The Detroit News
Dec. 15, 2022
Melissa Nann Burke
Washington — Democratic U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, who is retiring from Congress after four terms, describes her legacy as fighting for clean water in Flint, for women’s health care and foster care resources, and reforms on Capitol Hill.
The Southfield Democrat’s departure from Washington and the election of Indian-born Shri Thanedar will mark the first time in 68 years that Detroiters will not have a Black lawmaker representing America’s largest Black-majority city in the U.S. House.
In an exit interview with The Detroit News, Lawrence reflected on her time in Washington, why Congress is broken, her relationship with Republican Rep.-elect John James of Farmington Hills and why she thinks House members should be paid more than their $174,000 annual salary.
Lawrence, 68, has spent three decades in public life, from the Southfield Public Schools Board of Education to Southfield City Council to serving as Southfield mayor for 14 years — the first woman and African American elected to that role. In the U.S. House since 2015, she has represented a district that includes part of Detroit, Hamtramck, the Grosse Pointes, Farmington Hills and Pontiac.
“I’m going to support every public servant that I know and continue to stay relevant in policy however I can,” Lawrence said.
She has not announced what she plans to tackle next, but the former U.S. Postal Service manager is eyeing a position on the service’s Board of Governors. President Joe Biden could nominate his selection as early as this month. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
THE NEWS: You’ve packed up your office, and your staff are scattering. How are you feeling now, wrapping up at this political moment?
LAWRENCE: It’s mixed emotions. I made this decision very deliberately, and I made the decision with a lot of thought, so it wasn’t like I’m shocked things are happening with my staff. It breaks my heart every time one leaves, and I remind the member of the (new) office that, “I invested a lot in this young person.” And I’ve heard good news from all of them. I’m so proud of them as they continue their career.
One of the things I told my scheduler is, “You’re gonna have to teach me how to keep my schedule.” I haven’t kept my schedule in over 20 years. When I was mayor, someone else kept it. So it’s things like that that I have some anxiety about.
I did really well with them taking my name off the wall outside my office. But my communications person, Jennifer, said, “OK, let me take your photo on your last day at your desk.” And I kind of lost it. I was like, oh, my. I don’t know why it was that moment, that I would never sit in my office again, that it kind of hit me.
THE NEWS: Do you think you will run for public office again?
LAWRENCE: Sitting here looking at the rain, no. But my whole life has been about policy and serving. It would have to be extremely unique, and there’s only a couple of seats that would even make me stop and say, “What if?” But right now, no.
THE NEWS: What seats would give you pause?
LAWRENCE: Well (laughing) … it would be what I call leadership positions, not legislative.
THE NEWS: What are your plans for after your term ends in January? We’ve reported on your interest in the Postal Service board.
LAWRENCE: I’ve been inundated with requests for service on nonprofits, medical institutions, banks, and I’m really thinking through them all. It’ll be probably multiple areas that I will lean into.
The thing I’m really excited about is finding an educational institution where I can teach and lecture. I don’t want to be a professor, but I really want to be involved in curriculum and lecturing for young women going into leadership. That’s something I’m very passionate about. I’m gonna join the Association of Former Members of Congress. They have a speaking bureau, so I’m gonna be doing that, as well.
THE NEWS: A lot of members consider going into lobbying. Is that something that you would consider?
LAWRENCE: No, I’m not interested in lobbying. I’m interested in consulting, teaching and advising.
THE NEWS: There was frustration among Black political leaders in Detroit after none of the Black candidates won the Democratic primary in the new 13th District. Looking back, is there anything that should have been done differently?
LAWRENCE: First of all, we did not need nine African Americans on the ballot splitting the vote. We needed people who had been vetted and done the research to see if there was even a pathway to victory. Some people just get in because “I want to run. I want to do it.” And, obviously, there was not the polling, there was not the vetting, and there wasn’t the support, but they did it anyway. So, in two years, we cannot repeat this again. We just can’t. And I made a pledge, and I will continue to be involved with having Black representation.
(Republican Rep.-elect) John James, and I talked about that. He’s like, “I’m an African American,” and I said, “John, we will see.” I am very impressed with that young man because he comes from such a great family. And it shows — he’s very thoughtful. The first time he ran, he did the Trump bandwagon. This time he ran and he did not.
And I told him, “You can be a Republican. That’s your choice, and I’m not gonna criticize you for that,” I said, “But you will always be a Black man in America, and when you’re in these rooms here, and policy is being discussed that is gonna hurt the least of us — it’s gonna hurt or become a barrier for success … and you don’t speak up? To me, that’s disrespectful.” He listened with respect and awareness, and I’m gonna stay in touch with him. I promised him that. He asked if I would, so we’ll be talking probably on a quarterly basis, at minimum, just to check in on him to see how he’s doing.
THE NEWS: What do you see as the legacy that you leave in this place?
LAWRENCE: I was thrown into the Flint water situation and fighting for some justice for people, and it was so just earth-shattering for me that a government decision could hurt so many people. And then the lack of transparency and the defiance of accountability — it’s like, “Oh, it’s not my fault. It’s their fault! It’s their fault!” …
My legacy will be I stood up for the people, standing up for women. I co-chaired the bipartisan Women’s Caucus and chaired the Democratic Women’s Caucus. I often identify myself as a little Black girl from the east side of Detroit and being a woman in Congress with a unique life experience going from what some people would call poor to walking in these halls. It’s never lost on me….
I have a doula bill that I’m getting passed, where women who are veterans will have access to doulas (trained doulas provide physical and emotional support during labor and delivery). Our maternity mortality rate is rising, where in other countries all around the globe, it is going down. We’ve got to use every tool we have. It’s unacceptable that women are dying just trying to give birth. And I’ve always fought for a woman’s right to choose. I’m offended when people call themselves “pro-life” — they’re anti-choice.
Also, my investment in foster care. I married a man who had an experience in foster care, so it’s always meant a lot to me. When I came in, (California Rep.) Karen Bass asked me to co-chair with her the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, and I did. You have no idea what foster children endure. They’re carrying around so much baggage. We owe them. The thing that I used to tell my colleagues is they’re wards of the court, which means they’re our responsibility. The government is their parent, and when we fail and don’t protect them, it’s on us.
THE NEWS: Didn’t you have some foster care legislation, as well?
LAWRENCE: Yes. We know that when children go through the foster care system, they have so many attacks on their mental stability. The reason why I wrote the legislation is a former foster child came to me and she said … it should be mandatory that every foster child gets mental health care because, “We’re kids! How do we know how to deal with this? And then when we’re 18 you just drop us.” She said: “You know I worked hard; at times I thought about killing myself. I ran away from home.” She said that she got it together and made it through….
It’s stories like that that, just, oh my goodness — I will continue to be involved with foster children and doing what I can. My bill mandates that you give foster children mental health care assessments.
THE NEWS: Is there anything else that you didn’t get enacted that you still hope gets taken up?
LAWRENCE: The gun bills. … It just hurts my soul that we keep having these moments of silence, and these people who are sent here by the citizens of these United States who refuse to take up common-sense gun laws. And we as a country, we just stand there: OK, every month we’re gonna have another mass shooting, moments of silence, “my thoughts and prayers.” That hurts my soul.
THE NEWS: What would you change about how this place runs to reduce gridlock?
LAWRENCE: I think the way we separate ourselves on the House floor is very interesting. There’s some of us — and I am one of them — who will deliberately go on the other side and talk to a member about issues.
People getting to know each other is important. I wish there were more off-the-clock, deliberate and intentional bringing us together. They go to their caucus, we go to our caucus, they have their events. I had a colleague who came in with me, and I had a birthday fundraiser and invited him to come. He said he was taken to the woodshed. “How dare you go to a Democrat’s fundraiser?” He said, “I didn’t give her any money. I wanted to sing Happy Birthday to her.” They crucified him.
Some of the old timers told me that back in the day, they didn’t go home as much. They would stay here and families would interact and have dinner together, and the kids grew up together. But now that last vote (claps) and we’re lifting off, we’re gone. And so the only thing we know is the fight on the floor. I wish they would think about changing that.
They also need to raise the salary of this place. Few people realize we don’t get a cost of living adjustment. We’re here four days out of the week, three weeks a month. … Everyone here has someplace to sleep, and the cost of living here is crazy. It’s very high, and there is some fear among us is that only millionaires are going to run for Congress because the salary does not (work). If you have a mortgage at home, then you are paying $2,000-$2,500 a month here for rent — that’s the going rate for a one-bedroom studio — then you have to eat. Some people have a car here, and there are memberships and dues and all the things that come out of your pocket. I don’t want to get to the place where good people won’t run because they can’t afford to do the job.
THE NEWS: What you think is going to happen in ’24? Do you expect President Biden to run again? If he does, would you support him?
LAWRENCE: I don’t know who else will raise their hand, but when I’m looking at tea leaves today, if he runs, yes, I would support him. He’s getting the job done. The one thing you can say about the last term is we didn’t sit around pointing the finger at the Republicans. We were about the work: Build Back Better. We looked at infrastructure, we looked at prescription drugs, we looked at voting rights, and we were doing the work. And that was under the leadership of Joe Biden.
It seems that it’s gonna be at least Donald Trump who has put his name up, so it’s gonna be crazy town again. But I don’t know who else will put their name in there.
THE NEWS: Do you think he could beat Trump?
LAWRENCE: He did it before.