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Profiles by Demas

Behind the Throne

by Susan J. Demas
August 19, 2011

 ImageFew Republicans can brag that they have a master’s degree in labor relations, but Suzanne Miller Allen does.

Allen, who has served some of the most powerful leaders in Lansing, including Dick Posthumus, Paul Hillegonds and Ken Sikkema, graduated from Wayne State University in 1988.

And yes, Allen — who is currently House Speaker Jase Bolger’s chief of staff — was already a proud Republican and armed with a bachelor’s degree in business. In fact, at age 23, she became the youngest GOP delegate to the Republican National Convention back in that same year (“You can tell if it was an election year or not based on what my grades were,” she laughs).

So what made her go into such a liberal field? For one thing, her dad, Dale, was a UAW plumber for General Motors (although mom Claire, a proud Republican, was the one who inspired Allen’s politics).

“And I wanted to go to law school and I thought I needed better grades,” she explains. “So I thought getting my master’s would help me.”

Allen, now 46, never ended up becoming a lawyer, instead landing a job with Chrysler as a national negotiator. The Farmington Hills native took a shine to the human resources part of the job, something she says has served her well in managing hundreds of legislative staffers over the years.

But her boss told her she was in the wrong department and should be in government relations.

Turned out he was right. After serving as Michigan Republican Party youth chair, Allen landed a job in the office of then-Sen. Dick Posthumus (who had been the first person to hold the youth post) not long after in 1989.

Since then, Allen has made a career of political firsts. Under Hillegonds, she became the first woman chief of staff to a Michigan House speaker. She’s also the first person to serve as chief of staff for both a state Senate majority leader and House speaker.

For four decades she’s been a must-hire for Republicans in the legislature (“Term limits, I think, changed the dynamic,” she offers. “The institutional knowledge rests in the staff.”)

Her only hiatus was for three years after working for Sikkema, when she spent three years as vice president at Sterling Corp., a GOP consulting firm in Lansing. After Republicans suffered disastrous losses in 2008, the future House minority leader came courting.

“Kevin Elsenheimer literally begged me to come back, and I did,” she recalls. “He tells people his knees hurt from getting down to ask me so many times. He must have asked me 20 times.…Kevin kept saying, ‘Look, you’re the right person; you’re seasoned. We need everything in line to take the majority,’ and finally I said, ‘All right.’”

After Republicans rebounded and reclaimed the House in 2010, Allen says she was weighing multiple offers. But Bolger was persistent.

“He really came at me to stay,” Allen recalls. “I guess I was inclined to after we took the majority.”

The legislative year started with a bang, as the legislature passed a budget four months early and revamped the state’s tax code.

“The pace has absolutely been quick with a new governor with an aggressive agenda, with a plan helping drive that,” Allen says. “The two legislative leaders have the safe feeling of let’s make Michigan better; let’s change things thoroughly.”

Allen anticipates the fall will be just as busy. Bolger’s top priorities are legislation requiring public workers to contribute more for health insurance, reforming local government by changing the Urban Cooperation Act and enacting regulatory reform.

“The speaker just feels that government gets in the way of private business and we have to do something at all levels,” she says.

All told, Allen has only spent 5.5 years of her 19-year career in the minority, something that fits her take-charge, get-down-to-business demeanor.

“The hardest part of losing is cutting staff,” she says. “When we lost the [House] majority [in 1996], it was the worst day of my life. I’ve since had a worse day.…One of my passions is finding people jobs. I actually had to fire the equivalent of 30 people, but I had found 12 of them jobs. Three months later, I got all 18 of the others jobs, too.”

Tall and lean with no-nonsense wire glasses and cropped dusty copper hair, Allen oozes a calm confidence. After spending a few minutes with her, it’s easy to forget that her husband is a political power in his own right.

Jason Allen was termed out of the Senate in 2010 after eight years, and he had spent four in the House. He came within 15 votes of winning the GOP congressional nomination in the sprawling 1st congressional district last year and is now working for the Snyder administration in the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

The couple met, appropriately enough, while they were both volunteering at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. The day before their July 1992 wedding, the future Mrs. Allen organized a fundraiser for then-Second Lady Marilyn Quayle. “It was a bit hectic,” she recalls, “but you don’t say no to the vice president’s wife, especially when you’re in the minority and you don’t have any money.”

For four years the couple worked together in the Senate, although Allen says their jobs didn’t overlap that much.

“You know, through the grapevine, everyone thinks I kept track of everything he did and vice-versa, but that’s just not true,” she says. “I was with Sikkema for six years before Jason was ever elected. My job is my job and my husband is my husband and I keep the two separate. I told his office ‘no’ just as much as any other, even though people said otherwise.”

The Allens split their time between Traverse City and the Lansing area with their three children: Meredith, 12; Amanda, 6; and 2-month-old Mark, who they just adopted. That was a silver lining of Sen. Allen losing his congressional bid.

“Things happen for a reason,” Suzanne Allen reflects. “That’s way more important than Jason serving in Congress.”

She also calls Mark an “absolute blessing and delight,” something the Allens are cognizant of after their first son, Jack, was stillborn in October 2003. They have established a scholarship for Eagle Scouts in his honor.

“A lot of people have come up to me with Mark and said, ‘Jack is looking down on him,’” Allen smiles.

Between the family making care packages through the Rev. Franklin Graham’s Christmas Child Mission and Meredith’s impressive Girl Scout cookie selling ability (she moved 1,700 boxes this year), the Allens are always busy. They even inaugurated the tradition of sending some of those cookies to members of the Michigan National Guard last year.

“People think politics is our life,” Allen says. “But it’s not our whole life.”

Susan J. Demas, a regular columnist and contributor to Dome, is 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.

August 18, 2011 · Filed under Profiles Tags: , ,

29 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Barbara Schafer // Aug 19, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    What a great article, didn’t that about her.

  • 2 Barbara Schafer // Aug 19, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Didn’t know that about her.

  • 3 Grace Starkey // Aug 19, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    A nice article reflecting nice sentiments. I guess she’s really cut up now about having to lose so many experienced staff with institutional knowledge in the New Year due to the deep cuts being made to member offices. I wonder why that didn’t come up in the interview?

  • 4 Susan Grimes Width // Aug 21, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Suzanne is wonderful. How the time has flown since her beautiful wedding to Jason! With term-limits in place, I believe she is one of the important mainstays of Michigan Government… and one of the most talented.

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