Lena Epstein is the future of the Republican Party. Could she be the next Elise Stefanik? At 35, like Stefanik, Epstein is a Harvard-educated, Millennial business executive who helps run the family business in a former industrial boom region of the country that has been left behind as America’s manufacturing centers have struggled. Hailing from Detroit, Epstein co-chaired Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Michigan, a crucial swing state that propelled Trump to the White House and returned Republicans to both houses of Congress.
Epstein is a third-generation owner and general manager of Southfield, Michigan-based Vesco Oil Corporation, one of the country’s largest distributors of automotive and industrial goods and services. Vesco is a certified Women Business Enterprise (WBE) with more than 200 employees and revenue topping $175 million.
“I was one of the first supporters of Trump, and I promise you, it wasn’t because he would be the best person to teach my future children at religious school on a Sunday morning,” Epstein said in an interview. “There was not a doubt in my mind that he was the best option for president.”
“What many don’t understand is that, this election was more than sound bites,” she added. “It was about issues. I know, in today’s age, that’s hard to understand, but it’s true. What was important to me was endorsing a candidate that I felt would help our economy, would help bring jobs back to my friends and neighbors in Michigan and throughout the country.”
Epstein said that for many decades, traditionally, labor unions have voted Democrat but have little to show for their loyalty.
“Year after year, jobs continue to be sent overseas,” she said. “I come from the home of the middle class, built by the auto industry, and my Michigan family finally said they had enough. To me, voting for Trump was more about amending our wildly unfair trade practices, lowering our corporate tax rate to encourage companies not just to stay here, but to come back, than about an inappropriate comment that someone made. People’s lives are at stake.”
“I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. And so I found myself, on perhaps the most liberal campus in the country becoming a Republican”
As a Jewish voter, Epstein also goes against the grain: Pew reports 71 percent of Jewish voters chose Hillary Clinton and just 24 percent went for Trump.
“I think it is very fashionable to be a Democrat, and to vote left, but I know many Jewish-Americans also vote right,” she said. “I think people tend to vote for what they know and have a hard time thinking outside the box. People from all sides of the political spectrum have a responsibility to advocate for their beliefs, not just in social groups, but religious groups too.”
Epstein was raised in a family of liberals and independents. “There is no question I am the only conservative in the group,” she said. “All throughout my childhood, I took for granted the fact that I was, and would be, a Democrat.”
But when she attended Harvard, Epstein made friends with lots of people from all over the world with varying perspectives and opinions. “For the first time, it was OK, it was safe to disagree,” she said.
“I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Epstein recalled. “And so I found myself, on perhaps the most liberal campus in the country . . . becoming a Republican.
Yes, the liberal campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts afforded Epstein the opportunity to think outside the box and, as she put it, “shed my liberal shadow.”
“And the wonderful thing about Harvard is the fact that it truly didn’t matter,” Epstein said.
As many college campuses become “safe spaces” where intolerance shuts out many conservative speakers and ideas, Epstein said she felt like Harvard was an “open ideas campus.” But even while she was at Harvard, Epstein said her heart was back home in Michigan.
“I truly believe in the notion that absence makes the heart grow fonder and it was without question the case for me at Harvard,” Epstein said. “I knew I wanted to run my family business. And I knew I wanted to be a leader in the business world in general.”
To Epstein, being a leader in the business world wasn’t about so much being financially successful as it was about understanding that it was this path that would let her create real sustainable change in the world.
“Whether it is through the children of employees that we help go to college by employing their parents and giving them opportunity, or through leading industry standards on the ethical ways we run our company, business affords me the unique opportunity to make a genuine and sincere difference — an impact — in the world,” she said.
So she returned to Michigan and attended the Ross School of Business for her MBA. She began helping Republican causes in 2011, becoming chair of the 2012 Oakland County Lincoln Dinner, the party’s major fundraiser. Epstein was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder to the Michigan Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board in 2012 and earned the Crain’s “20 in their 20s” award recipient and served as a Kiwanis International speaker on the topic of young leadership in Detroit.
“Nothing makes you more humble than the Midwest values of the Great Lakes State,” she said. “There is so much negative narrative about Michigan and Detroit in the national media — a truly untrue and unfair narrative. Instead of running from the problems of my home region, I wanted to come back and be a part of the change. Have a positive impact on that change — shape that change. I want to be a part of the answers, not the problems. I’ve always wanted to come back.”
“Business affords me the unique opportunity to make a genuine and sincere difference — an impact — in the world”
Epstein said that exit polling showing Trump did better with racial minorities than Mitt Romney in 2012 is evidence that the message for the GOP’s future “becomes crystal clear. Republicans need to embrace Trump’s populism at the same time that they strip out the baggage, conveying that this new sense of nationalism is not just for older whites, but for all American citizens.”
“As Michael Moore put it earlier this summer, the Rust Belt voters in this election were going to, and ultimately did, throw ‘the human hand grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them.’ Republicans have an opportunity here to truly champion the 99 percent… and their focus will undoubtedly be in relentlessly growing the economy in a way that doesn’t just restore the middle class, but grows it.”
Even as Trump decisively won the Electoral College, both he and Clinton had historically high negative public opinion about their candidacies, and Epstein is not under any illusions about the difficult work ahead of trying to unify the country.
“This election demonstrated that there was a deep divide in our country. That’s very concerning to me,” Epstein said. “I truly don’t think anyone thought we as an American family were as deeply divided as this election has shown us to be.”
“I want to do whatever I can to be a part of the medicine that we all need, to help facilitate love and change, to help unite people from different areas, cultures, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds,” she said. “I want to push the movement and champion the idea that if we stand together, we can move forward.”
Carrie Sheffield is a senior contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.