Husband, wife will serve in state House, Senate

By Kathleen Gray

Detroit Free Press

DETROIT (AP) -- For his orientation as a new state senator, Mike Kowall attended a session on sexual harassment in the state Capitol.

A colleague leaned over and whispered, "Is this where I tell them you're sleeping with someone in the House," Kowall recalled with a laugh.

The reference was to Kowall's wife, Eileen Kowall, who was re-elected to the state House in November. The Kowalls, both Republicans from Oakland County's White Lake Township, are the first married Michigan legislators in 25 years. They were sworn in recently.

Beyond the ribbing, Rep. Kowall said: "We know it's going to be weird at first. We're trying to figure out if we'll see each other more or less."

There's one place where Sen. Kowall still expects to see his wife.

"I'm sure there will be some interesting conversations at the island counter in the kitchen because that's where we end up every night."

They've known each other since they were kids growing up in Detroit. They've been married 36 years.

Come Jan. 12, when the new Legislature begins its 2011-12 session, Mike and Eileen Kowall's relationship will move to a new level. They'll become the first married couple to serve in the Legislature at the same time in 25 years.

"I'm like that dog that keeps following her home," Mike Kowall said.

The Kowalls have tracked each other in and out of public service for 12 years. Mike Kowall, 59, served in the state House in 1999-2002 before losing a primary race for the state Senate by 88 votes. He has been White Lake Township's supervisor since 2004 and when he ran for the state Senate again this year, he easily won.

Eileen Kowall, 58, got hooked on politics when she managed her husband's first bid for the House. She was elected to the Oakland County Board of Commissioners in 2003-08, won her husband's House seat in 2008 and was re-elected in November.

"I don't think 'power couple' has come to fruition, but we're working on it," Mike Kowall said.

Political couples are not unusual. Beyond former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the national scene, Michigan has had its legally linked pairs.

Former U.S. Rep. (and Lt. Gov.) Martha Griffiths was married to Hicks Griffith, a one-time chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. U.S. Rep. Candice Miller is married to Macomb County Circuit Judge Donald Miller. The Dingells -- U.S. Rep. John Dingell and his wife, Debbie Dingell, a Democratic National committeewoman, are longtime fixtures in Democratic politics. And spouses have long succeeded their spouses in office, especially since the onset of term limits in Lansing.

"It gives you a partner both personally and professionally who understands exactly what you're going through," said political and marketing consultant Kelly Rossman-McKinney. "And it minimizes any of the external temptation that's around. Lansing can be a big party town."

Translation: It may be easier keeping the home fires burning when your spouse is a short walk through the Capitol.

The last couple in the Legislature were John Engler and Colleen House. They met in 1974, when he was a state representative and she was running for the state House. They married in 1975, when both were legislators. In 1986, after House's failed run for governor and then lieutenant governor, she filed for divorce. John Engler became governor in 1991 and served through 2002.

"We're hoping that's not an omen," Mike Kowall said of the Engler/House split. "But we've been married for 36 years and if we haven't killed each other by now ..."

The Kowalls last worked so closely 11 years ago , when they had jobs with the family's cabinet-making and installation company, Accurate Woodworking in Waterford. They're not worried too much about their newest working relationship.

They disagree on a few things -- Eileen supported the state's smoking ban, Mike opposed it -- but not the fundamentals. They're both focused on economic development, and Mike Kowall will be chairman of the Senate's Economic Development committee.

They understand that the often-acrimonious differences between the House and Senate could be a challenge.

"Historically, there hasn't been very good communication between the two chambers, but hopefully this will help," Eileen Kowall said.

They take those differences in good humor.

On Election Night, Eileen Kowall gave her husband a white colonial wig to signify the Senate's imperial airs. He said he would treat her just like any other House member, "with disdain."

Published: Mon, Jan 3, 2011