By the time Lena Epstein became ensconced in the forefront of the state Republican Party by co-chairing the Trump campaign in Michigan in 2016, she’d already made a name for herself as a business leader. A decade ago, when she was 28, Crain’s Detroit Business gave her props as one of “20 in their 20s” for her stewardship as general manager for marketing at Vesco Oil, her family’s Detroit-based oil distribution firm, as it toughed out the auto industry’s near-death experience. Yet in stepping up for Trump in 2016 and then running as the GOP nominee for Congress in suburban Detroit two years later, Epstein, now 38, became one of the most recognizable conservative women in the state. She lost by 7 points to now-Rep. Haley Stevens in a race notable for the unusual optics of two 30-something women battling it out for federal office.
Now Epstein, who lives in Bloomfield Township with her husband and their 2-year-old daughter, Emma, is focused on helping Trump win Michigan again in November, although as of early January, her specific role in 2020 had not been announced. She declined to say whether she’d run for public office again herself. Ever the politico and marketing expert, Epstein is careful with her words. She calls herself “an unapologetic conservative” but replies to questions about social issues such as abortion or the #MeToo movement with a terse “Next question.” Still, she was happy to discuss nearly anything else about her life as a GOP stalwart.
Hour Detroit: You were on the campaign trail for most of the first year of your daughter’s life. What was that like?
Lena Epstein: I found it to be very challenging but equally rewarding. I knew going into this that I would have a story to share with Emma about her mommy pursuing her highest calling in an effort to demonstrate to Emma that she could do the same thing one day. I never thought twice about not running because I was pregnant. In fact, running became more personal because I had a daughter and I was concerned about her future. I took her to my campaign office, I took her to grassroots events. I carried her in a cross-body harness so I’d still have hands free to shake hands and interact with voters.
Would you consider yourself a feminist and, if so, in what sense?
I don’t use that word in my language. In fact, I said along the campaign trail that I wanted voters and donors to support me based on my credentials, my capabilities, and my intellect rather than my gender. At the same time, the fact is that women represent at least 50% of the voting population. Voters do, at times, identify with people who look or act like them. It’s just human nature. So there is a strong business case that if the Republican Party seeks to attract women — and it has struggled with that for a long time — it must present strong conservative females up and down the ticket.
What was it like in 2016 to vouch for a candidate, Donald Trump, who was accused of being anti-woman and who said many unkind things about women?
I interacted with President Trump many times and found him to be incredibly kind and very respectful towards me and the people around me. He listened to me, he asked questions about polling and where I thought the Michigan electorate was at any given time. I said numerous times in 2016 that Trump was not applying to be my daughter’s Sunday school teacher. He was applying to be president of the United States. His demeanor, I thought, was quite suitable for the office.
“Ultimately, women in business and politics want to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts.”
Is the thick skin that women in business need to have to thrive similar to the thick skin you found you needed for political life?
It’s the same. It takes a resilience, it takes an inner peace, an inner strength to face any type of challenge or adversity. But then again, as I faced each professional opportunity, I don’t wear my gender on my sleeve. It’s very, very important that when I approach people, I relate to them professionally by the virtues of my capabilities and not based on my gender.
Your race against Haley Stevens was unusual because it involved two young women. What was that like?
My opponent and I always treated each other with kindness and respect, and we do to this day. I think Haley Stevens is a kind person and a respectful person and we treated each other accordingly. I would have been respectful of any opponents, but she made it easy.
That amicable regard between rivals is very uncommon in politics. Do you think that reflects something women bring to leadership that could be beneficial to everybody?
Sure. I think women bring a collaborative style, a collective focus that is potentially unique to our gender. Ultimately, women in business and politics want to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts, and so the more that we can support strong women in these roles, the better off we’ll be in our society.