is history.”
A decade later, she is the Senate’s new majority leader — the first woman to ever head either chamber. She also is the first Democrat to helm the Senate since 1983, when she was a teenager feeding calves on her family’s dairy farm in Washington state.
Brinks, the daughter of Dutch immigrants, lost her father at age 6. Her mother raised five kids on her own and ran the farm. One of her brothers had severe disabilities and had to live in a group home in another state.
“In many ways it was a really tough way to grow up. But we had everything that we needed. My mom has been such an incredible example of strength and wisdom … somebody with so much resilience when things did not go as planned,” she said.
Brinks credited safety-net programs, including Social Security, for helping her mother make ends meet and providing round-the-clock care for her brother.
“We could have easily fallen into poverty without that essential safety net,” she said. “We needed that because of things that were completely outside of anyone’s control. There’s no amount of hard work that could have prevented either of those things. It really made an impact on me.”
People do not want government to interfere with their lives, she said, “but they want a reasonable safety net there for when things do not go as they should. It has informed my sense of what government should look like.”
Brinks, 54, of Grand Rapids, came to Michigan to attend Calvin College and stayed after graduating with a bachelor’s in Spanish and a concentration in sociology. She and her husband, Steve, a teacher, have three daughters.
She spent years parenting and working part-time before focusing on her career. Before running for office, she was a caseworker at The Source, a nonprofit that employers hire to help retain employees facing financial or other barriers. Many are lower-wage workers, above the poverty line but unable to afford household necessities.
“Those are the folks whose stories I really carry with me every time I consider legislation,” she said.
She also has worked in community-based corrections for female offenders, done horticulture therapy at a substance abuse facility and been a school paraprofessional for English-language learners.
Brinks said when she got the call “out of the blue” to run for the House, one reason she ultimately said yes is she thought the Legislature needed more people like her who had seen state government work well and not so well. It was her K-12 advocacy efforts that put her on the radar politically.
The woman who called was Elizabeth Welch, then the Democratic chair of the 3rd Congressional District and now a Michigan Supreme Court justice. She declined an interview request but said in a statement that she and others encouraged Brinks to run back then because “she is a tremendous leader and coalition builder.”
“I am thrilled that another independent problem solver and pragmatic thinker from West Michigan is playing a key role in the Capitol,” Welch said, noting they spent years together on the PTO legislative committee.
Since arriving in Lansing, Brinks has worked on issues like combating PFAS contamination of drinking water and reducing prescription drug costs. Some of the laws she successfully sponsored last session eliminated the taxation of tampons and other feminine hygiene products and provided property tax breaks to spur the construction or rehabilitation of affordable housing.
She begins her four-year tenure as majority leader with a 20-18 Democratic edge, a narrow margin in a chamber where some Republican support will be required to give new laws immediate effect.
Her Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, also is from West Michigan and also represents a portion of Kent County. He, too, grew up on a dairy farm with a lot of siblings.
“We’ve both been in positions where we were up to (be) kind of go-tos and peacemakers,” he said, characterizing their relationships so far as “we can disagree without being disagreeable. That’s hard to find in politics.”
Brinks, who has served six years in the House and four in the Senate, said all of hard work over the last decade contributed to Democrats choosing her as leader after Democrats flipped control in the November election.
“I’m really in it for what we can do for the constituents we serve,” she said. “From the very beginning, I ran because I think people deserve honest and hard-working representation. So this is my chance. This is my chance to make sure that we do that.”
Democrats control both the Legislature and governor’s office at the same time for just the fourth time in 130 years. Brinks will balance the inclination to swiftly address pent-up priorities with the desire to move judiciously, particularly if Democrats are to retain the majority in 2026.
It is important to accomplish as much as possible in the first year, she said, to send a clear message to constituents that they are the priority.
“It’s a priority of mine that we not just move quickly but that we move thoughtfully. We’re going to be deliberate and get started on it. But we don't want to rush things. It’s important for us to get it right.”
From Crain’s Detroit Business.