Her Own Drummer
by Susan J. Demas
September 23, 2011
Rebekah Warren thought she was safe planning her wedding for August 25, 2007.
After working in Lansing for more than 14 years, she knew the legislature could be trusted to take most of the summer off.
Unfortunately, 2007 was not your average year, thanks to a $1 billion budget crisis. So the then-freshman House member got a rude awakening when she arrived in Corsica on her honeymoon with Conan Smith, a Washtenaw County commissioner. Warren opened an email from Democratic leadership to come back to vote on a tax increase — so they cut the trip short by a week.
“Everyone was tracking the budget by my honeymoon,” she recalls with a short laugh. “The way the media wrote about it was that we know it’s not today, because you can’t have a tax increase without the liberal from Ann Arbor to push the green button.”
Even more unfortunately, the budget battle dragged on for several more weeks after her return.
“For the first month of my marriage, I was on the House floor with my husband’s mother 24 hours a day,” Warren smiles.
Her mother-in-law is now-former Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, Appropriations Committee doyenne, two-time candidate for governor and daughter of Albert Wheeler, the first African-American mayor of Ann Arbor. They met in 1994 when Warren was a staffer with then-Rep. Mary Schroer and Smith worked for then-Sen. Lana Pollack.
Warren was introduced to Conan a couple years later while helping with Smith’s state Senate campaign. After the couple’s long courtship, Smith had a resolution passed on the Senate floor wishing them a happy marriage, which she presented at their 2002 engagement party.
“It hangs on my kitchen wall,” Warren says. “It was signed by all the members.”
Now, Warren, 39, holds the 18th Senate District seat her mother-in-law used to represent before being term-limited in 2002. (Smith won a House seat in 2004, which is how she came to serve with her daughter-in-law).
As the former president of the Michigan Abortion Rights Action League (MARAL), Warren was reminded this week just how much term limits changed Lansing as both chambers passed so-called “partial birth” abortion bans that didn’t contain any exceptions for rape, incest or the mother’s health.
She says that since most legislative districts aren’t competitive and no one has a lock on seats for more than a few terms, things are decided in August primaries instead of the November general election. That’s meant more conservative Republicans and more liberal Democrats winning in recent years.
“There used to be moderates in both parties,” Warren says. “When I started [in the legislature], there were 12 pro-choice Republicans. Now there are zero.”
But although Warren might live in deep blue Ann Arbor, she hails from purple, rural Owosso. The striking blonde is the third of four girls born to Andrea, a nurse, and Larry, a Methodist minister and UAW worker. Although her parents weren’t terribly political, Warren says her worldview was shaped by the fact that her dad went on strike twice.
“We had to live off strike pay,” she recalls. “We went to picnics where people were taking care of one another.”
And Warren credits her mother for her interest in women’s issues, having raised her daughters to believe “there was no question that women can be what they want to be.” She recalls when her band instructor gave her carte blanche to pick an instrument in fourth grade, since she was already a skilled pianist who could read music.
“And I thought the drums are cool, so I told him I wanted to play them,” Warren recalls. “And the band director said, ‘Girls aren’t really drummers, but you can play the clarinet or the flute.’ And my mom was right there in a second and said, ‘If she wants to play the drums, she’s going to play the drums.’ And I did. I was the first female snare drummer in Owosso High School history.”
Warren then headed off to the University of Michigan, graduating with a political science degree in 1994. But she didn’t necessarily see herself running for office.
“I always knew my life was going to be about public service in some way and focus on people,” Warren says. “I didn’t have a drive to be on some treadmill to be rich or make some shareholders rich. I wanted to look in the mirror every day and be able to say I’m making the world better in my community in some way.”
After serving six years as a legislative staffer and seven years as MARAL’s head, Warren took the leap and ran for the House in 2006. (“One of my girlfriends asked me, ‘When are you going to stop complaining and actually do something about it yourself?’” she recalls.) She won easily in the heavily Democratic district.
With Democrats retaking the House in 2007, Warren was handed the gavel to the Great Lakes and Environment Committee. But rather than just pass legislation to have some feel-good, one-chamber victories, the liberal Warren forged a partnership with her counterpart in the Senate, Republican Patty Birkholz.
“Term limits have increased partisanship,” she says. “People from different parties don’t even know people’s names on the other side.…So in my first week, I went to the GOP side and started making friends. I ran into trouble, in a way, from my caucus.”
Warren and Birkholz steered the Great Lakes Compact through the minefield of a split legislature and followed that up by christening the state parks passport program and saving the state wetlands protection.
She says it wasn’t easy, as lobbyists constantly tried to work both chairs, telling them that the other was getting ready to betray their agreements. But Warren said they built up trust by talking all the time and keeping focused on the end result, even as they disagreed over details.
“It wasn’t easy, but these were substantive pieces of legislation,” Warren notes and breaks into a smile. “And this was in a legislature that couldn’t do anything.”