Rep. Sharon MacDonell is proud of what she and her fellow Dems have done with their majority. And she wants to keep going. (Credit: Rep. Sharon MacDonell’s campaign)

In 2022, Democrats in Michigan hit the trifecta – gaining control of their state House and Senate with a party governor in control for the first time since the early 1980s.

Among those elected was Rep. Sharon MacDonell, a 62-year-old Troy, Michigan, resident and longtime activist who first jumped into the fray of electoral politics for the same reason many women did two years ago: The repeal of Roe v. Wade.

At the time, control of MacDonell’s home district, the 56th, was up for grabs. She knew the seat needed to be filled by someone who would prioritize Michiganders’ reproductive rights – only there was no one to back. “When I heard nobody was running for that seat, the thought that went through my head was, ‘Who can I trust to always stand up for reproductive rights?’” 

“‘I guess, me,’” she says, answering both her rhetorical question and the call for new leadership.

After she and her fellow Dems assumed control of the state that November, they made tangible legislative strides – for example, repealing the state’s 1931 abortion ban, enacting several laws to protect and preserve the state’s water supplies, and codifying protection from discrimination in the workplace for LGBTQ employees. “We’ve made a lot of progress – and it would just be devastating to lose our majority now, when we’re just getting rolling.”

To be sure, not all Michiganders were happy with those moves. Some even tried to recall her. But she’s held firm, and now, she’s eager to get – or rather, to stay – active on constituents’ biggest present concerns, which based on her conversations with voters, include increasing assistance for public schools and addressing the state’s myriad infrastructure woes

As the incumbent, MacDonell needn’t worry about the state’s August primary – a fortunate thing, as she’ll be undergoing a knee replacement surgery early this summer. The endorsements she’s secured, from the likes of abortion rights PAC Emily’s List and several workers’ unions, help as well. But she expects to be back to knocking on doors as early as August.

Well, as soon as possible, actually – because “the stakes are really high in Michigan,” a swing state expected to play a pivotal role in the 2024 Presidential election.

Getting (Actually) Active

MacDonell was born in Bethpage, New York, and moved to Michigan at age 8. Her father was a broadcast journalist, so political discussion was a regular feature at her dinner table growing up. “I remember my parents talking about [former President Richard] Nixon bombing Cambodia, and being aware of who [segregationist former Alabama governor] George Wallace was,” she says.

But, she notes, “the truth is, I never did much about it. I always thought I was very political, but … while it’s great to talk, you have to get your skin in the game and do something.” She added: “If you think you’re an activist, you better be out there, being active.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1984 with a bachelor’s in history, MacDonell followed in the family footsteps by embarking upon a decades-long career in news media – which included a four-year stint as an associate producer at a media company in Tokyo. She shifted to a life of freelance work and stay-at-home motherhood in Troy in the late 1990s.

It was during this stretch that her more tangible political activism efforts took form. “After the Great Recession [of 2009] hit our district – hard – the city was seriously considering closing the library,” she says. Troy’s general fund took a hit as property values tanked, putting library services at risk. MacDonell used her writing skills to galvanize neighbors into action through her “Keep Troy Strong” blog. And, she adds, they succeeded.

After that, “things kept popping up in Troy,” and she kept organizing the locals to effect positive change. When news of Roe v. Wade’s then-imminent overturn dropped in May 2022, it felt like a natural offshoot of her grassroots work to run for office. “It was the right thing to do.”

Making the Most Of It

MacDonell and her fellow Dems have been busy since their wins. For her part, she pushed to dissolve an environmental oversight committee that was controlled by corporate interests. Known as the “polluter panel,” MacDonell herself introduced one of the bills designed to take them down. 

“The Environmental Rules Review Committee, which is mostly made up of corporate polluters, has stood in the way of [the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy] fulfilling its mission to protect our air, water, land and people,” she said last July of the board. “They tend to put their own profits over the health and lives of Michiganders everyday, and that cannot continue.”

It was disbanded this past March. “They fought hard to keep that, too,” she recalled with an audible smile during our phone conversation. 

She also shepherded through two bills that, together, protect vulnerable adults from sexual predators online. The so-called “Justice for Allie” bills were inspired by Allie Hayes, a local resident with Downs syndrome who was coerced into sharing explicit photos of herself online. They passed last December.

MacDonell is, first and foremost, focused on continuing to serve her district and state as a representative. But she does see potential for others in the U.S. to learn from Michigan’s example – namely, her more conservative neighbors’ shown ability to embrace the value of laws that save lives.

Take the state’s new gun-control laws, she says – bills that mandate public education on safely storing guns in homes where children reside (which she herself also sponsored), and that strengthen the state’s “red flag” laws to temporarily remove guns from at-risk homes. They are, she says, “a great example of something that the other side fought so hard … but we passed that.”

And some of her strongest opponents in that battle have since “reluctantly” admitted coming around to it, she says. They see now that “we’re not taking away your Second Amendment rights – we’re just keeping people alive,” she adds.