Brenda Lawrence is calling it quits in Congress, but she’s not done with public service. “It’s what drives me,” the retiring Michigan Democrat said.
Lawrence has spent the last 30 years in politics, including the last eight representing Detroit and its suburbs in the House. Looking back at her time in Washington, Lawrence said she regrets not spending more time trying to understand her Republican colleagues better — even those, like Mark Meadows, she found inscrutable.
Speaking with Heard on the Hill this spring, Lawrence described how a “PTA mom” who “didn’t know anything about politics” worked her way up to having the “audacity to run for Congress.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: You said you decided to retire “after reflecting on my journey, and oh my goodness, what a journey.” What parts stand out for you?
A: The thing that is so defining when I look over my career in public service was being a PTA mom. You always had to go to this board to get things done, and I said, “I want to be on that board, because they don’t get it.” I didn’t know anything about politics. I was just a little Black girl from the east side of Detroit who worked her way through college, married her childhood sweetheart and wanted to do the right thing. But man, the election night, the campaign, it was so energizing. And when I got to sit on that board and take a vote, knowing the responsibility, it consumed me.
When my children left school, I ran for city council. I wanted to keep serving, and then I had the audacity to step up and say, “I want to be mayor.” There had never been a woman [mayor of Southfield], never been an African American.
And then to have the audacity to run for Congress and serve alongside some of the giants — to serve with Elijah Cummings, to serve with John Lewis, to be part of the Black Caucus and be reminded of the humility of being a member of Congress, to walk the halls of Congress built by slaves. It’s a constant reminder of this country’s always striving for a perfect union. Because every time we start talking about what’s bad in America, historically, we can look at so many good things. There’s not a day that I don’t look at the Capitol dome, and just take a deep breath and say, “Wow, this is amazing. It’s amazing to serve.”
Some people take it to another level with their arrogance, because they forget this is about service. It’s not about your title and your swagger and how many staff people you have.
Q: You talked about having audacity. What does that mean to you?
A: When you are first and when you’ve never seen anyone who looks like you, you have to develop the courage to say, “I’m worthy. I’m deserving. I’m qualified.” Because you can’t say, “They did it, I can do it.” And that is audacity.
I even had a person tell me, “You won’t get elected, because every city that’s had a Black mayor, the city became a ghetto.” And I can tell you that played in my head the whole time I was mayor. I said, “I will not allow the city to deteriorate.” I was fierce on code enforcement, I was fierce on community involvement. My grandmother used to say, “The things that attack you the hardest are the things that give you your greatest strength.” If you stand up and take the hit, it’s going to make you stronger.
Q: You’re the only Black representative from Michigan. What does the future hold for the delegation?
A: I have tapped a young lady to be my successor. I think she’s amazing. She’s an African American woman, accomplished, an attorney, a prosecutor, CEO of a nonprofit. She worked in the Obama administration. Her whole life has been in that service arena, which is important to me. She’s young enough and mature enough to come in and just do the right thing. Her name is Portia Roberson.
Q: Do you have any regrets, or something you wish you could have gotten done?
A: Being in this place, you have to learn how to manage your time. For me, I have my family, I have a husband of 50 years, and it took a while to figure out how to connect all the dots.
And I wish I had spent more time with my Republican colleagues. They didn’t reach out to me either, but I can’t sit back and say it’s their fault. I did meet a lot of the women on the Republican side, and I found it to be fulfilling to get to know the person versus the politician. I wish I had done it earlier. It’s a girl thing — we look after each other, we support each other. “You doing OK? How are the kids?”
Q: One of the joys of retiring is that you get to tell people what you really think on the way out. Do you want to do that?
A: I pride myself on speaking truth to power. I wish I had found out why people would vote against their own self-interest, but I’ve had some blunt conversations with some of my Republican colleagues.
Mark Meadows and I served together on Oversight, and I can tell you, we went toe-to-toe on the issues. We had that fight publicly, and then afterward had some really hard-hitting, soul-searching questions. If you take away the political facade, there’s a part of him that is a very caring person. And I couldn’t reconcile it.
I served as co-chair of the Women’s Caucus with Debbie Lesko, and there were times she was on the opposite end, and I just didn’t get it. It wears on you so hard. We debated issues in one little section of the Violence Against Women Act. “We’re not going to vote for it because of this one little thing.” Then let’s take it out. But they would rather vote it down and blame other people.
The people in the United States of America deserve a body that can rise above it. Like, we’re debating voting rights. How did that become a partisan issue? And how are you comfortable with that? How do you sleep at night, put your head on your pillow? If you walk in these halls, the pillars of this democracy should be above any partisan issue.
And we saw what happened on Jan. 6. That cut so many places for me, being on that floor. I’m nobody’s punk. I grew up in Detroit. I know how to be strong and I know how to fight back, and now I’m running down back staircases and hallways from a mob. Are you for real? I’m in the capital of one of the world’s largest economies and democracies, and I’m supposed to hide behind a bench to protect my life? Give me a frickin’ break here. A person who was voted into office to protect this place sent people here to destroy it. Unreal. That should be sacred — our democracy and protecting it.
Last book you read? “Mandela’s Way,” about Nelson Mandela as a man.
In politics, can the ends justify the means? Most of the time.
One thing you’d change about Congress? Everything is defined by whether you’re Democrat or a Republican. I would take that away, and you’d just be a representative of the people.
What are you proud of? I’m proud of the bills I was able to pass, the positions of leadership I’ve been able to garner, and just being a voice.
What’s next for you? Public service will continue to be in my veins. It’s what drives me. I won’t be doing it as a congresswoman, but I will be finding my voice in the private sector.