Rep. Lisa McClain of Michigan’s 10th congressional district once described her younger self as “under five feet and wanting to shoot hoops and run hurdles.”
When you see pictures of McClain, the other people tower over her. Kevin McCarthy looks like a giant next to Lisa McClain. Nevertheless, McClain became a star on the high school basketball court. She credits the supportive, small-town atmosphere in Stockbridge, Michigan, where she grew up, for giving her the confidence to do so, despite her diminutive stature. Sheer determination was also an ingredient.
“Nobody told me you can’t do something, right?” says the Congresswoman. “So, I tried out for the basketball team and I hustled. I played point guard. I could do those types of things. I was a cheerleader. I played basketball and I ran hurdles in track, believe it or not. But I think what mattered was that I believed that, if you put your mind to it, you can do anything. It doesn’t matter the size or the stature. It matters how big your heart is and how committed you are to doing something. So, yeah, I was a little scrappy back then, and I think it has stayed with me.”
Nancy Pelosi called her “that woman.”
Lisa was undaunted by the hoops then, and today she isn’t afraid to mix it up with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. When McClain called upon Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters to apologize for potentially inciting a riot if the Derek Chauvin verdict wasn’t to their liking, Pelosi rudely dismissed McClain.
It wasn’t Waters who owed an apology, said the Speaker. Instead, “That woman on the floor should be apologizing for what she said,” the Speaker insisted. “That woman” immediately fired back; she tweeted:
As “that woman,” no I won’t apologize for calling out the double standards that you have set @SpeakerPelosi
Last November “That woman,” Lisa McClain, 55, then a successful executive at a Michigan-based financial services company, launched her first-ever race for public office—and won. Although plenty opinionated and a self-described “political junkie,” McClain had never consciously entertained the idea of running for office. “I’d never run for anything at all,” she recalls. “Not student council. Not the Brownie leader. Nothing.” McClain’s election to represent Michigan’s 10th congressional district came about as the result of an exchange at a McClain family Sunday dinner.
McClain’s congressional campaign came about as the result of a challenge at a McClain family Sunday dinner.
“So, we were sitting at the Sunday dinner table,” McClain recalls, “and I was crabbing about something. I don’t know what it was. Well, you know something about what was on the TV? Whether it’s the deficit or something going on, I don’t remember. And my youngest daughter, Ryan, looked at me across the table and says, ‘Well Mom, if you don’t like it, why don’t you do something about it?’
“And, oh, I was mad at her to begin with because she was a little sassy. Weren’t you, Ryan? But in all honesty, that really got the wheels turning on why not run? Right? I mean, I started my business from scratch. I started something called the Drug Court from scratch. Why not run? Just because I haven’t been in politics?”
When former Congressman Paul Mitchell, a Republican turned independent, announced he would not seek re-election, McClain tossed her hat in the ring, billing herself as a “conservative outsider,” and highlighting such issues as economic growth, border security, term limits, infrastructure (actual infrastructure, not redefining just about anything as infrastructure!), religious freedom, affordable health care, and the Second Amendment. She is a pro-life Catholic. Donald Trump, and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, endorsed her. After winning the GOP primary, McClain scored a lopsided victory in the general election in a heavily Republican district.
Drug Court in Macomb County, Michigan helps people overcome alcohol and drug addictions by linking them with rehabilitation resources. McClain founded the North End Support Team (NEST) to partner with the Drug Court. Participants are carefully screened and may opt to become involved in Drug Court rather than going to prison.
“I talked over running with my family,” McClain recalls. “I talked it over with some business leaders in the community. And I decided, why not me? So, we put together a good strategy and we worked our tails off and I had a ton of help. And here I am now, sitting in the Cannon Office Building. I mean, it’s a feel-good story, but it’s the honest-to-God truth that, as I like I tell my kids, you can do anything you put your mind to if you just have a good vision and you work hard and you believe.”
McClain forged her optimism in an often-difficult family atmosphere. Born Lisa Iovannisci, the daughter of divorced parents, she was brought up by her mother.
“My mom has been the inspiration in my life,” McClain says. “She worked full-time. She never missed an event that I had, never missed a sporting event or anything that had to do with school. She was at every single event. And I know that wasn’t easy. I didn’t appreciate it at the time. But, as you get older, you learn to really appreciate that. So, my mom has really been the backbone of my family. I’m an only child, so it’s just kind of been me and my mom. And she lives with me now. So, I’m returning the favor a little bit.” Lisa’s supportive grandparents, first-generation immigrants, also helped. It was the grandparents who established the now-sacrosanct tradition of Sunday dinners together.
There were also two mentors. “I am the woman I am today because of those two people,” says McClain. The first mentor was the father of a boyfriend. His name was Howard Ward. “We played softball, so he was our coach. He just took me under his wing, and I spent a lot of time with Howard and his wife, Betty, at their house. And, God rest his soul, he was phenomenal. He was just a caring, a caring man. And he’s the one that told me you can do anything. He was truly a father figure that I never had. He was at all my games and all my sporting events, and he taught me a lot.”
A mentor spotted McClain’s talent when she was working for American Express.
Howard West believed in resilience. “He never coddled me,” she says. “He would tell me, ‘Lisa, life’s not fair, so figure it out.’ He loved me but he never made excuses for me. The ball was in my hands. Do with it what you want and don’t make excuses, it’s not everybody else’s fault. You’re going to get some bad calls, but you still have to figure out how to score some runs. And that, even resonates with me today is, especially today. We’re in the minority in Congress, but we still have to figure out how to get some runs across the plate. And I hear him in the back of my mind.”
While in high school, McClain worked full time, including a job cleaning stables on a horse farm. She went to Lansing Community College for two years and then onto Northwood University, where she earned a BA. McClain took a job at American Express, where she would work for 11 years and where another mentor would notice her talent. He was John Hantz, who would go on to found the Hantz Group, a giant Michigan-based financial services firm. “John has been my mentor and teacher throughout my adult life,” McClain says.
“What John did was he believed in me. And I know that sounds like a small thing; it’s not. John would always say to me, ‘Get bigger dreams. Lisa, get some bigger dreams.’ I would not be sitting here in Washington today if it were not for him. He took a chance on me when nobody else would. He’s fair and he’s tough, but I’ve never met an individual who, when he’s all-in on you, is more all-in than John. And I am blessed and grateful and thankful for that. Yeah, he taught me the business, but that’s really not what he taught me. He taught me the value of hard work, and he challenged me. He challenged me like nobody else would ever challenge me.”
When Hantz left to found the Hantz Group in 2003, he asked Lisa to join him. She did and was a top executive at Hantz when she ran for Congress. Hantz employees reportedly donated heavily to McClain’s campaign. McClain holds various securities licenses and is a Chartered Financial Consultant and a Chartered Life Underwriter. She coaches her daughter Ryan’s softball team and has raised more than $1 million for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.
“So, yeah, I was a little scrappy growing up, and I think it has stayed with me.”
She has been married almost 20 years to Mike McClain, who grew up on a Michigan farm and now works in finance. They live in Romeo, Michigan. It took some doing for Mike to get Lisa’s attention.
“He went out with us for my mom’s birthday, and he was giving me subtle hints, but I had no idea. I wasn’t paying attention. Right? So, sometimes I get laser-focused, and a car could be on fire and I would not notice it. And finally, he asked me out. He’s like, McClain—that’s what he would call me—when are you going to figure out that I want to take you out on a date?’ I had no idea. So finally, he asked bluntly. And I said ‘sure.’ It’s not a really exciting story but I think the funny part is I had no idea for the longest time, I really didn’t. But he’s so supportive. He was as invested as anybody in my victory for Congress. I am just thankful for that.”
The McClains have a blended family of four kids. And all of them know they had better show up for Sunday dinner. “Sunday dinner is mama time,” explains Lisa, “and you’d better come to Sunday dinner or mama gets mad.” Lisa cooks. “Whether it’s regular pasta, whether it’s Chicken Marsala, whatever it is, we have a lot of the Italian family traditions that I try and keep alive. We make our own cannolis, and we have fun food like that. To me, cooking brings the family together. That’s the Italian in me, right? And when you eat, if you are Italian, it solves everything. It makes everybody feel better. Everybody’s in a better mood with a full stomach.”
We’re delighted to have an Italian Mama in Congress, cooking up good ideas and not afraid to be a little scrappy.